Wake Up Call: Why Managing Smartphone Use in Children is Critical According to Science

Managing Smartphone Use in Children

Written by: Lianne Castelino

Published: Feb 8, 2022

When it comes to raising children in the smartphone era, Larissa Mills does not mince her words.

“We’re actually setting them up for failure as a human being.”

Click for video transcription

Welcome to where parents talk. My name is Lianne Castelino. Our guest today is an educational consultant, a former teacher and a coach. Larissa Mills is also a mother of three, and the founder of Iparentgen.com Larissa joins us today from London, Ontario. Welcome, Larissa.

Hello, Lianne and I’m so excited to be here. And I am. So I am so proud that you’re talking about these things, we really need it.

And you know, you are as well in everything that you do. So I want to get right into it and ask you, how would you go about describing parenting in the cell phone in the smartphone era?

Wow, that’s a loaded gun. Have a question, Lianne. I would say, in this era, it is more about the parents having an easy, and the parents are a little bit too more helicopter than they need to be. And they think children are coming out of the womb programmed, but they really don’t come out programmed. And they really need to be active children. And they really need to be creative children, and they really need your attention. And when we’re not accessible, because our head is into a phone. And we’re looking up something on Pinterest, even though they want to show us something they want us to color with them. We’re actually set setting them up for failure as a human being, because if we’re not giving them their mental skills, or social skills, and healthy habits, which we’re actually seeing, and we just previously discussed, children by four years old, are almost a year or two behind in language development alone, because they’ve been on a device too long watching videos. So I’m a little nervous. And to be honest, I’m a little scared for the future.

So let’s break that down a little bit. What would you say concerns you the most about children and their exposure currently to cell phones?

Well, we know that children under 18, haven’t quite you know, what, especially now don’t have those socializations interactions. They haven’t been done the activities. And when they’ve been on a device, and I think I share the stat with you by 18 years old, the average 18 year old now has somewhere in the phone use area 15,000 to 20,000 hours by 18. That is more than an Olympian that is more than a doctor has in their training. Let’s just establish that. So if they’re watching these videos, and on social media, I’m concerned about what they’re seeing what they’re doing, and what they’re learning and what bad habits they’re learning. Because they can’t be like this as an adult, right? It’s not going to function. They can’t be employable, they can’t be teachable. They can’t be coachable. Where we should be very concerned about the amount of hours that a child is on a device. But secondly, to answer your other part of your question. We should and I would like to see social media for under 18 gone. I’m gonna I’m going to put that right out there.

So let’s talk about how it works in your family for a minute. Now you’ve got two teenagers, and a 11 year old. So you’re right in the wheelhouse of the parents age group that we’re talking about in terms of kids and cell brains, right? What have you done in your own home? Because you’ve just said that you would wish that social media didn’t exist? And I’m wondering what you feel about cell phones existing but what kind of rules did you put in place in your household? And how have you maintained them?

Okay, when we first started because my I have an 18 year old now she was about a 12. And I said something’s she’s like Mom, I want this iPad thing because it wasn’t phones at first, right? For the kids. It came out as a as an iPad. I said, I’m not buying you one. I said if you want to buy one, you’re gonna have to get a job and buy one yourself. And she was a competitive swimmer. She actually made her own business, taught art classes in my Pilates and earned money to buy unlike oh gosh, she went into it. She took very good care of it. And what we loaded on to it years ago was I think it was Netflix and she started to watch TV and then I started to see a change. I started to notice I’m like what is happening to my child. This is not my child. She’s becoming more introverted quiet. She’s not socializing as much so we took her like No, no, no tech in your room ever, ever again. So forget we took that rule. And we made it for the rest of the family. I checked her phone I checked her devices I as we’ve graduated with this right because we didn’t know any better. We don’t. We started to make more rules. And she started to get more lippy and I’m like, well, sorry, these are our rules. And I’m going to check your phone. And we there weren’t control apps when she started. There weren’t all of these pieces of technology like FYI play it safer. Or phones like true me or pinwheel out there. Apple phones are designed to be highly addictive. And I would really advocate if parents are listening never to buy one to buy a safe phone for like a true mirror or a pinwheel because they safeguard the child. They protect the child, there are other layers and you can look at them and see why. But we had to make rules up in our own home, no phones in the rooms. You were only allowed like one social media app that we had access to. And we had to know all the emails and all the accounts. Then we started to add a parenting control app and screentime be because as we were learning to go through this, we’re like, no, no, this is unhealthy. But she started to come back, she started to be more social. She never suffered in grades or anything like that. She was an extremely high competitive athlete. And I, my son wasn’t interested in a phone literally until we gave him one at grade nine. And we let him see how it was going. And now we’ve let him sort of test the waters, we’ve given them the parameters, they all leave it down on the main floor docket at night, very important to let a child self soothe to sleep. Even at 18. I can’t, I can’t express enough the amount of parents are coming to me saying I can’t get my 15 year old asleep. So we put we made those rules. And so far, we’re managing we’re on top of it in our house. And we try and book time with our kids. What do you want to do tonight guys play cards, where you we’ve usually been in an arena, we live in an arena or a court or a pool. So we always brought a little backpack long for any of the other kids, if you’re at someone else’s sport, you can color, you can journal, you can do whatever you want. And now my child literally is playing by themselves at an arena while the other kids are just sitting on a phone. So we’ve tried and and we’re learning and navigating still. But I think it’s about spending time with your kids, showing them that that they’re valued in love because there’s so vulnerable online today to online predators.

Absolutely. Now you bring up a whole bunch of different points there. But I wanted to zero in on one specific piece, which is, you know, in the parents that you talk to about these and other related topics, like where do you see the common mistakes, or the common trends, where they where they really stumble? And and you know, question, what they’re doing with respect to rules, boundaries, etc.

I’m seeing they haven’t examined their family’s values. If you examine your family values, like in any company, or any, any board or organization, if you have your set value system, it’s very easy to construct expectations and rules and routines. So oftentimes you’re like, Oh, my child just wants their phone whenever they want. No, no, let’s put a control up on it. Give them between four and five at night. Or perhaps when Johnny sister is at gymnastics. Do you want Johnny to be on a phone? Or do you want to spend that hour engaging with him playing tic tac toe are games and and take him there and run errands with him? Make your day easy. But also you have to engage with each child. So how what does that look like? Right? And it’s hard because we are all let’s say non pandemic mode here. We’re all very, very busy and out and about. But let’s not forget to schedule that important one on one time with your children and talking to them. Right. But that’s the number one thing is they sort of get these devices, and then they’re literally they can’t stop them from using them. So it’s about habits with them. And also it’s about demonstrating and role modeling at home. How often are the adults on the phone? If we are carrying them around 24/7 Your children are going to carry them around 24/7 And I have parents literally screaming, I can’t get my kid off my phone. I’m like, Well, what are you doing when they’re off their phone? They take a second. Do you make yourself accessible? Do you make yourself open to playing and doing games because the children learn through play? Right? They build resilience and self talk through play like snakes and ladders or spotted or even if we even devote 20 minutes a day to a child. They are less they are less likely to have a mental health issue. 20 minutes that’s all right. I’ve devoted love and just listening and just a dialogue but they are very frustrated with kids in their their bedrooms. I think too. That’s another big one with the phone. So I’m like take it out, turn the Wi Fi off, put a controller put a snap stop button on it. There’s lots of things we can do. But a routine is best. A screen routine I have a Do you have a screen family screen plan course. And it takes you through setting up the household on routines. Everybody’s on a routine and but that routine is based on the emotional needs of your child though. So it’s kind of cutting both. It’s a win win.

Now you alluded to some of the Science around this in the beginning of the interview, I’m curious, as somebody who sort of looks at this in the research side of things and the evidence base piece, yes. What do you want parents to understand? If they don’t understand any of the other things that have just been described that they find making roles difficult if they find enforcing rules challenging? What do you want parents to understand about cell phones, and the impact on children, neurologically, socially and physically based on science?

If we examine, I take a lot of my literature and readings from the British American, Australian and Canadian pediatric associations. So this is where I get most of my updated information from, and what they’re researching right now is all screens, and the impact of screens. So we got to look at what they’re putting their money into. And it’s into sleep. And I also very interesting piece of, of medical information was a doctor an endocrinologist who I had the pleasure of sort of meeting through someone. And he says, I’m very concerned, because at this rate, if children are so dentary, six hours a day, seven days a week, by 20, oh, shoot, is it 2030 2040 I think he said 70% of children will be obese. He goes, we are not only in a mental crisis, we are in a physical health crisis with our children. So we have to look at that medical evidence. And what doctors are suggesting these there are rules and policies out there that children are not allowed on screens over the age of 18 for more than an hour. But we know, through studies that they’re on between six to eight, even 10. In the US, I don’t even know how that’s possible with eating and showering and, you know, at least hanging out and preparing and doing things. But it seems to be that evidence is there. It is all there in education and in medicine. They’re they’re very concerned. And now it’s about somehow about enforcement.

You talked about early on that if it was up to you, you would you know, want to see social media canceled. Let’s put it that way. Where do you stand on devices and cell phones based on being a former teacher being in the education space and doing all the parenting education that you do?
Okay, so question number one, I will answer as the educator and actually I consult with different boards internationally. And there is a thing called too much tech. In the classroom, we know that if we give a Class A it’s really interesting, we gave them a great 10 history assignment. And that assignment was done in that entire period. Done no problem. We gave another class the assignment, but to be done online on a laptop, and using research. They took three periods. We’re actually not as productive when we give children browsers and access to browsers. And when we let them have Wi Fi, because those teachers said they were on their devices constantly. I had to get them off, then they were on the browser because we took away their phone, then they go and they play fortnight They gamble, the older kids will look at pornography right in the middle of the class. So we’re actually allowing children to be in a if I want to see professional setting for the first time. We’re letting them learn bad habits on our turf. And I think we have to really think as educators what we’re saying and what we’re doing and have better filters in the browsers, which a few companies are coming out with, and having more precise and healthy databases where they can go research their work and have better blocking involved, or many teachers want to go back to paper because children actually learn brain to paper far more effectively, in terms of short term and long term memory when they go to regurgitate that information, and a summative of former assessment like an exam, for instance. Yeah, and now they’re just basically, if you can see me, I’ll look at my phone, look at the teacher, look at my phone, look at my teacher, they will have missed two points of meiosis. And when they go to take the test, you kind of missed anaphase. So they’re really not. We’re not preparing them to be a detailed student anymore, or to be invested as a good student with good habits anymore. And that sets them up for failure in the employment world. So I think our educational system is failing the kids right now.

You talked about how this was already a huge problem. I think we can all agree before the pandemic started. Now. We’re two years and almost two years into this pandemic. Certainly, it’s been exacerbated by by this reality. What in your eyes automation needs to be done to sound the alarm for the future because we are talking about a whole generation of children here. And we’re talking about a whole generation of parents.

Yes, if it were, if it related my hands, I’d revamped education to include far more group work less of some of the content and curriculum and engage them more in physical activity, outside activity and try and fill in their two years of lack of curriculum. Here anyway, in Canada, I would probably embrace a little bit more of a play oriented curriculum, and have a little bit more art therapy as well and activities. And hopefully the government can fund maybe more activities like they do in England, they make them mandatory activities after school, so you don’t pick up your kid till five. So they get a sport and an activity provided free from the government. And there’s so much happier when they go home. I think we need to look at a different model in education in in terms of backdooring, medical educated medical needs and our health care system. Because if we don’t take care of our little minds right now, we’re going to be paying for that. Later on. Even at 18. We’ve seen a exponential percentage increase in anxiety, depression, and suicide. And it’s not stopping anytime soon. The more we open the doors to more social media, the more it’s going to happen if we don’t equip them mentally to figure out and navigate contexts, nude photos, sexting, predators and online safety, we have to do a lot more educating.

Larissa, any final thoughts you’d like to share in terms of strategies that parents can employ? Who are, you know, potentially struggling with, you know, many of the issues that you’ve covered here, in their own homes on a daily basis,

You know, make it easy. So, right now, if you’re talking about right now, in the pandemic, I would say, less, tech is more or less tech is better for your family, less tech means they’re going to sleep more, less tech means they’re going to play more. And less tech means they’re going to eat more. Right? So it’s such a positive thing when we least decrease, try and decrease it to an hour a day, really. And install a control app, set up your rules, post them on the fridge, talk about them as a family, but I think re-examining family values, and looking at what do you want for your children in this very selfish world? Right, very selfish and unhinge world right now, how equipped Do you want your children to be? And soon as you answer that question, I think you’ll come up with your routines. And we have them all on our website and tips. From not waking up in the morning and looking on your phone actually is the best because it somehow disrupts the circadian rhythms and the light and it wants you to have more of that. We want to decrease that dopamine and cortisol in their brains, we want to give them more love, which is oxytocin. So hug them more, tell them you love them more and ease off the criticism and just love them and just have a dialogue not a monologue and I think that’ll really go a long way.

Tons of excellent tips and strategies Larissa Mills, educational consultant, mother of three and founder of I parent jen.com, thank you so much for your time today.

Thank you and keep doing what you’re doing.

Thank you

Mills, a former teacher, parenting educator, and athletics coach, is describing how she believes mobile technology is infiltrating the lives of today’s children — especially in homes where the rules, boundaries and monitoring of a child’s smartphone usage by their parents — are unclear, weak, or non-existent.

Larissa Mills headshot“In this era, it is more about the parents having it easy,” Mills shared with Lianne Castelino, during an interview for Where Parents Talk. “The parents are a little bit more helicopter than they need to be. And they think children are coming out of the womb programmed, but they really don’t come out programmed. They really need to be active children. And they really need to be creative children, and they really need your attention.”

Mills, a mother of three, including two teens is deeply preoccupied by parenting in the cell phone era, saying, “to be honest, I’m a little scared for the future.”

That concern along with feedback from struggling parents, teachers, caregivers and coaches spawned her website, iparentgen.com, designed to help these individuals, “access strategies, tips and research articles that will help troubleshoot children’s problems surrounding cell phones or devices.”

A former classroom teacher, Mills spends much of her time delving into the science, which continues to be clear.

“…if we’re not giving them their mental skills, or social skills, and healthy habits — which we’re actually seeing — children by four years old, are almost a year or two behind in language development alone, because they’ve been on a device too long watching videos,” she says.

A 2019 study that appeared in the Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA) Pediatrics and led by Dr. John S. Hutton, pediatrician at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital looked at the correlation between “screen-based media use and the developing brain,” focused particularly on early childhood. The study looked at 47 healthy preschoolers.

It found: “increased use of screen-based media in the context of the American Association of Pediatrics (AAP) guidelines was associated with lower microstructural integrity of brain white matter tracts that support language, executive functions, and emergent literacy skills.”

The unforeseen and unavoidable increased exposure to smartphones and other digital devices during the COVID-19 global pandemic has only exacerbated an issue that for Mills, was already critical.

Young boy looking at smartphone in his bed

“If we don’t take care of our little minds right now, we’re going to be paying for that later on. Even at 18,” she says. “We’ve seen an exponential percentage increase in anxiety, depression, and suicide. And it’s not stopping anytime soon. The more we open the doors to more social media, the more it’s going to happen if we don’t equip them mentally to figure out and navigate contexts, nude photos, sexting, predators and online safety.  We have to do a lot more educating.”

During her interview with Where Parents Talk, Larissa Mills also discusses:

  • strategies and approaches for parents to establish rules around smartphone usage
  • how she establishes, monitors and enforces cellphone rules with her three children
  • smartphones in schools
  • evidence-based research on the impact of cellphones of children’s brain development


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