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Age that kids acquire mobile phones not linked to well-being, says Stanford Medicine study | News Center

“One possible explanation for these results is that parents tailor their decisions to give their children a phone to the needs of their child and family,” Robinson said. “These results should be seen as empowering parents to do what they think is right for their family.”

Early phone acquisition wasn’t linked to problems, he noted, but neither was late phone acquisition, and “if parents want to delay, we haven’t seen any negative effects from that either.”

Assess the well-being of children

When deciding whether to give a child a cell phone, parents typically weigh many factors, such as whether the child needs a phone to let parents know where they are, to access the internet, or to socialize ; how much the phone can distract the child from sleep, homework, or other activities; and whether the child is mature enough to handle risks such as exposure to social media, cyberbullying, or violent online content.

Previous research on the effects of cell phone ownership by children has had mixed results, with some studies suggesting phones impair sleep or grades and others showing no effect. Previous studies have been limited because most of them collected data at only one or two time points.

In the Stanford Medicine study, the children were 7 to 11 years old when the study began and 11 to 15 years old at the end of the study. Each child and one of their parents participated in assessments at baseline and annually thereafter, for a total of five assessments per participant.

At each measurement, parents were asked if their child owned a mobile phone and if it was a smartphone. The midpoint in time between the last visit when the child did not have a telephone and the first visit when he or she had a telephone was calculated as the age of acquisition.

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At each visit, children completed a standardized questionnaire to assess symptoms of depression. Parents reported the child’s most recent school grades and the child’s typical bedtime and wake time for school and non-school nights; they also answered a questionnaire about their child’s daytime sleepiness. After each visit, the children wore accelerometers on their right hips for a week, and the data were used each night as an objective measure of sleep onset and sleep duration.

The analysis controlled for several potential confounding factors, including the child’s age at the start of the study, the child’s sex and birth order, the child’s and parent’s country of birth, marital status, and parent’s education level , the household income, how often English was spoken at home and how far the child had progressed in puberty.

It doesn’t mean you can’t take your child’s phone away if you think it’s taking up too much sleep time.

About 25% of the children got a telephone at age 10.7 and 75% at age 12.6. Nearly all children had phones by the age of 15. Of the children who had a phone, 99% had a smartphone at the end of the study. The timing of children’s phone acquisition was similar to that recorded in US cross-sectional samples.

The scientists examined whether children’s well-being outcomes differed based on whether they had their own cell phone and what happened to their well-being outcomes when they bought their own phone (moving from not owning a phone to owning a phone). They also conducted analyzes to test whether children’s well-being differed according to the age children got their first mobile phone.

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Initial comparisons of phone ownership versus non-phone ownership status showed some indications of differences: While the whole group’s depression scores declined over time, meaning they were less depressed, the decline was slower when children had a phone than if they didn’t. Potential effects on sleep were also noted: parents reported that children slept less on school nights when they had a phone than when they didn’t – although this observation was not confirmed by the measurements of children’s sleep from the accelerometer data . The accelerometer data showed that when kids didn’t have phones, they had slightly more sleep on non-school nights.

No significant differences

However, when the team controlled for the statistical effect of making several comparisons on the same data set, none of these correlations met the criteria for statistical significance.

The researchers conducted further analyzes to see whether children’s characteristics interacted with phone ownership in explaining their well-being outcomes. Cell phone ownership was associated with lower levels of depressive symptoms for boys than girls, and less depression for lower versus higher sexual maturity children. Phone ownership was also associated with less sleep in older adult children. These results highlight possible relationships that should be further explored in future studies.

When the analyzes were performed on smartphones only (relative to any mobile phone), the results were similar.

The general pattern of the results indicates that technology ownership is generally not positively or negatively associated with children’s well-being. The researchers note that it may be more important to study what children do with their technology than whether they have a phone.

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“These are population-level average trends,” Sun said. “There may still be individual differences. It doesn’t mean you can’t take your child’s phone away if you think it’s taking up too much sleep time.

The team is researching how people use their phones as part of the Stanford School of Medicine Human Screenome Project.

The scientists also note that the study did not give children completely unfettered access to phones because their parents made decisions about their technology use.

“On the level that we can measure, the timing itself [of acquiring a phone] doesn’t seem to be a key factor because it happens in the broader context of parenting,” Robinson said. “It’s not an argument for kids to say to their parents, ‘Look, there are no effects from phones.’ Parents should use their best judgment about what is right for their child, as indeed they seem to do.

The research was supported by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (grant U01HL103629), the Stanford Data Science Scholarship, the Stanford Maternal and Child Health Research Institute, and the Stanford Medicine Department of Pediatrics.

The research team includes members of Stanford Bio-X, the Stanford Cardiovascular Institute, the Stanford Wu Tsai Human Performance Alliance, the Stanford Maternal and Child Health Research Institute and the Stanford Cancer Institute, as well as affiliates of the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence and the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.



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