I’ve been reading more and more articles recently about the impact of cell phones on the current generation of teenagers and preteens. In the September Atlantic Monthly, Dr. Jean Twenge, a professor at the University of California at San Diego, asked “Are cell phones destroying a generation?”
She explains how the explosion of cell phone use by today’s teenagers—whom she dubs the “iGeneration—has skyrocketed compared to the Millennials just a decade older. She says we now have a generation shaped by cell phones and social media. II think most parents vastly underestimate the influence of these screens on their teenagers and, increasingly, preteens. Cell phone usage, internet cruising and social media are literally shaping their lives.
Citing numerous studies, Twenge shows the clear correlation between rising cell phone usage among teens and the concomitant rise in feelings of loneliness, social isolation and FOMO—fear of missing out. Today’s teens spend more time on their phones than they do going out with friends. They are less independent than the Millennials were at the same age. Online bullying has increased, and nighttime use of cell phones is causing sleep deprivation. Even more frightening, the depression and suicide rates among teens have skyrocketed since 2011.
Twenge says “It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGeneration as being on the brink of the worst mental health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.” Is she being an alarmist? I don’t think so.
I recently talked to a very mature high school senior who told me she had realized that her cell phone was dominating her life and becoming an addiction. Wise beyond her years, she decided to set some boundaries for her phone usage. So she now turns the phone off by mid-evening and doesn’t turn it on again until breakfast. She feels more in control of her life and is getting more sleep without the late-night screen checking. While her example is admirable, I doubt that most teens have the perceptiveness and discipline to make rules for themselves.
So what’s a parent to do? Even senior internet company executives are concerned about their kids and cell phones, as evidenced by a recent Wall Street Journal article. The best time to imposed rules and limits is when your kids receive their first cell phone. After they have had free use of it for very long, it’s very difficult to put the genie back in the bottle.
I talked to one mother who, when her 10-year-old son was clamoring for a cell phone and she agreed that she’d like being able to get hold of him by phone, decided to buy him a flip-phone rather than a full-fledged smart phone. He can call and text his friends, but for now he’s protected from the dangers of social media and unlimited internet access. If you set limits at the outset, it’s much easier to maintain some control as the kids get older.
Another mother told me that when she gave her two middle-school daughters cell phones, she retained the chargers and they remain in her bedroom. Each evening the girls are required to turn their phones in for charging and they don’t get them back until breakfast. This way mom is helping to prevent addiction and assuring that her daughters’ sleep isn’t interrupted by phone checking or text messages.
Clearly, it’s important that both parents be on the same page when it comes to cell phones, when the kids get them and how they use them. If dad says “no cell phone yet” to a preteen but then mom buys him one for his birthday there’s a problem form the get go. The preteen in question is now spending a lot of time on his phone which was earlier spent playing with a sibling, drawing or reading, and engaging with his parents. Before getting a child a smart phone, parents need to sit down for a serious conversation about whether the child is old enough for a phone and, if so, how and when their child is going to use the phone.
Then a serious conversation needs to occur with the child about appropriate and inappropriate use of the phone. And that conversation needs to continue as the child matures. As NPR’s Anya Kamenetz says, “Enjoy screens. Not too much. Mostly together.” As she points out, once kids have full access to phones, strict rules are less important than talking to your kids about how they respond to social media. Listen to them. Discuss how the phone affects their lives and behavior.
Clearly, smart phones and internet access can have very positive uses. Explore the internet with your kids and help them use it to research topics that interest them. Encourage them to stay in touch with friends and relatives, particularly the distant ones. But be aware of the potential pitfalls and take measures to safeguard our kids and always remember the importance of face time with your child from infant through the teens. Never let a screen be the substitute for your attention and interaction.
Mary Waldmann's expertise as a speech writer and media expert spans over 30 years including among other roles Public Affairs Director for the US Department of Commerce during the Reagan Administration. She is the author of Six-Word Lessons on Winning with Today's Media , Six-Word Lessons for Intentional Parenting, and Six-Word Lessons for Compelling Speeches.