Last week I was walking behind a family as we all headed into a restaurant. The older sister, about 13, was heads down, deeply engrossed in her phone while walking. The younger sister called out to her, trying to catch up and get her attention. She was ignored. When she ran up and tried to hold her sister’s hand, the older sister rejected her with that familiar teen brush-off. The older girl turned away from her sister and focused on her phone even more intently, never uttering a word.
The younger sister then blurted out, “Ever since you got that phone you act like you are not in our family anymore!” It was a heartbreaking moment as that child so clearly articulated her feelings–and the truth. Teens love their phones–sometimes to the exclusion of everything else.
CNN aired a great documentary last week when Anderson Cooper hosted “#being13: Inside the Secret World of Teens.” The special featured the results of a two-year study tracking and interviewing 200 8th graders and reviewing 150,000 of their social media posts, in an effort to discover how social media is affecting the lives of our children on a daily basis. As a parent of four who is pretty well-versed on this issue, I found the study to be accurate and informative.
Teens love their phones. Literally. They are in love with them like they love a person because their brains can’t tell the difference. We all get a healthy dose of dopamine (and other brain chemicals) with face to face interactions or a hug from Mom. Teens get the same dopamine buzz when they receive an instant “like” on their post or even hear the familiar ding of its arrival. Because of this wonderful feeling, they crave more. This is why many teens check their phones more than 100 times a day, according to the study. They feel the need to “see” what everyone is doing and saying about them. Parents know that this attachment can not only be time consuming but exhausting and stressful.
Our teens’ brains are not equipped to handle this level of dopamine and stress; they need to use their cognitive resources for learning and developing emotional health instead. It is depressing to constantly be judged, to constantly be reminded of where you are in the social hierarchy. I can’t imagine that amount of stress as an adult. I’m so thankful that no one is judging my life 24/7 to see if I am keeping a clean house, wearing the right thing and having a perfect hair day. (I think I may have dirty dishes in the sink right now!) It is exhausting and unhealthy to be on display 24/7.
Even if you think your child can handle the stress of being judged all day or has the resources to handle the social information overload, you have to admit that the internet world is full of profanity, sexting, porn, drugs, and bullying. We know this mixture of poisons is not a good choice for our kids. So what is a parent to do? One seasoned mom I know of four teens is a big fan of text-only phones. She says:
“Parents need to understand that if they buy their tween/teen a smart phone–basically a high-powered pocket computer–that they need to monitor it full time. Most parents understandably don’t want that job, but they’ve got it, like it or not! Maybe a better question to ask is, ‘Why do tweens need a smartphone?’ They don’t! Text phones work great for communicating. A smart phone will add hours of wasted time, social pressure and stress to your child’s life every day.”
Some parents think that their children need to be exposed to the dark side of social media to prepare them for the real world one day. My experience as a nurse and as a mom for the past 24 years tells me that our children need us to set expectations and clear boundaries for them. Your teen will not benefit from early exposure to inappropriate content, current brain science backs that theory. In addition, smart phone use is isolating for teens. It’s our job to help them maintain strong attachments to their families before they attach to anything else including–and especially–a screen device. Remember my story of the little girl with the teenage sister outside the restaurant? Even sibling bickering is better than being ignored!
Here are two of my favorite quotes from “Parents: Here’s how to stop the worst of social media,” a story related to CNN Special Report: #Being13: Inside the Secret World of Teens on CNN.com:
“Help them steer away from it because it’s really hard for them to do it on their own,” said Marion Underwood, a child clinical psychologist with the University of Texas at Dallas and one of the two experts who collaborated with CNN on the study. She’s also dean of graduate studies and a professor in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences.
Jay, a 13-year-old who participated in the study, said social media is addicting — but her grades went up once she put her phone down more often: ‘A lot of kids are going to be like, ‘She’s talking gibberish. I can totally multitask,’ and that’s what I thought until I put my phone away and I’m the happiest person I could be right now.”
While this issue seems overwhelming to most parents, it is actually not as hard to manage as you think. Begin by taking a hard look at the purpose of a smart phone in your teen’s life and make sure you have a good understanding of the apps and sites he/she visits. Check your child’s phone regularly. It is our job to stay five steps ahead of our tweens and teens and manage their new phone love affair.
Come to our monthly meetings and talk with other moms about what is working for them. Plan to attend our FM2 Bootcamp , coming in January. In the meantime, check out these links to stories related to the CNN special: