In Education, Family Support

A smartphone-free childhood is easier than you think.

Melanie Hempe

April 3, 2024

Intro from Jon Haidt:

Today we have an essay in a new series: What Parents Can Do Now. Our first essay is from Melanie Hempe, who founded the organization ScreenStrong in 2015. Melanie’s personal experience with teen screen addiction, combined with her extensive background in public education on this issue, provides her with a unique perspective and a strong commitment to helping others. With a nursing degree from Emory University, she uses her medical background to develop educational materials for parents and children, helping families prevent and reverse screen dependencies.

Melanie reached out to me while I was writing The Anxious Generation, and she was so knowledgeable—not just about the neurobiology, but about the family dynamics playing out all across America—that I sent her the manuscript and asked for her comments. She offered me excellent feedback, which I incorporated. She also sent me the book that she was writing––Kids’ Brains and Screens—a comprehensive student curriculum that does something extraordinary: it explains the relevant biology and psychology in ways that tweens and teens can understand. 

In this series, we will present a range of views about what parents can do about technology in their families. Melaine’s firsthand experience with the negative impacts of phone-based adolescence drives her advocacy; she sets a high standard and urges parents to delay giving a smartphone until after high school. We will also present advice from those with different perspectives who are more permissive about phones and social media, and we welcome rebuttals from experts who disagree with us, especially about the value of the “four new norms.” 

— Jon

P.S. If you want to follow Melanie’s work, subscribe to her Substack:

The most effective solutions to significant problems are sometimes surprisingly simple and yet strongly resisted. Take, for instance, the case of handwashing in 1847—a doctor’s groundbreaking discovery that handwashing could effectively prevent the spread of germs was initially met with skepticism and rejected by prevailing cultural beliefs. In fact, handwashing remained controversial for four decades before finally gaining universal acceptance as a cornerstone of medical practice. Today, the adolescent screen crisis is our newest problem with a surprisingly simple and effective solution. That solution is to delay smartphones until the end of adolescence—period. Like handwashing, this solution sounds simple in concept and will one day seem like common sense, but right now, it is considered countercultural.

Many of us following the After Babel Substack can agree that smartphones and social media negatively impact adolescent mental health and classroom learning and that spending more in-person time with friends and family is a healthier choice. Moods and grades generally climb when teens trade their phone-based childhoods for free play in nature, physical activities, creative hobbies, and smartphone-free study time. Teens are likely to be more content and less anxious when days are spent on something other than digital media platforms that are designed to be addictive. Best of all, family relationships tend to become calmer and more enjoyable when screen conflicts aren’t present in the home. Kids and parents long for the stress-free days when they aren’t constantly arguing over screen time. It’s not that we aren’t motivated to fix the problem; we sense there is a solution but don’t know how to break free from our biases, fears, and habits and go against the cultural wave. We don’t know how to practically delay the age kids get smartphones.

In this post, I will share valuable insights from my experience working with thousands of families over the past decade, utilizing the educational programs at the nonprofit organization ScreenStrong. While Jon and Zach emphasize the crucial step of collective action, my focus will provide specific actions for families to implement the simple yet powerful solution to skip smartphones and social media through adolescence. Drawing from principles of child development, we can be empowered to confidently take a new approach to what seems to be an unsolvable problem. Let’s look at how we can create a smartphone-free childhood to give our teens the most advantages without losing the benefits of technology.

Tip 1: We seek knowledge.

The first step is to set emotions aside and learn the basic science around teen brain development, mental health, and addiction. The “why” reinforces the “will” to delay smartphones. When we embrace the fascinating potential as well as the limitations of the teen brain, we see clear evidence for why skipping addictive screens through adolescence is the best solution.

Data shows that access is the underlying risk factor for every addiction, so removing access will decrease risk. Since the pull of some screen activities is stronger than others, we must focus on screen platforms that use powerful, persuasive design elements—video games, social media, and pornography. We don’t need to worry as much about delaying digital technology platforms that are genuinely educational. We don’t have data supporting an epidemic of kids visiting counselors because they can’t stop using spreadsheets and typing essays.

It may take some effort, but learning about kids’ brains and screens is necessary to stand strong under societal pressure. It is also essential to educate our children. Please don’t skip this step; staying on course and delaying smartphones without the necessary foundational knowledge is difficult. 

Tip 2: We strengthen our parental role.

When we treat our teens like equals and try to be their best friends, we lose our ability to coach them. In fact, teens in this relationship structure often end up telling their parents what to do! Some take begging to a new level and create elaborate presentations to convince us they are mature enough for a smartphone. We often give in, despite our own better judgment. When we lose our ability to coach our kids, we easily fall into a trap where we begin parenting out of fear. We fear our children will be upset with us and also fear that our friends will judge us for being too strict. The fear of being labeled “overprotective” paralyzes us from protecting our teens at all. This defensive parenting approach, rooted in fear of external judgment, leads to unnecessary pain and ultimately to a dead end: disconnection from our teenagers as they shift their home base from family and attach to the virtual world instead.

Here is the key point: Social media was not created with the best interest of teenagers in mind. Instinctively, we know our kids shouldn’t invest time engaging with social media platforms because we, as adults, can see the dangers—the social comparison, constant judgments, and endless drama. Many of us are so thankful we didn’t have social media when we were their age because we know that having social media during our teen years would have been a nightmare filled with anxiety. We reminisce about everything we did as teenagers—including the negative things we thought or said about our friends and parents—and are exceedingly grateful that permanent highlight reels of our stupidity do not exist. (Suggestion: get your kids a journal to write their private thoughts in instead of giving them social media for them to broadcast those thoughts to the entire world.) If we think back for just a minute about our dopamine-craving brains from high school or the pain of rejection we suffered in middle school, we would stop reading this and retrieve our teen’s smartphone right now.

Embracing our role as a loving coach—instead of the role of best friend—allows us to protect our teens and, like a good coach, not overreact if they disagree with us or even say they don’t like us for not giving them a smartphone. Remember, this coaching role will be filled by someone, either you or their peers. Have the confidence to fill this role in your children’s lives and lead them well.

Your kids need you as a firm but loving life coach right now. Make the necessary decision to replace smartphones (and social media) with basic talk/text devices throughout adolescence.

Tip 3: We look past our biases.

We gain clarity when we look past our own biases and blind spots and stop believing that our kids are immune to the screen “infection. They are not. No one is. One common blind spot is that parents often confuse intelligence with maturity. While our kids may be brilliant, they are not mature enough to handle the persuasive design elements of smartphones. Maturity is a slow process. Science shows that the development of neural pathways in the judgment center of the brain is not complete until around 25 years of age. Nothing you can do can speed up this physical process. Teens are not adults, and the journey of gaining experience, wisdom, and maturity is a gradual process that unfolds over time.

Another mistake is believing that our children are more advanced than others in terms of the strength of their character; unfortunately, our values are not passed through our genes. Despite our efforts to train our teens to “do the right thing” on their screens, teens are not gifted with the willpower needed for social media. We cannot continue to believe the fallacy that we can teach our kids more willpower and build discipline to resist temptations by giving them more time with addictive activities. Science does not support the notion that exposure strengthens willpower. The opposite is true; repeated exposure tends to weaken, rather than strengthen, the ability to resist temptation. The established method for resisting temptation is to remove access to the addictive activity or substance. In the case of smartphones, this means removing access until the risks are lower and the reasoning center of the brain is more developed.

It’s easier to take the emotion out of the decision to delay smartphones when you lean on the science of child development and recognize that a teen’s ability to resist temptation is nothing like that of adults. 


Tip 4: We let go of myths.

One popular myth I have discovered in my parent workshops across the country is what I call the convenience myth: if it is convenient, then it must be necessary. We love having cool apps in our pockets—I can shut my garage door when I am at the grocery store. But are these low-effort, high-reward apps really necessary for our kids? Our teens will be fine with a basic non-data phone through the 48 months of high school. Your son can still conveniently call you when baseball practice is canceled, but he will need to practice his executive functioning skills instead of using an app to remind him to close the garage door before he leaves the house.

Another myth is the binging myth: if we don’t give our kids smartphones now, they will inevitably binge and go overboard with them later. However, our teens’ activities and experiences play a significant role in shaping their brains, and these childhood patterns tend to persist over time. If our teens develop a habit of excessive smartphone use, it is likely to carry over when they leave our house. Rather than allowing fear of the future to guide our parenting decisions, we must focus on what benefits our children in the present. One proactive step we can take is to educate our kids about screens and brain development. By providing them with this knowledge, we equip them with the foundation to make wise choices as they grow. Dr. Leonard Sax, a cherished author and friend, encapsulates it perfectly: “Virtue begets virtue. Vice begets vice.” Embracing a parenting approach that is both firm and loving increases the likelihood that our children will exhibit wisdom in their behavior as they mature.

Let’s be open to letting go of cultural myths. We know that the benefits of teenage smartphones do not outweigh the risks and harms. There are thousands of reasons for buying a phone for your child, but there is only one reason to skip it: your child’s health and well-being. And that reason matters more than all the others.

Tip 5: We rethink our beliefs about safety.

Parents often believe that parental controls and conversations about online dangers will save this generation from making poor choices. However, neither aligns with what science says about child development and the teen brain. Teens are highly motivated to discover ways around parental controls. Their brains are wired to crave risks and challenges—the bigger the risk, the better. This is why parental controls have such a short shelf-life and offer only a temporary bandage at best; it’s nearly impossible to keep social media off a teen smartphone.

Having regular conversations with teenagers about virtual dangers is incredibly important. However, talking about dangers while still allowing access is not a proven prevention strategy. As with drug and alcohol education, teens learn best about the danger of social media without using it. Discuss the science behind screen use, how to build healthy brains, and reasons to pause smartphones for now. Allow your teen to enjoy this short stage of development without being groomed by addictive social media and exposed to the most destructive aspects of the teenage virtual world.

Realize that you are the best parental control for your children and that having more meaningful conversations about their everyday teenage life will be more beneficial than any tech conversation you could have.

Tip 6: We relax about their future tech skills.

Have you noticed that smartphones don’t come with user manuals? That is because they are unbelievably easy to use. Since apps and social media are easy enough for a 4-year-old to master, our ScreenStrong teens—who skip unnecessary, problematic screens—will have no problem using these technologies after high school. I estimate it will take most young people about three minutes to learn how to use a smartphone from the first time they turn it on. By contrast, they will never be able to recapture what they will miss out on if they live on these platforms in middle school or high school. Furthermore, the skills they will naturally develop using laptops for school will give them plenty of exposure to the world of technology without the added temptation of the internet in their pocket 24/7.

Instead of lagging behind, teens who don’t have a smartphone will have more time to develop academically and socially; they will have an advantage over their screen-dependent peers. They will have more opportunities to practice developing people skills than their peers who use smartphones as a social crutch. Growing up smartphone-free will offer teens priceless advantages: increased confidence, independence, improved mental well-being, higher EQ, and a better chance to develop and navigate in-person relationships. Have your teen spend more time now building life skills, hobbies, and rich social skills rather than screen skills. Smartphones are here to stay; they will be waiting for your teens when their brains are truly ready for them.

Tip 7: We embrace “being different” with others.

Humans seek community above all else; it is essential for our survival. Consequently, it is easy to see why most of us struggle to be different from our tribe, whether the tribe is right or wrong. They struggled to do it in 1847, just as we do today.

However, when we join with just a few other like-minded families to lead our children down a different path, we can create a new norm where our kids don’t feel the same burning need for smartphones and social media to feel accepted. When raised with the loving support and shared resolve that comes from a community of like-minded families, teens can demonstrate an amazing ability to adapt quickly to a new set of expectations and develop a healthy new normal.

We have experienced this in our own family, as have many ScreenStrong families. Instead of being left out, cast aside, and lonely, we have found the opposite is true. Imagine what your teen could conquer if they converted 9 hours a day—formally spent on video games and smartphones—to other activities. These teens have much more time to spend pursuing real-world goals: joining student government, auditioning for a role in the school play, learning valuable public speaking and debate skills, hosting social gatherings, participating in scouts, practicing musical instruments, devoting more hours to athletic training and sports, and spending time giving back to their communities. Could it be that they are all just exceptional kids? I don’t think so. Their lifestyle allows them to experience more open doors to opportunities than their phone-based peers. These teens have also developed grit; they are experiencing the secret advantage of a phone-free childhood.

When this change begins, we may be shocked by how quickly conflict and stress over technology can be eliminated from our homes. We will also be surprised at how quickly our teens embrace becoming leaders rather than followers. It’s true: being comfortable standing out from the crowd is where leadership begins.

Once you see the tragedy of a screen-addicted child, your motivation changes; you will step out and change your tribe, and you won’t care what anyone thinks. Don’t wait for your children to experience addiction, anxiety, and other serious problems before you take their smartphones away. Do whatever it takes to create a smartphone-free community right now and help your teens stay or get back on track. It takes just a few committed families to support each other in this new journey. After that bond is made and you see the benefits, you will never look back.

Enjoy life again

When you trust your instinct to skip smartphones and social media through high school, the odds will increase that your teens will emerge physically healthier, emotionally more stable, and socially better adjusted with fewer scars. Regardless of where you are on your journey, it’s never too late to help them. No parent has ever looked back and wished their child spent more time in the virtual world. Your children need the gift of your leadership now so they can be leaders tomorrow. Stand up for them to help them stand out from the crowd.

Let me encourage you to make the counter-cultural choice to move your children’s entertainment and social lives from the online world back to the natural world. Jon Haidt says, The costs of using social media, in particular, are higher for adolescents than adults, while the benefits are minimal. Let children grow up on Earth first before sending them to Mars… It’s time to end the experiment. Let’s bring our children home.”

Can we delay the age when kids get smartphones and turn the tide on the youth mental health crisis? You bet we can. If we all start in our own homes and then work together as a community to do what’s best for the next generation, I know it won’t take us 40 years.


A guest post by
Melanie Hempe

Founder of and author of the Kids’ Brains and Screens course series for students and parents.
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