I teach high school, and there’s something I see happening today that worries me more than the global pandemic: cell phone addiction. In the hallways I see kids on their phones instead of laughing with friends between classes. As I walk through the courtyard during lunch, I see students sitting alone (often by choice), hunched over their phones.
When I take my class outside for a break, instead of tossing the football or chatting about weekend plans, their default mode is to retreat into their phones, akin to hanging a “Do not disturb” sign around their neck. I have to make an effort to get students talking to each other and to me. While it’s true that phones can be useful tools for learning, entertainment, and even social interaction, they have become barriers to face-to-face connection.
We need to add cell phones to our list of worries
For so many years the list of parents’ biggest concerns was mostly limited to premarital sex, drug use, and underage drinking. Can we please add phones to that list and address their use/misuse as we would any other potentially dangerous issue—by talking openly with our kids and modeling healthy decision-making?
Some people believe teenagers are entitled and self-absorbed and that is why they are always on their phones. I disagree. I’ve worked with this age group for 25 years and I believe the problem is more complex. Teenagers are going through a difficult stage in their development, being hit with pressures from home, work, school, and friends. We expect them to have their whole life plan figured out by the age of 18, which is crazy. No wonder they sometimes feel the need to check out using their phones.
But that doesn’t mean that the adults who care about them should just sit by and watch helplessly, which is why I talk to my students often about the importance of mindful phone use. If you want to do the same at home, here are some points to consider.
Consider this when you talk to your kids about mindful phone use
Between the ages of 12-18, adolescents are in Erikson’s psychosocial stage of identity vs. role confusion. During this stage, children begin looking to peers for approval rather than their parents. While there are benefits to social media use that support healthy growth in this stage, including self-expression and connection with others, there are also concerns because of the tremendous need adolescents have for validation from peers.
Engaging in social comparison is a normal part of adolescence, but when a kid compares his messy, imperfect life to someone else’s filtered highlights on social media, he will never measure up. Some researchers have suggested this can lead to depression in teens.
Even more troubling, normal teenage missteps and indiscretions can be widely publicized and even go viral at the touch of a button. We saw this illustrated in the story of Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers University freshman who died by suicide after becoming a victim of cyber-harassment.
Many of my students say they are allowed unfettered access to technology, which is in line with a recent Pew research study in which 95% of teens reported having access to a smartphone, with 45% saying they are online “almost constantly.” The study also reveals that while most teens use their phones to connect with others (84%) or learn new things (83%), which makes parents and teachers rejoice, nearly half of those surveyed (43%) say they often or sometimes use their phone to avoid interacting with other people.
And that is my primary concern.
Though excessive phone use is problematic, I don’t believe phones or social media are the enemy. People can develop unhealthy relationships with anything: food, shopping, even exercise. In his book The New Childhood: Raising Kids to Thrive in a Connected World, Temple University professor Jordan Shapiro suggests rather than viewing phones as the problem and keeping them out of kids’ hands, parents should “lean in” by introducing them to tech at a younger age and modeling appropriate use.
Parents should model a healthy relationship with technology
We teach kids everything else: sharing, table manners, how to tie their shoes. Rather than leave them to figure this out on their own, parents can show them how to have a healthy relationship with technology and set boundaries in the home. Some examples of these boundaries might include no phones at the dinner table, or no phones in the bedroom overnight (which can interfere with sleep.)
Parenting this way requires some tough self-examination, though. Just like with anything that is potentially addictive, we must first take an honest look at our own habits to determine what we are modeling for our kids.
I sometimes struggle with my own social media use and go through phases where I delete all the apps from my phone and only check in periodically. I share these struggles with my students and my children, and we talk openly about ways to moderate our phone use.
Do you think you’re ready to have these conversations with your teen but don’t know where to start? Try watching The Social Dilemma documentary together and using it as a springboard for discussing social media use (theirs and your own.)
Talk about the difference between real life and what is portrayed on social media, how to spot “fake news,” how to be an up-stander when cyber-bullying occurs, and the addictive nature of these platforms. If we can help our kids develop mindfulness surrounding social media use and work to self-regulate their consumption, we can feel more confident they will enter adulthood with the social-emotional skills they need to succeed.