At what age should you give your kid a phone? This week Paul and Rich sit down to discuss the inevitable moment when their kids ask for a phone. They break down how it can be a tool for freedom and the many concerns that can come with kids having their own phones. Could the answer be banning content creation for kids?
Paul Ford My son kept asking me what I was buying online. And I couldn’t understand until he pointed to my music app and said, right there, it says new order. That happened.
Rich Ziade [Laughs.] That’s pretty funny actually.
PF Yeah, it was great.
[Intro music fades in, ramps up, plays 10 seconds.]
PF Alright. I’ve got a question for you. I have kids. This has come up, you know that, right?
RZ I know that. I do know that. Yes.
PF I have 10 year old twins. You know what they want more than anything else?
RZ Wait, let me think. Cotton candy?
PF That’s over.
RZ Okay. Wait, they’re a little older—chicken tenders?
RZ Somebody at some point said, stop saying chicken fingers and start saying chicken tenders. And I don’t want to hear about—I’m glad I wasn’t at that meeting.
PF Well wait, are chicken fingers different than chicken tenders? I just see them as more like, cigar shaped.
PF Oh it’s the same thing?
RZ It’s the same thing. It’s the same thing. I think somebody, at some point, said stop saying fingers.
PF I say that 30 times a day, 30 times a day. I’m like please for God’s sake, please Jesus—
RZ [Laughs.] Somebody wrote the memo. “No more fingers” was the subject line.
PF No more fingers. What you love there too is like somebody goes to revise their menu at some crappy diner. And they’re like, nah, not fingers anymore.
RZ Look, this podcast is not about chicken tender fingers. Right?
PF Well this is the question. The question I wanted to ask you before you did the Great Chicken Finger Derail of 2022—my children, they have Chromebooks. I bought them Chromebooks a couple years ago and they use those for school-related things, pandemic wise. They play Android games on them because you can do that. Chromebooks have a framework called Family Link, which is really good. It lets you lock down their usage and monitor where they’re using it, which is important because one child—I won’t say which—likes to get up at around two in the morning and get a little extra computer time in. And so my house is essentially the panopticon. I have video cameras running.
RZ I do too. It’s real.
PF I have film of one of my children turning the video camera away from the wall.
RZ It’s horrible.
PF He later said it was a cat. So we’re dealing with that. Anyway now, so they’re 10 now. Here’s part two. They are in the community. They know people on every block, they are independent more and more. And so are their peers. Kids are walking to the park and playing basketball with their friends. And so they say, I want a phone. My friends have phones.
RZ Nah, it’s a big leap. It’s a big moment. Right? It’s a big leap.
PF Well, it’s like welcome to this world. Right? The Chromebooks are locked down. It’s an hour a day. Have you thought about this?
RZ Of course. Well, my kids are a little behind you. It’s worth pointing out. They’re nine and seven. I have thought about it. You know, it’s funny. I don’t think it’s just this craving for a phone. I think what it is it’s just peer pressure, right? It’s like, why do all the kids have sneakers and I have to wear dress shoes to school?
PF Oh, yeah. That has leveled it up in the house. Yeah, yeah. No, they went from like—
RZ That’s what it is. And they’re communicating with each other and what not. So yeah. I see it as inevitable. I was, you know, I was thinking maybe it’s a watch.
PF Oh, so we had the same thought! I don’t think that’s real. What’s your fantasy in mind? Is it like we’ll strap a Commodore 64 to our kids’ arms?
RZ Like a backpack, 64. Yeah.
PF They’ll be like, check it out I wrote my own games, Dad. Or you know, I made my own messaging client and that’s not the world.
RZ I’ll tell you what I worry about. I mean, I worry about all the other things, all the things that all parents worry about. Right? There’s studies that come out that, you know, it creates challenges with self-image and attention span is affected because people are zipping around on their phones and all. I’m worried about all of those things. I do worry about content. I know I can’t police content forever, but you know, I think it’s more subtle than like, I don’t want my kids seeing, you know, porn or seeing violence or whatever it is. I’ll give you an example. You know, my son loves soccer. He’s a Liverpool fan. He loves tracking the team and looking at stuff. And sometimes we give him some time on YouTube and he wants to watch the 50 best goals of the last decade. Now, if anybody is a fan of soccer or anyone hates soccer, they’ll come to realize that you score a goal like every half hour. It’s a slog, soccer. Right? It takes time to really appreciate the beauty of the game because, well—
PF Well it’s not like hockey where it’s just like Canadians punching each other in the face.
RZ There’s violence in hockey—
PF Which is kind of interesting.
RZ Right. Basketball—everyone is throwing a ball into a hole all day long. So it’s a hundred points. So soccer is a particular thing and he’s come to appreciate it. But what happened with YouTube? He wasn’t seeing anything violent. He wasn’t seeing anything racy or anything like that. What he was doing was he was conditioning his sort of appetite for nuance. He’s essentially just dumbing down his ability to take on nuanced information. It was just spectacular goal after spectacular goal. And it’s all he wanted. And so we’d sit down and watch a game and the players are fighting hard to even try to shoot at the goal for 20 minutes. And he’s like, the hell is this?
PF This is so boring.
RZ It’s boring. Right. And so that—
PF And let’s be clear, this is soccer. The game that the entire world loves, that the entire world is organized around, that everybody thinks about all the time. And he was, yeah. Somebody asked if I wanted to take my son to a Nets game recently. And I asked him and he said, eh, that’s not really my sport. And I’m just like, I don’t care about basketball, but like it’s a Nets game!
RZ It’s a spectacle. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Go to the game. So I guess what I’m getting at here is, and my kid is, you know, he’s a high energy boy. So I need him to not think everything’s lame. I’ve had moments where friends would leave like a fun lunch. They’ve got kids their age. They go home 10 seconds later, he needs new stimuli and he needs a screen or he needs something because it’s just so rich and fat and sugar, those videos. I mean, it’s just perfectly designed for it. Look, people want views. I’m not faulting any of it. It’s just like, let’s kick that down the road for a bit. Right? So my fear is this. And the thing is we have it under control in the house. The fear is—it’s not a fear, but—when they leave the house, they’re not under your overbearing big brother router that is only letting them— everything routes back to National Geographic. They have more freedom essentially. Once they’re on a cell network, I think you can button this all down. Anyway. I think Apple has really good parental controls, even if they are out in the world. You can button down a phone so that it just takes phone calls. Like you could practically do that, I think. I’ll tell you something else that was really fascinating. My daughter’s seven. So she’s not that close to getting a phone yet. She came to me with an Amazon product page. I kid you not. And it was an iPhone.
RZ And it was $30.
RZ And it lit up and it was a pretend iPhone.
PF Oh, okay. Alright.
RZ It was a phone that actually needed batteries that you charged with a wire, but all it did was it had a backlight essentially. And it was a pretend phone.
PF I would like that. I think that would be good for me.
RZ I think adults might want that. She was pretty emotional about it. And I’m like, why? Do any of your friends have phones? So like one kid in her class has one, there’s like an outlier, but nobody has phones. I’m like, why do you want this? What are you gonna do with it? And she said, five of my friends have them. And I’m like, but what do you do with them? And they’re like, nothing. This gets to something else, which is the physical thing is—it’s right up there with a handbag and sneakers and watch as a thing, as a status symbol.
PF So first of all, Android, then. They’re getting Android. [Rich laughs.] No, I’m not going to have my kids be like, uh, Dad, I have to have blue chat bubbles.
RZ Oh my goodness. That is funny.
PF Absolutey. And not Pixels either, like Samsung three generations back.
RZ Yeah. No, I agree with you. I mean, I’m looking right now at the product page. There’s a ton of them, dude, of these like fake phones that—I think it’s so awful, but maybe I need to calm down. Maybe I’m overthinking.
PF Well, okay. So here’s the part that I do like. I like that they could communicate with me when they were out and about. I can give them more freedom if I can communicate with them.
RZ And know where they are.
PF Yeah. And freedom can also include like, Hey, I’ll be home a half hour late. Go on in and make yourself a snack.
RZ Yeah. Yeah.
PF And just sort of like, or—I can’t pick you up at the school, can you go over to Kelly’s place? Those kind of things are huge because I spent the last 10 years, especially with the pandemic, right, you’re just utterly oriented around the schedule and needs of your children. Picking them up from daycare, picking ’em up from—
RZ A little more flexibility there for you as well.
PF So the phone turns the kid into a peer. It is stating to the world, this person is able to navigate the world in a more effective way than you usually associate with children. And that’s, I think that’s a big part of why they want it. It’s freedom in the way that like a bicycle used to feel to me. So to them, I thought that when I got a bike, when I was 10, we found one.
RZ [Laughs.] Yeah.
PF Complicated family story. But regardless, I ended up with a bike and suddenly I could go anywhere. And this being the eighties, no one was even particularly worried about where I went. Right?
RZ Well also the mechanisms to track you weren’t in place.
PF No, I just stopped by the, you know, the middle aged man murder hut, which is where I like to hang out, like most kids. Or go walk alone on the railroad tracks. I mean those were nice ways to pass the time. Regardless of all of that, right? Like the device, the bike was really symbolically meaningful to me. And I’m going to say something really nerdy, but it’s in the same meaning, which is that the library had this function for me. And it wasn’t that I would actually go and sit and read at the library. It was like a destination that was always open. I figured that out as a kid, I could always go to the library. My kids love the library for this reason. They can go in and kind of be on their own terms. And you want that independence. You don’t want to be too far away. You want to know what the spaces are. And I think that the phone is a space that gives them control over their environment. It’s social. Now on the flip side, you get bullying and you get texting and you get sort of all this drama that comes with it.
RZ I think there’s a few things. I think the sociological threats are real. Right? Whether you’re trying to look absolutely perfect on your Instagram account or the bullying that can occur.
PF I mean, this is the thing. You almost want to turn off content creation for the first couple years of phone ownership.
RZ We love to give people advice. Right? So, I mean, don’t let them create content for the first two or three years they own a phone. But let me be the devil’s advocate here. Their friends are doing it right? And their friends are keeping track of the favoriting and the stars and the hearts and all that shit. So—
PF You want to know my son’s April Fool’s joke when he was eight?
RZ Yes. I do want to know.
PF He had his sister go to my wife and say that my son had gotten her phone and gotten an Instagram account and posted his butt.
RZ That’s a good April Fools joke, dude.
PF And my wife was like, oh God, NO—
RZ Okay. So content creation, which you’ve got here, is essentially the digital equivalent of frankly, trying to look cool.
PF Well let’s articulate. Why is it wrong for a very young child to do content creation on the internet? In your opinion.
RZ I’m not a psychologist. I’m not a behavioral therapist. I’m not any of those things. I think a child from around the age of, I’m going to say seven, starts to drift away from their parents’ orbit where they’re loved and there’s stability, ideally, right? What they start to do is start to navigate these other humans and their lives become pretty overwhelmed with the desire to fall into a group or find acceptance, right? And that ideally settles down by the time they get to college. For some people, it doesn’t, and I’ve met grown men—
PF I mean, I’d still love to find a group of friends who is excited when they see me.
RZ Exactly. And so when you look at the tools that they’re given, the apps that they’re given on their phone, what is advertised as a great way to connect, a great way to create community, a great way to make friends, actually gets perceived by that child as an absolutely wickedly powerful mechanism to belong and to be accepted and to be liked, right? Which is formative at this point in their lives. And not only that, what does a kid do? A kid reads a room. Like you have to read rooms when you’re a kid. Like, do they want me at the lunch table? Can I just go sit there? Do I wait for them to come ask me to come sit there? And instead what they have on this tool is good quality data, 74 thumbs ups and 15 likes and reshares and you didn’t like—why didn’t Denise like my picture yesterday? She liked all my other ones. So you have now very explicit ways that I think really start to mess with like a very raw part of the sort of the emotional maturation of a kid. I think.
PF I have a relatively popular Twitter account. You might have seen it—
RZ Oh here we go. Speaking of seeking love and seeking acceptance. Go ahead, Paul, tell me how many Twitter followers do you have?
PF I actually don’t know, but our CEO, Gina Trapani has a lot more than I do. And I remember once—
RZ She does. And there’s a reason for that Paul. People like her more.
PF That is absolutely real. So okay. Every now and then my children will do or say something particularly amusing. And when they were little, I would just sort of tweet it out. I’ve actually been very, I’m careful with them on social media. I don’t put their photos up. I don’t know. It’s hard to find their faces if they’re out there at all. I don’t use their names. You know, it’s not like a true lockdown thing. I’m just like, I don’t want to create a record for them as my kids in any way. But when they say something funny, I like to put it up. I get their permission. That’s actually always, that’s been a rule for me from the early days of blogging. When I remember writing about people without their permission. And they would get really upset with me. And I was like, you know what? Even as a journalist now, I still ask for people before I put them in any kind of public context, even almost anonymously.
RZ Which you don’t have to, by the way, from a legal perspective. Especially public figures.
PF No, but my kids aren’t public figures. And just in general, I want to—
RZ That’s your approach. Yeah. Okay.
PF That’s the most ethical thing to do. And so I ask them and then they are fascinated by the feedback on the tweets.
RZ It’s wild isn’t it? Well, we all are Paul. I mean, let’s face it. We all are.
PF Like here. I asked my daughter how she’d treat me if I was her daughter—this is from August 2021—and she was the dad. And she thought for a moment and she said, You get no cookie. Now go read your boring Hitler books.
RZ [Laughs.] That’s a tremendous statement.
PF It’s good material. Right? She wrote a—you know, my son has some good lines. My daughter wrote a little thing called The World May Explode One Day about the fact that there’ll be a heat death of the universe. And so they watch the likes come in and the retweets and they get really connected. That level of attention, I can tell you from personal experience, is really hard to process. I think that processing attention is the number one skill that will differentiate them from us. And I think that what we’ve seen over and over again, a human being, given a certain amount of attention and the attention can be a lot of success. Something wonderful can happen. Your brain—and I know this from personal experience, I’m a bright person who can process a lot of data—but when thousands of people are suddenly telling you something, in any way, it addles you, you cannot make sense of it. It’s too many humans.
RZ Even for adults.
PF Oh, absolutely. It still—I’m very paranoid about it. And so like, you get senses of aggrandizement, you feel like a failure. And the number one thing that happens, and this is what the networks are set up to do, is because you’ve received intense stimulus, your entire body starts to crave it and you start to think, and frame your life in: I need to do that again. That’s what people like. And it’s not—the networks sort of make this their business. It’s this very human thing. And we tend to sort of see it as a negative where it’s just like, you know what? You just want attention. You’re just kind of—you don’t feel well about yourself. And so you just want that validation. And we’re very mean about that in general. But the reality is that humans like to please and amuse and inform and entertain other humans. That’s how—we feel good about ourselves when we do it and you get this huge wave of, Hey, you did it, you did the thing. And it’s very instinctive. And you go like, oh wow, I’m really helping people out. I’m doing the right thing. Oh, good for me. I am doing the right thing. And I better get in there and do more because they like it. And every time I do it, they tell me I’m doing good. And the cycle is set up and your brains turn into like a tapioca pudding that leaks out your ears because you’re so incentivized—not to learn, not to think, but to please. And I worry tremendously, probably more for my daughter than my son, that I don’t want the phone to become the engine for them to please other people. I want it to be a way for them to access information and preserve their safety.
RZ It’s perfectly optimized for that. Right?
PF That’s what kills me.
RZ It is perfectly optimized for that because that’s—
PF At the same time you want to get a good line off in the group text and you want to make your buddies laugh. Like that’s okay. Right?
RZ A friend of mine, his wife bought him a phone. I can’t reach him. I have to call him when he’s at home. I think it’s his wife’s phone. She bought him an iPhone. And he’s like, this is going to ruin me. And he didn’t couldn’t really articulate why he thought it. It’s like an iPhone 5 too. Like it’s still in the shrink wrap. She’s like, I just need to know where you are. And he’s like, I’ll be fine. I’ll be home. I come home every day. And I think he was afraid of what it could do. I think it’s something he decided years ago.
PF He’s right.
RZ And it’s real and he’s right. He’s right.
PF It will change you.
RZ It will change you. And look, I think we talk about, oh my God. I mean, I was talking to my wife about a lawnmower in the kitchen. Next thing you know, I started seeing lawnmower ads when I visited vox.com—what’s going on? Right? And so that’s terrible, but what’s more terrible is what you just described. Especially at this age where they’re trying to kind of find their place in the world. And by world, I literally mean public school , and we’re venting about something. But I don’t know how to crack it because I think—
PF It’s uncrackable. This is the world we live in. It simply has to be negotiated.
RZ We really have no leverage here, dude, because by middle school, all the friends are inside.
PF No, no, no.
RZ And you’re not going to stand outside.
PF No, it’s not just that. We’re also complicit. I mean, look at me. So I think it’s gotta be like, Hey, I’m gonna tell you the rules that keep you safe. And that I use to keep my own brain safe.
RZ You know what is another thing you can do, we’ve been fortunate. We’ve become friends with some of the parents. I think if we collude with parents of friends of the kids.
PF Oh that’s happening.That’s happening.
RZ And talk about—that can help everyone reinforce sort of where we want it to go. I think that’s a powerful thing too.
PF Yeah, it is. And well, I think what you need is some accountability because when somebody calls somebody in effing, whatever, right? Like, and that kid’s really upset or they’re so vulnerable and they don’t want to be vulnerable, etc etc. I want to give you a couple more tweets that mentioned my daughter. We asked our kids to please chill. This was from the beginning of the pandemic, March 15, 2020, because we have to get along. And my eight year old daughter just asked for my phone so she could quote—and I remember this really well—call the funeral people, cause you’re never gonna survive this. So I proved her wrong. I’m still here. [Rich laughs.] I got one more tweet for you, ready?
PF A lot of people know that Steve Jobs named the Lisa computer after his daughter. But very few people know that he also had a son named Mac IIfx 4/160.
RZ This is why you don’t have six figures. Paul. This is why you’re capping out at five figures.
PF [Laughs.] It’s true. One day I’m gonna break that hundred, but it’ll be about, yeah—
RZ One more thing to complain about.
PF Alright, go ahead. Complain.
RZ I’ll say the complaint through a story. I’m very close to my cousin. I’m his daughter’s godfather. And I bought her, I forgot the name of it. It’s a cool little product. Essentially, they sort of prebuilt a raspberry pie, it comes with a keyboard and—
PF Oh, it’s like orange. I know what you’re talking about. Yeah. Yeah.
RZ It’s like orange and it’s really cool. It’s a little computer and it sets you up an email address and you’re in command line. And it was a way to kind of nudge a kid into wanting to explore computers. And she was, I think 10 or 11 at the time. And she used it for three minutes.
PF Oh, it’s so boring. She wants a phone.
RZ [Laughs.] And this is the thing, they are magical these things, but man, they’re so hermetically sealed that you can’t futs with them. And kids love to futs with things. My son actually enjoys the strangest toys because he has more power over them. He could play with him. Some of ’em are broken but he likes him anyway. And he’s done other weird things with them. You can’t mess around because they’re so perfectly tidy. And to me, Apple saying no screws—like we weren’t even gonna show you the screws. That to me is like—show the kid the screws.
PF No, no. An Apple product is born, not manufactured. Right? Like it springs out of a head.
RZ And look, I bow down to, you know, the design gods at Apple, but man, you want a kid to play, right? You want a kid to mess around—break it, break the thing. There’s a lot of kids out there that are latent hackers that can’t hack. And so what they end up doing is other shit that doesn’t give them the opportunity to do it. And that’s sad to me. That’s sad. I mean, Chromebook is a nice loophole there. I think Chromebook is interesting that way, but even Chromebook, they’ve done a great job of making it very glossy and shiny. You don’t have to go to the dark parts of the computer. Right? You can, but nobody does.
PF That is a fantasy that you and I have from a different era. There are very few people who actually care about what’s inside the computer or how the software works. And it’s funny, you know, I think I always find this funny with technologists, right? Because we’re always like technology should be simple. Everyone should be able to use it and so forth. But deep down, we believe everyone should care just as much as we do and they don’t,
RZ They don’t, you’re right. They don’t. Here’s what I want, dude. My kid may rummage through the thing and decide this isn’t for me. Like I want to watercolor. Fine. But he can’t even rummage. He can’t even mess around. I’m okay with 90% of kids deciding that’s not for me. But I want to give them the opportunity to do that exploration. Right? I mean, is woodshop still in school? Is that still a thing? Or are there like too many buzzsaws and they—
PF Yeah, a lot of missing fingers. Yeah. I’m sure. I’m sure they still would, probably not in New York City. It’s probably called something else here.
RZ Alright. Anyway, so that was the last thing I wanted to vent about. What I encourage people to do is I like the stuff like Scratch and things like that, but really it’s very empowering, man. I swear one out of 10 kids will get that dopamine hit in such an intense way of feeling so much power over the thing. That’s really cool.
PF Yeah. But if your kid wants a phone and you present them with a kit, it’s not going to work. When are you getting your children phones? Because you’re getting them.
RZ I think fifth grade, if I can let fifth grade pass, I will.
PF That’s the plan for us.
RZ But I might not be able to let fifth grade pass.
PF I mean, fifth grade’s interesting—.
RZ What I’m going to do, I’m just gonna get a pair of Oculuses and just let them wear those to school.
PF All the time. Well, they don’t have to go school anymore. You can just put ’em in the basement. I think it’s going to be—we’ll get ’em and I think it’ll be a rough acculturation and there’ll be an unbelievable amount of okay, give them back. You did it. You watched it. We told you not to. Dinner’s here, phones in the basket.
RZ I think putting in place, you know, quotas daily quotas, use it however way you want—
PF But you know what that means. It means that you and I are going to have to start putting our phones in the basket too. You can’t sort of have your phones sort of idly sitting there.
RZ I do. At dinner, we have kind of an unwritten rule, like sit down at dinner together. If you want to be on your phone, go somewhere else.
PF We do too. But you know, the phone’s still nearby and if it buzzes and there’s something going on, I’ll just check.
RZ Well, it’s probably me complaining to you.
PF It is usually. Or, you know, I’m controlling the Sonos. I’m playing the—cause everything in the house and in my life now run through my Pixel whatever. I’m like two generations behind. Alright. So this will be a long-term struggle. We’re just beginning this journey.
RZ We’re just beginning this journey. I think tech moved way faster than humans’ ability to adapt and adjust to it. Especially parents who are just trying to get their kids to put their socks on in the morning. This is complicated. Right? And it’s hard. And I hope that what we’ve verbalized here helps people think about things.
PF Though, I mean there’s lots of guidance. There’s lots. I’ve read lots of guidance. It’s just an internal kind of conversation. I will tell you one thing my son said years ago, if I asked my son like how he’s feeling, what’s his energy level. You know what he says? 88%.
RZ Yeah, exactly.
PF Yeah. The phone is like a metaphor for existence. It’s not just a device.
RZ That’s terrifying.
PF It’s like anything. Think about all the times you’ve used, you know, Microsoft Windows used to guide how you lived your life, Richard. I mean, at least, you know, things are better than that.
RZ Listen, Paul, if you want to make really addictive software for children, you know who you should call?
PF Don’t call Postlight—we don’t like to do that.
RZ Paul, tell me a little about Postlight and tell me the kind of work we do. Toss out some logos.
PF Oh my goodness. There’s so many now. I mean there’s the Audubun Society and you know, contrast that with Goldman Sachs and contrast that with Puck and new newsletter platform, NASDAQ, right? Like if there are things that people do and they need good websites that are instrumented and connected to all sorts of other platforms or they need mobile apps or they need big digital APIs and platform, I wouldn’t say we’re a one-stop shop, but you can really call us and get that stuff done.
[Outro music fades in, plays 10 seconds, ramps up.]
PF We will get your thing built and out into the world and we do it in a very, very provable way. So if you want to learn more, check out postlight.com. Hopefully you have already, but if you haven’t, now’s the time.
RZ Hello@postlight.com and check out our case studies on postlight.com. Paul, I just want to say it out loud. We are both good quality, responsible, thoughtful, caring, loving parents.
PF We work at it. I mean, it’s, you know, the thing about parenting is it’s hard and you pretty much fail all the time. Yeah.
RZ You just want to do a pretty good job.
PF You do. And every now and again that the child hugs you and says, I love you and you go, okay. Alright. I still have that going for me.
RZ We’re doing good. We’re good parents, Paul. Let’s just leave it at that.
PF Rich, you know how parenting is like technology?
PF You’re always learning. You’re never done.
RZ There’s always that backlog, right? [Laughs.]
PF [Laughs.] Yeah. It’s extremely buggy sometimes, you’ve just got to work on it and work on it. A lot of standups, a lot of scrum. Alright, well, firstname.lastname@example.org. And that’s how we say goodbye.
RZ Have a lovely week, everyone. Bye bye.