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Childhood Unplugged author outlines the harms of teen smartphone use in Whistler talk

Katherine Johnson Martinko is leading a free talk at Whistler Waldorf on Nov. 28
Katherine Johnson Martinko delves into the harms of frequent smartphone use on developing brains in her new book, Childhood Unplugged: Practical Advice to Get Kids Off Screens and Find Balance.

Katherine Johnson Martinko’s 14-year-old son just started high school, and unlike the vast majority of his classmates, he doesn’t own a smartphone. 
Martinko has told her son repeatedly: if he can find an academic study showing how smartphones benefit the teenage brain, she will let him join the ranks of his phone-wielding peers.

He hasn’t yet.

“It is a point of contention in our home, as most of his friends have them, but I just can’t see the harm in delaying it as long as possible,” she said.

The author of Childhood Unplugged: Practical Advice to Get Kids Off Screens and Find Balance, released this summer, Martinko echoes a growing field of research showing the harmful effects of frequent smartphone use on the developing mind.

“Ever since smartphones became a major part of children’s lives, there’s been a shift in time use: less time in-person with people, sleeping less, and more time online. It has profound impacts on childhood development,” she said.

A 2021 study by U.S. non-profit Common Sense Media found teens between 13 and 18 years old spent, on average, nearly nine hours a day on devices, meaning less time for outdoor play and socializing face-to-face.

“We know that kids develop optimally by rehearsing for adulthood through their play, and ideally that play takes places outside, unsupervised by adults, so they can come up with their own games and rules,” Martinko said. “Children learn by navigating conflict, communication, and learning to read other people’s facial expressions. All of this is important, and what we’re finding is smartphones are displacing these opportunities for in-person interaction and outdoor play.”

Just as there are age minimums for alcohol use and driving a vehicle, Martinko believes the same should be considered for smartphones, with 16 generally being the accepted earliest age among researchers to introduce the technology to teens.

“Social media is a beast of a thing. Kind of on par with driving a car, there is tons of responsibility involved, tons of risk, and the need to have a certain level of maturity to deal with it,” she said.

But what of kids already in the thrall of their devices?

“For a lot of parents whose children are already in it, I encourage them to pull back. I don’t think it’s ever too late to revisit the rules around screen time, even as a teenager,” Martinko explained.

It’s important to help kids “fill the void” of their previous smartphone time with meaningful pursuits, Martinko said—and it’s up to parents to model that behaviour themselves.

“We need to develop offline hobbies and interests of our own that show our kids there’s a wonderful world that exists offline that makes your life better,” she said.

One of the more common justifications for teens’ smartphone use is how integral it is to their social lives, with some parents fearing banning phones could lead to their kids being alienated from their peers.

“I’m not overly concerned about that idea,” Martinko said. “The older a kid can be before they get their phone, the better balanced they will be. They will know more about the pleasures of real life and offline living. They’ll know how to make eye contact and develop empathy, which we know is lacking in kids that use their phones too much.”

Martinko will lead a talk at Whistler Waldorf School on Tuesday, Nov. 28 at 6:30 p.m., which is open to all. She will discuss six myths about digital media and share solutions to implement at home.

A second talk covering the same topics is planned for Nov. 30 at 6:30 p.m. at Sunwolf in Squamish.