Waking up most school mornings can be tough on everyone, especially my teenage stepson. He is exhausted between homework, sports, chores and well, life. The other morning I caught him on his phone; still in bed 25 minutes after I had woken him up. I was livid. We don't have time to fall into the deep hole of social media before school, even more so when we are not yet dressed and ready. As parents we discussed that the solution to this problem is to have him place his phone outside his bedroom during the night. Once he is ready for school, he is welcome to check his phone. At 15 there is nothing pressing, although to them it can feel as the world has been shut off. A couple days later in a conversation, because we encourage the ability to speak freely about our feelings and stay in good communication. My stepson made a valid point. He said 'How can you tell me to get off my phone all the time, when you guys are always on your phones!' The dreaded moment, when your kid out smarts you, backs you in to a corner and you stutter a response. To be really honest, what comes out are defensive remarks about being an adult: 'I am working. I am making plans for all of us. I am ordering food. I don't need to be criticized or made an example of!' To be fair he has a very good point. Which again, in the moment I do not want to hear. However, after some self reflection it dawned on me that even so we try to take the approach of leading by example; with phone time we are selfish, we bend the rules and create a hierarchy of being an adult. I know this to be true because the feeling of shame and guilt cropped up in my need to defend my usage. I certainly am on my phone more than I should be. I realized that part of it is actually the timing and not so much the context. I, just like my stepson, enjoy scrolling through social media and shopping online. I also enjoy listening to podcasts and having the ability to look up articles or recipes whilst waiting for basketball practice to be over. If we were more mindful of our timing, moving away from the excessive need to be connected at all times, I believe we would be in a better situation to lead by example.
My 5yr old daughter is not allowed to use the phone other than face timing with her grandma and sending the occasional emoji text to her dad when he is working late. I am aware of this decision and I try to be careful of phone time in front of her. This is challenging when I am working, because there is no sign that lights up on the back of the phone and loudly screams 'IN WORK MODE'. There is a sense of privacy and secrecy to phone usage. You don't know if the person is working or scrolling. Regardless the only characteristic on show is a closed off, distracted, non-present self. However, with a teenager, who in my mind is old enough to understand that I am an adult, I do not restrict myself. This makes no sense if I look at my approach honestly. Which lands me in this exact situation, how can I lead by example, rather than be the preacher. A good old dose of looking at one self in the mirror. So I came to the conclusion that we need to set boundaries for ourselves; if we want to be met with respect when setting boundaries for others. I do not have experience in this area, we were not raised with this concerning issue of screen time. It simply did not exist to this extent. So I needed to research about teenagers, to better understand the effects of devices and the need to stay connected. I have put a lot of focus and attention into the education of young children and devices but how did I not think this would help navigate the most critical years of growing into one self as a teenager. What I found was quite alarming.
I have made observations over the years about how these teenagers are growing up in such a different version of communication. I used to laugh about the middle school dance, where the boys were on one side and the girls on the other and they were texting each other from across the room. The sad fact is this is their reality! Teens and young adults are asking people on dates as well as dumping them via text. What kind of social communication skills are these, there is no feelings of responsibility and empathy due to the lack of face to face connection. These kids are learning short cuts to life. I mean can you imagine your first experience asking a girl/boy out on a date over text. You receive one word back, yes or no. Gosh this is depressing to me. There is an amazing amount of emotion that is met but its all directed toward a device. You don't get to see that person, how they look at you, read their facial expressions, make that moment be a memory. Instead the party is with your phone, you may as well make out with it. I had a teacher at my daughters old school who told me about an experience with her son who turned 21. He was having friends over for a birthday dinner and his mom commented on why there were no girls. They all turned around, with no hesitance and said phones. She was perplexed. They explained that the girls would be annoying, on their phones the whole time not being present. Giggling about stuff or texting each other from across the table. He wanted to enjoy himself with his friends who could be in the moment and didnt care about selfies. The need to escape reality is concerning. The present moment is not exciting enough, we need to be seeking out approval from likes or worse, the lack of self worth because other peoples lives look so much better on the other side of the screen.
The research is out there, there is enough to prove that screen time can be damaging on the development of children ranging from babies to adults. Did you know that most teenagers use 6 hours of screen time a day, sometimes 7.5 when multi-tasking (scrolling instagram whilst watching tv). On average 100 texts are sent per day. About 16 minutes of that screen time is actually homework. These facts are shocking. They are also probably the same statistics for adults, probably more if you include work use. There are the issues of attention disorders which seem obvious. Kids find it hard to pay attention in class or during homework for two reason: one is from the chemical Dopamine being released creating this obsessive need to check their phone constantly for updates. The other is signs of ADD & ADHD from the type of content they are looking at created specifically to keep these kids on edge and their brain moving quickly. Then there are much larger issues which come from the constant use of social media; depression, anxiety disorders, self loathing, bullying, addiction. It is a true fact that devices are addictive. When a person touches a screen wether it is sending a text, checking a like or playing a video game Dopamine is released from the brain. We all know how dopamine reacts with the use of addicts for alcohol, drugs, gambling... well it is the same reaction for devices. Kids are not used this amount and type of feeling, they will just react to wanting more of it all the time. The brains defense when presented with over production of dopamine is to produce less dopamine. Which in turn means kids don't get the same feelings as before and they have this obsessive need for more, so they have to up their usage. Teenagers are addicted to the pure connection, posting the perfect picture for validation, online popularity, addicted to each other, they are mirrored images of each other. This makes it challenging to be accepting of others or in many ways accepting who they really are. It is an imaginary audience in may ways. If your peers 'like' your photo some how you are then 'liked' in the world. The selfie reflects this ability to be confident yet behind the photo is so much juvenile conflict, between self consciousness and being self absorbed. It can lead to identity confusion and emotional consequences for this need for perfectionism and validation. I overhead a conversation recently about a girl on the track team who is the ultimate 'girl', it was quickly followed by that stats, 'she has like 4000 followers'. The meaning behind all of it is so superficial for this young generation to be obsessed with.
Empathy is a continuous development from birth to 21 years of age. It is learnt in the frontal lobe, where we learn unspoken language. It is here that we become familiar with facial expressions, tone of voice, body language and we pick up on social cues. This is where we learn to interact with world. Take a 1 yr old baby exploring a book. They touch it, bite it, lift the flaps, throw it, they are having a tactile response. A screen can not do this. It has been proven that screens are impending natural brain functions that are supposed to develop naturally. It is a disservice to replace these fundamental learning components for screen time. Like a movie to fall asleep to rather than listening to a parent read a story, hearing their interpretation of the story through tone and gestures. Later on in life this empathy is not being learnt as it should. Which can lead to withdrawing from friends and family and into issues such as depersonalization disorder, anxiety, depression or addiction. This withdraw is a significant sign of addiction to media. If kids start to loose interest in activities, lack of socialization with peers or family members, things which used to get them off the couch and excited. Accessive thinking about games or checking phones. Anger when it's taken away from them. Inability to deal with life when they don't get their way.
Screens can be used to avoid emotional issues as these teens are not developing ways to deal with their feelings. They are closing off, wanting more privacy and less communication. Which is dangerous for a parent to loose the sense of trust we all desperately try to achieve with our growing children. This is where we as parents we need to be aware of our own use of devices innfront of our children, no matter what the age. How many little moments have been missed because we have denied our children our full attention? Maybe you manage to have one eye on your child and one eye on your device, but seriously this is not being present with them. They can feel it, they sense it. There is something else which is gaining your attention over them. This reads deep for their growing minds, they need to connect with adults and have that attention. Without it they become detached and the trust building gets lost. They have found that this can not be taught later in life. For example, how annoyed as parents do we get when we ask our kids to do something and they respond with, 'one minute' which turns into 5, 10 or 15 minutes. Turn the table, a child or teenager is acting out or just acting in good fun and desires your attention. You respond with the same language, yet they don't have the emotional coping skills. They just feel let down, not important enough or hurt. This brings me back to setting boundaries for ourselves in order to lead this generation into healthy limits for media use. If we can guide them by example we may have a better shot at helping them navigate this tough time to be apart of a device connected society.
Teenagers over usage of screens and electronics has dubbed them as generation Screenagers. Video games, social media, movies, tv, websites are an enormous part of their lives and is often a constant stream of messages about families, relationships, gender roles, sex, peers, food, values, clothes and many more. Teenagers also love the fact that most parents are intimidated by many forms of social media and allows the rebelling teenager to have some privacy when interacting with peers. If parents restrict media use kids often find themselves hiding it and sneaking it. We want to keep the trust and not let them go down this road of using in isolation. Just like any teenage issue, we want to be parents who can relate and be there for them in darker moments. What I have found to be the most conducive evidence on this big parental struggle is communication. Staying open about it and providing screens with boundaries. We used to get the drugs, alcohol, driving and sex conversations growing up, media use now has to be a part of this communication.
I found online these useful 6 steps to help set those boundaries:
1. Age limit- middle schoolers do not need smart phones. 11-14 is a very critical time for adolescents with identity. They are too young for gaging there own boundaries. The most disfunction happens with this age. Adults can generate their own boundaries with screen time because we did not grow up with them and we received the normal development in the brain to create this. Although, I feel adults are addicted to devices too, self discipline to create these boundaries are tough. Some parents feel that it is very educational but technology nowadays has been created on a design of simplicity and ease. The idea is that anyone at any age can figure it out, hence how quickly toddlers pick up the tools to use an iPhone, it blows me away. They will not be missing out on educational tools by not using smart phones or tablets. It is also important that children keep up the work of independent play and the use of imagination. Children should be bored, it stimulates their minds into creative thinking. I do understand that this are group becomes more social and the need for phones for parents becomes more about safety and communication. We were faced with this during middle school due to a lack of organization within the school. It was necessary for us to be able to contact my stepson directly so we got him a flip phone. Trust me, it was not met with open arms however, he was reachable and he never pulled it out because he didnt want to be seen with it which meant he was not over using it. It serves a purpose and I highly suggest this.
2. Limit Time- Dopamine is released rather quickly so its unavoidable that you can limit use before these feelings come into play. However, have open dialogue about when is appropriate timing and for how long. Set it up ahead of time, rather than grabbing it from them whilst they are in the middle of something. Set a timer on the device, most of them come equipped with this. For teens you can limit their data on your plans. When they have reached their overage they will not be allowed to use the phones until it resets next month.
* These are not meant as punishments, they are guidelines for them to learn responsible using time. Teenagers will act out, it is within their nature to appeal. They will learn and appreciate the time they then get to use devices. They are not capable of managing usage on their own.
3. Less screens/More talk for everyone- No screens in the car, at dinner, for making plans etc Figure out what works for you as a family. The rule applies to everyone so teenagers can see we are applying efforts too. Explain to teenagers why you are implementing these guidelines. Try to create a more talk friendly relationship between all members of the family and friends too. Less texting, more calling. Texting is a great way to be disconnected, no tone, no emotion, no reality. Pick up the phone and make the effort to discuss plans. If we don't properly teach them to communicate and give them confidence to bring up topics in face to face conversation how will they function in the real world? How will they do in an interview? Hold a job? It is so vital to learn these life skills.
4. Bedtime- Lights on at bedtime have had links to depression. The blue light has shown effects of sleeplessness and irritability. It stimulates the brain and is difficult to calm the nervous system to settle into sleep. They have this wired and tired effect. So this is our new rule for phones, which I am implementing for everyone in the family. Phones shall be charged outside of the bedrooms at night. For teens there is no way of monitoring how late they are staying up on their devices. It is also not great for any of us to be staring at these little screens before we go to sleep. We all want a restful peaceful night.
5. Monitor Screen Use- Interactions between parents and teens on this issue is challenging. Teens need to feel respected, mature and independent. They need to learn from their mistakes. However, you give them a phone and you no longer have those boundaries to explore the world freely. Smart phones have changed the culture for parenting. Teens do not react well to irrational responses or actions, like grabbing a phone out of their hands. This is not the language skills to get them to listen. Taking it away completely will feel as if the world has shut them out. Get to know the media sources they are using, become a member yourself, follow your children. I don't agree personally with invading privacy to the extent of reading texts but many people feel this is necessary and If that works for you, I think that is great. We all try to make our own educated decisions when it comes to parenting. I think less judgement on others and lets help each other by sharing what solutions work for us. We are all wanting the best for our kids. Just don't be the parent that is commenting on their social media posts or commenting on their friends. This shuts down the trust, upsets and embarrasses teenagers. Be an honest user from the back seat. Don't stalk your kids, trust your kids, and until they are old enough you have them on this very very very long leash. It is a scary age we live in, especially for teenage girls. Also, allow your child to bring the problems to you which may occur online. Don't see it and then press them to talk. Show them you are following them yet being respectful of their indapendance to navigate it themselves until they hit a wall. I am talking generic use here, if for any reason there is any life threatening situations you need to know your own intuition to jump in.
6. Talk To Your Teens- Basically everything which has been mentioned above. Open communication in all areas is important to create trust. You loose this trust, parenting can get really tricky fast. Help them navigate this with you. It is new for all of us.
I am really glad that I dug deeper into the connection between teens and devices. It is empowering to know that as a parent I am also learning from my children's mistakes. I feel like I have learnt so much about my own personal usage and as a family we are going to be more aware. Like everything in life, we are not perfect and I need these gentle reminders. Life certainly gets busy. I am a blogger, I am online ALOT! However, I need to find the time to be online and the time be offline. I need to be present at all times with my kids and if something is pressing, excuse myself from the environment and use it in privacy but be honest about it. We are always trying to do better and I would love to know any guidelines your family has set when it comes to devices? What troubles have you faced with teens and social media? How did you resolve these? I have another 3.5 years till my boy is out of high school and I know this is just the beginning. Currently there is a documentary out called SCREENAGERS which you can learn so much more about this new fad.