Wednesday Wisdom

April 03, 2024

No Simple Answers

By Dr Kathy Weston

No Simple Answers


Whilst listening to the radio over the Easter weekend, I happened to tune into a conversation about smartphone usage hosted by British journalist Matt Frei. The topic of conversation was around whether phones were entirely to blame for the current mental health crisis affecting children and young people.

I am sure you have noticed; children’s smartphone use is hitting the headlines as the adults of the world try to ascertain what is best for kids. When should they get phones? Do they really need them? Are phones to blame for children’s rising anxiety, or levels of self-harm and disordered eating? What damage are screens doing? How can we hold social media companies to account? Should schools ban phones altogether?

As soon as I heard the radio debate opening, I started to feel concerned. Radio presenting often involves filling a short slot featuring those with vociferously opposing views and willing contributors to thrash it out. Would this brief chat get to the truth of matter? Would a balanced consideration of evidence be aired?

As soon as I heard Matt’s first guest, I knew that the audience was in for a treat and a measured response to the questions posed. Professor Sonia Livingstone, based at the London School of Economics, is one the leading scholars on children’s engagement with the digital world. Whilst the presenter used an opener that implied phones could be to blame for children’s poor mental health, she quickly attempted to reframe the interview with the line: “Can I start somewhere else?”, and reminded the presenter that phones per se are not the main stressor in children’s lives. She then listed a range of self-reported stressors, such as academic pressure and uncertainty around future employability, and hinted that economic factors such the current cost of living crisis or financial cuts to mental health services offered more fruitful explanations to the conundrum of children’s poor mental health.

She reminded the interviewer that blaming phones entirely is a view “unsupported by the evidence”, that balance rather than banning tech is key, and that, in the first instance, our attention ought to be more focused towards greater regulation of technologies. Phones can enhance our lives in multiple ways; facilitating organisation, helping families stay connected, allowing young people to connect with support services, reducing feelings of marginalisation and providing a source of entertainment. Parents often excessively worry about ‘screen time’, but scholars and mental health researchers in this field remind us that screen use matters more. How long children spend on screens is less important than what they are doing on them.

Another counterintuitive fact, asserted by available evidence, is that social media can be both friend and foe. Media headlines seem to suggest that it is entirely to blame for children’s poor mental health. The truth is that in one household it might aid a teen’s wellbeing, whilst in another it might exacerbate feelings of exclusion. In one household, it can enhance a child’s self-esteem. In another, it might be undermining their self-worth. One child might enjoy digital communication with friends, whilst another might find themselves subject to cyberbullying. One teen might be able to scroll past other people’s perfectly curated lives and feel unaffected, whilst another might find social comparison psychologically detrimental.

Parents need to look at the context of social media in their own child’s life. Do their digital experiences feel positive? Are they enjoying balance in their lives? Which aspects of social media are helping or hindering them? Are they aware of biased algorithms driving them towards some content? What steps can they take to consciously curb the flow?

Such an approach requires us to ‘parent rather than police’; a phrase coined by Professor Livingstone, and one that invites us towards collaborative, open and engaging conversation with young people about their engagement with the digital world.


As much as we might desire concrete answers to complex problems, that isn’t always easy. Every child is growing up in different circumstances, contexts and with very different levels of social support.

I was reminded of this fact when, over the weekend, I had the pleasure of mentoring a young adult who lives in a family situation where she has been exposed to years of trauma and abuse. She is the eldest in the family and has recently been expelled from the family home. A phone is her only lifeline of connection back to siblings left behind, who she is deeply concerned about. It is her only means of cultivating alternative social support, accommodation and remains a critical tool when liaising with teachers and tutors. Listening to her story reminded me that teens aren’t a homogenous group ‘addicted to their phones’, gaming and doing makeovers on social media. Some are living in situations less than supportive and a phone can offer access to a world where opportunities blossom again and where they can find their feet. When psychological survival is first on your priority list, access to the internet can be a lifesaver.

This is not to say that we should allow all children unfettered access to any app, game or device, nor hand over phones without enormous consideration. Asking ourselves basic common sense questions can help. Why would a very young child be encouraged to use a smartphone? Childhood should be steeped in play, exploration of the natural world and opportunities to fire imagination. Why might we rush to put phones in the hands of children on the cusp of early adolescence? It’s a period characterised by self-discovery, body changes, appearance anxiety and greater awareness of what others think of us. It is a time of mental vulnerability, yet a phone is often seen as a rite of passage. If they don’t have one, won’t they be left out?

Researchers who ‘know their stuff’ like Professor Tracey Wade argue that 14 is a sensible minimum age, given what she knows about things like body image dissatisfaction fuelled by appearance-based social media. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt suggests 16, after a fresh scrutiny of global data on young people’s mental health. Most researchers would still avoid the idea of blanket bans and total prohibition to all technologies in all households. After all, prohibition tends to drive curiosity and incognito behaviour! And as for worrying about our children being ‘left out’, frankly, there is a much higher chance of them encountering digital exclusion, friendship difficulty and bullying online.

How can we ensure a child is truly phone-ready? A consideration of the basics matters here. Do they feel safe at home at school? Do they know who is there for them? Are their psychological and learning needs being met? Are they being supported to develop social skills and given access to opportunities that provide stretch as well as affirmation? How do they feel about themselves and how might we boost their self-esteem? Do they sleep well?

By considering these questions first and putting our focus on their emotional resilience, we are better able to empower them to navigate the digital world. We want them to feel as psychologically good as possible before they enter the world of social media and have to face daily digital challenges and dilemmas.


Whilst the internet is a magnificent digital landscape, it’s also a metaphorical, giant dustbin, one that we don’t want children rummaging around in. You might think that parental controls provide a simple solution, inhibiting access to harmful content and keeping children safe. Not the case, so read on.

Fresh research by the aforementioned London School Of Economics indicates that parental controls, whilst useful, aren’t entirely reliable, and we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking they provide a silver bullet in terms of keeping children safe.

First of all, there are a large range of parental controls available across different devices and accessed via different means. Some tools operate at the level of the device (such as a phone or tablet). Others are embedded into specific services, such as Snapchat, or streaming services like Netflix. Others work at the level of the operating system, such as IOS, Android or Windows, or are provided by your broadband company. As such, it is hard to give parents blanket advice they want about which controls work best. What research suggests (again) is that what’s optimal for children is a hybrid, measured approach; integrating parental controls as part of positive parenting approaches, that are characterised by communication and respectful negotiation. Such an approach requires chatting, mulling things over, explaining things in age-appropriate ways and reaching some sort of consensus around digital usage.

Basically, our efforts at home matter, as do the digital values we co-create with our children and instil within them. Are we sending a child to school each day who has been taught to use their hand-held computer (phone) in a positive and pro-social way? Have we made it clear that there are expectations that accompany use? Are we supporting their school by reinforcing the rules they have put in place around phone use within the school setting? Have we avoided relying on busy school staff to notice, sanction or regulate pupils’ phone behaviour? After all, these phones have been financed and supplied by parents and most usage occurs outside of school.

Suggesting that schools ban phones entirely from the school site, or that parents just stop buying them are less constructive options than collaborating with one another, and attempting to empower young people to make good decisions, whilst supporting the adults that are educating them every day.

None of this is easy, but by acknowledging the complexity of ‘getting this right’, we have the best chance of doing the right thing.

Are you a Tooled Up member?

If you’d like more advice on navigating parental controls, tune into our new interview with Dr Mariya Stoilova, lead author on the research I mention above. It’s packed with practical tips and food for thought for parents with children of all ages. We’ve also worked with Professor Tracey Wade on some guidelines for social media use, designed to be shared with teens. It encourages them to consider some of the research relating to the impact of social media on their wellbeing and reflect on how they might be able to 'curate their feed' in a way that reduces any negative impact. Within Tooled Up, you can also hear more from Professor Livingstone. Find out how children engage in the digital world or learn more about the impact of influencers on young children in our interviews.

There is a whole section in the platform dedicated to digital resilience. It’s the perfect place to look whether you need help deciding when your child is ready for their first smartphone, would like some inspiration for starting conversations on internet safety, advice on helping to build algorithmic literacy, or a template for considering your family's digital values. My talk on raising a detective in the digital world is a must watch for any parent seeking to help their children have the best opportunities to thrive in their digital life, and equip them with skills and awareness to manage risk and stay as safe as possible. It contains lots of links to other relevant Tooled Up resources.