The Burden of a Smartphone

It has happened to me several times now. I meet a child in fifth, sixth, or seventh grade who is exhausted, depressed, and ready for a rest.  After a few questions I discover they do not go to sleep until 2, 3, or even 4 o’clock in the morning! Why? Because they are “on their phone texting friends and playing games.” These experiences, combined with an exert (A Smartphone Will Change Your Child in Ways You Might Not Expect or Want) from Naomi Schaefer Riley’s new book Be the Parent: Stop Banning Seesaws and Start Banning Snapchat, increased my understanding of the smartphone as a burden for our children. Yes, giving a preteen or teen a smartphone places a burden on them. We, as parents, need to know that burden and establish parameters to teach them how to manage that burden. How is a smartphone a burden?

  • When children receive a smartphone they move into a culture of “24/7 popularity competition” in the words of Anderson Cooper in the documentary Being Thirteen. They begin to judge their popularity on likes and shares. They see posts in which their friends are having fun without them, maybe even during an activity to which they were not even invited. Selfies and group selfies taken during “fun activities” engaged in “without me” raise thoughts of “not being popular enough.” “Maybe they don’t even like me” and “why are they hanging out with them after what they did to me” are thoughts that cross many a preteen’s mind as they see pictures of their peers having fun without them. Loneliness increases. Feelings of isolation can even flood over many a teen in this situation.
  • At the same time, it becomes more difficult to avoid the drama of the preteen and teen life. “Who said what about whom,” “who does what,” and “who does what with whom” flood the digital airways, popping up on phones 24/7. It’s hard for your teen to go into their room and “get away from it all” because “it all” follows them wherever they take their phones.
  • This also means news is constantly at their fingertips. News of school shootings, Korean bomb threats, police brutality, catastrophic tsunamis in distant lands, and threats of political upheaval in countries they may have never heard of pop up on their phone at all hours of the day. And, little to no positive headlines pop up on the news.  Instead, a steady stream of random “breaking news” pops up with no coherent story behind them. This constant stream of disconnected catastrophes can overwhelm our children with information, increasing their level of anxiety.
  • This constant flow of information includes texts, snapchats, and instagram pics from friends as well. Our children feel obligated and pressured to respond to texts and other digital “pokes” that pop up on their phone. They fear their friends will accuse them of “ignoring” them if they do not answer immediately. And, they feel ignored if their friends do not respond to them immediately. Imagine the pressure of needed to respond to others every minute of every day no matter your current activity.

These are only four ways in which a smartphone becomes a burden that can increase our children’s sense of exhaustion, pressure, anxiety, and depression. It also raises concern for their safety from predators and bullies or the pressure to look “perfect” in the selfie. So, what’s a parent to do? Parents can help their children learn to manage this burden by establishing limits for cell phone usage. Here are a few ideas to help.

  1. Learn the phone settings. Determine which “pop ups” and notifications your child needs and which just cause more stress. Turn off unnecessary notifications.
  2. Do not let your child charge their phone in the bedroom. Instead, plug it in overnight to charge in the kitchen or in your bedroom. It is easier to not respond to a peer’s text because “my mom has the phone after 9” than ignoring it when it is charging next to “my bed.”
  3. During dinner and family meals enjoy one another’s company. No phones allowed. No texting. No checking email. No checking Facebook or Instagram. No reading “pop ups” and notifications. Put the phone someplace else and enjoy one another’s company.
  4. Enjoy one another during family outings too. No responding to texts. No checking Facebook, Instagram, or any other social media app. Leave the phones in a purse, backpack, or pocket and enjoy the company of the people you are with.
  5. Parents maintain access to the phones their children use. Our children may manage the phone very well but find themselves bullied through the phone or sent inappropriate pics through the phone. So, parents need to have full access. That means parents know the passwords for their children’s phones. And, parents check their children’s phones from time to time.  A good time to check the phone is when it is charging in the kitchen overnight. Any inappropriate materials will need to be discussed with the child who uses the phone.

What other limits might help ease the burden of a Smartphone?

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