But there is another reason for us to rethink our relationships with our devices. By chronically raising levels of cortisol, the body’s main stress hormone, our phones may be threatening our health and shortening our lives.
Until now, most discussions of phones’ biochemical effects have focused on dopamine, a brain chemical that helps us form habits — and addictions. Like slot machines, smartphones and apps are explicitly designed to trigger dopamine’s release, with the goal of making our devices difficult to put down.
This manipulation of our dopamine systems is why many experts believe that we are developing behavioral addictions to our phones. But our phones’ effects on cortisol are potentially even more alarming.
Cortisol is our primary fight-or-flight hormone. Its release triggers physiological changes, such as spikes in blood pressure, heart rate and blood sugar, that help us react to and survive acute physical threats.
These effects can be lifesaving if you are actually in physical danger — like, say, you’re being charged by a bull. But our bodies also release cortisol in response to emotional stressors where an increased heart rate isn’t going to do much good, such as checking your phone to find an angry email from your boss.
4 Hours a Day
If they happened only occasionally, phone-induced cortisol spikes might not matter. But the average American spends four hours a day staring at their smartphone and keeps it within arm’s reach nearly all the time, according to a tracking app called Moment. The result, as Google has noted in a report, is that “mobile devices loaded with social media, email and news apps” create “a constant sense of obligation, generating unintended personal stress.”
“Your cortisol levels are elevated when your phone is in sight or nearby, or when you hear it or even think you hear it,” says David Greenfield, professor of clinical psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine and founder of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction. “It’s a stress response, and it feels unpleasant, and the body’s natural response is to want to check the phone to make the stress go away.”
But while doing so might soothe you for a second, it probably will make things worse in the long run. Any time you check your phone, you’re likely to find something else stressful waiting for you, leading to another spike in cortisol and another craving to check your phone to make your anxiety go away. This cycle, when continuously reinforced, leads to chronically elevated cortisol levels.
And chronically elevated cortisol levels have been tied to an increased risk of serious health problems, including depression, obesity, metabolic syndrome, Type 2 diabetes, fertility issues, high blood pressure, heart attack, dementia and stroke.
“Every chronic disease we know of is exacerbated by stress,” says Dr. Robert Lustig, emeritus professor in pediatric endocrinology at the University of California, San Francisco, and author of “The Hacking of the American Mind.” “And our phones are absolutely contributing to this.”
In addition to its potential long-term health consequences, smartphone-induced stress affects us in more immediately life-threatening ways.
Elevated cortisol levels impair the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain critical for decision-making and rational thought. “The prefrontal cortex is the brain’s Jiminy Cricket,” says Dr. Lustig. “It keeps us from doing stupid things.”
Impairment of the prefrontal cortex decreases self-control. When coupled with a powerful desire to allay our anxiety, this can lead us to do things that may be stress-relieving in the moment but are potentially fatal, such as texting while driving.
The effects of stress can be amplified even further if we are constantly worrying that something bad is about to happen, whether it’s a physical attack or an infuriating comment on social media. (In the case of phones, this state of hypervigilance sometimes manifests as “phantom vibrations,” in which people feel their phone vibrating in their pocket when their phone isn’t even there.)
“Everything that we do, everything we experience, can influence our physiology and change circuits in our brain in ways that make us more or less reactive to stress,” says Bruce McEwen, head of the Harold and Margaret Milliken Hatch Laboratory of Neuroendocrinology at The Rockefeller University.
Dr. McEwen also notes that our baseline cortisol levels ebb and flow in a regular 24-hour cycle that is thrown out of whack if we get less than seven to eight hours of sleep a night, which is all too easy to do if you’re in the habit of checking your phone before bed. This in turn leaves our bodies less resilient to stress and increases our risk of all the stress-related health conditions mentioned above.
Put this all together, and the hours we spend compulsively checking our phones may add up to much more than a waste of time.
Breaking the Cycle
The good news is that if we break this anxiety-driven cycle, we can reduce our cortisol levels, which in turn may both improve our short-term judgment and lower our risks for long-term stress-related health problems. Over time, says Dr. McEwen, it’s even possible to retrain our brains so that our stress responses are no longer on such a hair-trigger to begin with.
To make your phone less stressful, start by turning off all notifications except for the ones you actually want to receive.
Next, pay attention to how individual apps make you feel when you use them. Which do you check out of anxiety? Which leave you feeling stressed? Hide these apps in a folder off your home screen. Or, better yet, delete them for a few days and see how it feels.
And while you’re at it, start paying attention to how individual apps affect you physically, too. “If we’re not aware of our physical sensations, we’re not going to change our behaviors,” says Dr. Judson Brewer, director of research and innovation at the Mindfulness Center at Brown University and author of “The Craving Mind.” According to Dr. Brewer, stress and anxiety often manifest as a feeling of contraction in the chest.
Regular breaks can also be an effective way to rebalance your body’s chemistry and regain your sense of control. A 24-hour “digital Sabbath” can be surprisingly soothing (once the initial twitchiness subsides), but even just leaving your phone behind when you get lunch is a step in the right direction.
Also, try to notice what anxiety-induced phone cravings feel like in your brain and body — without immediately giving in to them. “If you practice noticing what is happening inside yourself, you will realize that you can choose how to respond,” says Jack Kornfield, a Buddhist teacher at the Spirit Rock Meditation Center in California. “We don’t have to be at the mercy of algorithms that are promoting the fear of missing out.”
Unfortunately, it isn’t easy to create healthy boundaries with devices that are deliberately designed to discourage them. But by reducing our stress levels, doing so won’t just make us feel better day-to-day. It might actually lengthen our lives.
Social media platforms are central to every aspect of teens’ lives, from how they stay in touch with friends to how they engage with politics. And constantly refreshing their social feeds can feel simultaneously positive and negative: Teens say social media strengthens their relationships but also distracts them from in-person connection.
Social Media, Social Life: Teens Reveal Their Experiences sheds light on teens’ changing social media habits and why some kids are more deeply affected by — and connected to — their digital worlds. The report is a nationally representative survey of more than 1,000 kids age 13 to 17. And because it tracks changes from 2012 to today, we can see how teens’ social media use continues to evolve. Read the full report
What is “brain hacking”? Tech insiders on why you should care
Silicon Valley is engineering your phone, apps and social media to get you hooked, says a former Google product manager. Anderson Cooper reports
The following script is from “Brain Hacking,” which aired on April 9, 2017. Anderson Cooper is the correspondent. Guy Campanile, producer.
Have you ever wondered if all those people you see staring intently at their smartphones — nearly everywhere, and at all times — are addicted to them? According to a former Google product manager you are about to hear from, Silicon Valley is engineering your phone, apps and social media to get you hooked. He is one of the few tech insiders to publicly acknowledge that the companies responsible for programming your phones are working hard to get you and your family to feel the need to check in constantly. Some programmers call it “brain hacking” and the tech world would probably prefer you didn’t hear about it. But Tristan Harris openly questions the long-term consequences of it all and we think it’s worth putting down your phone to listen.
Tristan Harris: This thing is a slot machine.
Anderson Cooper: How is that a slot machine?
Tristan Harris: Well every time I check my phone, I’m playing the slot machine to see, “What did I get?” This is one way to hijack people’s minds and create a habit, to form a habit. What you do is you make it so when someone pulls a lever, sometimes they get a reward, an exciting reward. And it turns out that this design technique can be embedded inside of all these products.
The rewards Harris is talking about are a big part of what makes smartphones so appealing. The chance of getting likes on Facebook and Instagram. Cute emojis in text messages. And new followers on Twitter.
Tristan Harris: There’s a whole playbook of techniques that get used to get you using the product for as long as possible.
Anderson Cooper: What kind of techniques are used?
“…every time I check my phone, I’m playing the slot machine to see, ‘What did I get?’ This is one way to hijack people’s minds and create a habit, to form a habit.” Tristan Harris
Tristan Harris: Tristan Harris: So Snapchat’s the most popular messaging service for teenagers. And they invented this feature called “streaks,” which shows the number of days in a row that you’ve sent a message back and forth with someone. So now you could say, “Well, what’s the big deal here?” Well, the problem is that kids feel like, “Well, now I don’t want to lose my streak.” But it turns out that kids actually when they go on vacation are so stressed about their streak that they actually give their password to, like, five other kids to keep their streaks going on their behalf. And so you could ask when these features are being designed, are they designed to most help people live their life? Or are they being designed because they’re best at hooking people into using the product?
Anderson Cooper: Is Silicon Valley programming apps or are they programming people?
Tristan Harris: Inadvertently, whether they want to or not, they are shaping the thoughts and feelings and actions of people. They are programming people. There’s always this narrative that technology’s neutral. And it’s up to us to choose how we use it. This is just not true.
Anderson Cooper: Technology’s not neutral?
Tristan Harris: It’s not neutral. They want you to use it in particular ways and for long periods of time. Because that’s how they make their money.
It’s rare for a tech insider to be so blunt, but Tristan Harris believes someone needs to be. A few years ago he was living the Silicon Valley dream. He dropped out of a master’s program at Stanford University to start a software company. Four years later Google bought him out and hired him as a product manager. It was while working there he started to feel overwhelmed.
Tristan Harris: Honestly, I was just bombarded in email and calendar invitations and just the overload of what it’s like to work at a place like Google. And I was asking, “When is all of this adding up to, like, an actual benefit to my life?” And I ended up making this presentation. It was kind of a manifesto. And it basically said, you know, “Look, never before in history have a handful of people at a handful of technology companies shaped how a billion people think and feel every day with the choices they make about these screens.”
“Inadvertently, whether they want to or not, they are shaping the thoughts and feelings and actions of people. They are programming people.” Tristan Harris
His 144-page presentation argued that the constant distractions of apps and emails are “weakening our relationships to each other,” and “destroying our kids ability to focus.” It was widely read inside Google, and caught the eye of one of the founders Larry Page. But Harris told us it didn’t lead to any changes and after three years he quit.
Tristan Harris: And it’s not because anyone is evil or has bad intentions. It’s because the game is getting attention at all costs. And the problem is it becomes this race to the bottom of the brainstem, where if I go lower on the brainstem to get you, you know, using my product, I win. But it doesn’t end up in the world we want to live in. We don’t end up feeling good about how we’re using all this stuff.
Anderson Cooper: You call this a “race to the bottom of the brain stem.” It’s a race to the most primitive emotions we have? Fear, anxiety, loneliness, all these things?
Tristan Harris: Absolutely. And that’s again because in the race for attention I have to do whatever works.
Tristan Harris: It absolutely wants one thing, which is your attention.
Now he travels the country trying to convince programmers and anyone else who will listen that the business model of tech companies needs to change. He wants products designed to make the best use of our time not just grab our attention.
Anderson Cooper: Do you think parents understand the complexities of what their kids are dealing with, when they’re dealing with their phone, dealing with apps and social media?
Tristan Harris: No. And I think this is really important. Because there’s a narrative that, “Oh, I guess they’re just doing this like we used to gossip on the phone, but what this misses is that your telephone in the 1970s didn’t have a thousand engineers on the other side of the telephone who were redesigning it to work with other telephones and then updating the way your telephone worked every day to be more and more persuasive. That was not true in the 1970s.
Anderson Cooper: How many Silicon Valley insiders are there speaking out like you are?
Tristan Harris: Not that many.
We reached out to the biggest tech firms but none would speak on the record and some didn’t even return our phone call. Most tech companies say their priority is improving user experience, something they call “engagement.” But they remain secretive about what they do to keep people glued to their screens. So we went to Venice, California, where the body builders on the beach are being muscled out by small companies that specialize in what Ramsay Brown calls “brain hacking.”
Ramsay Brown: A computer programmer who now understands how the brain works knows how to write code that will get the brain to do certain things.
Ramsay Brown studied neuroscience before co-founding Dopamine Labs, a start-up crammed into a garage. The company is named after the dopamine molecule in our brains that aids in the creation of desire and pleasure. Brown and his colleagues write computer code for apps used by fitness companies and financial firms. The programs are designed to provoke a neurological response.
“A computer programmer who now understands how the brain works knows how to write code that will get the brain to do certain things.” Ramsay Brown
Anderson Cooper: You’re trying to figure out how to get people coming back to use the screen?
Ramsay Brown: When should I make you feel a little extra awesome to get you to come back into the app longer?
The computer code he creates finds the best moment to give you one of those rewards, which have no actual value, but Brown says trigger your brain to make you want more. For example, on Instagram, he told us sometimes those likes come in a sudden rush.
Ramsay Brown: They’re holding some of them back for you to let you know later in a big burst. Like, hey, here’s the 30 likes we didn’t mention from a little while ago. Why that moment–
Anderson Cooper: So all of a sudden you get a big burst of likes?
Ramsay Brown: Yeah, but why that moment? There’s some algorithm somewhere that predicted, hey, for this user right now who is experimental subject 79B3 in experiment 231, we think we can see an improvement in his behavior if you give it to him in this burst instead of that burst.
When Brown says “experiments,” he’s talking generally about the millions of computer calculations being used every moment by his company and others use to constantly tweak your online experience and make you come back for more.
Ramsay Brown: You’re part of a controlled set of experiments that are happening in real time across you and millions of other people.
Anderson Cooper: We’re guinea pigs?
Ramsay Brown: You’re guinea pigs. You are guinea pigs in the box pushing the button and sometimes getting the likes. And they’re doing this to keep you in there.
The longer we look at our screens, the more data companies collect about us, and the more ads we see. Ad spending on social media has doubled in just two years to more than $31 billion.
Ramsay Brown: You don’t pay for Facebook. Advertisers pay for Facebook. You get to use it for free because your eyeballs are what’s being sold there.
Anderson Cooper: That’s an interesting way to look at it, that you’re not the customer for Facebook.
“You don’t pay for Facebook. Advertisers pay for Facebook. You get to use it for free because your eyeballs are what’s being sold there.” Ramsay Brown
Ramsay Brown: You’re not the customer. You don’t sign a check to Facebook. But Coca-Cola does.
Brown says there’s a reason texts and Facebook use a continuous scroll, because it’s a proven way to keep you searching longer.
Ramsay Brown: You spend half your time on Facebook just scrolling to find one good piece worth looking at. It’s happening because they are engineered to become addictive.
Anderson Cooper: You’re almost saying it like there’s an addiction code.
Ramsay Brown: Yeah, that is the case. That since we’ve figured out, to some extent, how these pieces of the brain that handle addiction are working, people have figured out how to juice them further and how to bake that information into apps.
Larry Rosen: Dinner table could be a technology-free zone.
While Brown is tapping into the power of dopamine, psychologist Larry Rosen and his team at California State University Dominguez Hills are researching the effect technology has on our anxiety levels.
Larry Rosen: We’re looking at the impact of technology through the brain.
Rosen told us when you put your phone down – your brain signals your adrenal gland to produce a burst of a hormone called, cortisol, which has an evolutionary purpose. Cortisol triggers a fight-or-flight response to danger.
Anderson Cooper: How does cortisol relate to a mobile device, a phone?
Larry Rosen: What we find is the typical person checks their phone every 15 minutes or less and half of the time they check their phone there is no alert, no notification. It’s coming from inside their head telling them, “Gee, I haven’t check in Facebook in a while. I haven’t checked on this Twitter feed for a while. I wonder if somebody commented on my Instagram post.” That then generates cortisol and it starts to make you anxious. And eventually your goal is to get rid of that anxiety so you check in.
So the same hormone that made primitive man anxious and hyperaware of his surroundings to keep him from being eaten by lions is today compelling Rosen’s students and all of us to continually peek at our phones to relieve our anxiety.
Larry Rosen: When you put the phone down you don’t shut off your brain, you just put the phone down.
Anderson Cooper: Can I be honest with you right now? I haven’t paid attention to what you’re saying because I just realized my phone is right down by my right foot and I haven’t checked it in, like 10 minutes.
Larry Rosen: And it makes you anxious.
Anderson Cooper: I’m a little anxious.
Larry Rosen: Yes.
We found out just how anxious in this experiment conducted by Rosen’s research colleague Nancy Cheever.
Nancy Cheever: So the first thing I’m going to do is apply these electrodes to your fingers.
While I watched a video, a computer tracked minute changes in my heart rate and perspiration. What I didn’t know was that Cheever was sending text messages to my phone which was just out of reach. Every time my text notification went off, the blue line spiked – indicating anxiety caused in part by the release of cortisol.
Nancy Cheever: Oh, that one is…that’s a huge spike right there. And if you can imagine what that’s doing to your body. Every time you get a text message you probably can’t even feel it right? Because it’s such a um, it’s a small amount of arousal.
Anderson Cooper: That’s fascinating.
Their research suggests our phones are keeping us in a continual state of anxiety in which the only antidote – is the phone.
Anderson Cooper: Is it known what the impact of all this technology use is?
Larry Rosen: Absolutely not.
Anderson Cooper: It’s too soon.
Larry Rosen: We’re all part of this big experiment.
Anderson Cooper: What is this doing to a young mind or a teenager?
Larry Rosen: Well there’s some projects going on where they’re actually scanning teenager’s brains over a 20-year period and looking to see what kind of changes they’re finding.
Gabe Zichermann: Here’s the reality. Corporations and creators of content have, since the beginning of time, wanted to make their content as engaging as possible.
Gabe Zichermann has worked with dozens of companies – including Apple and CBS – to make their online products more irresistible. He’s best known in Silicon Valley for his expertise in something called “gamification,” using techniques from video games to insert fun and competition into almost everything on your smartphone.
Gabe Zichermann: So one of the interesting things about gamification and other engaging technologies, is at the same time as we can argue that the neuroscience is being used to create dependent behavior those same techniques are being used to get people to work out, you know, using their Fitbit. So all of these technologies, all the techniques for engagement can be used for good, or can be used for bad.
“Asking technology companies, asking content creators to be less good at what they do feels like a ridiculous ask.” Gabe Zichermann
Zichermann is now working on software called ‘Onward’ designed to break user’s bad habits. It will track a person’s activity and can recommend they do something else when they’re spending too much time online.
Gabe Zichermann: I think creators have to be liberated to make their content as good as possible.
Anderson Cooper: The idea that a tech company is not going to try to make their product as persuasive, as engaging as possible, you’re just saying that’s not gonna happen?
Gabe Zichermann: Asking technology companies, asking content creators to be less good at what they do feels like a ridiculous ask. It feels impossible. And also it’s very anti-capitalistic, this isn’t the system that we live in.
Ramsay Brown and his garage start-up Dopamine Labs made a habit-breaking app as well. It’s called “Space” and it creates a 12-second delay — what Brown calls a “moment of Zen” before any social media app launches. In January, he tried to convince Apple to sell it in their App Store.
Ramsay Brown: And they rejected it from the App Store because they told us any app that would encourage people to use other apps or their iPhone less was unacceptable for distribution in the App Store.
Anderson Cooper: They actually said that to you?
Ramsay Brown: They said that to us. They did not want us to give out this thing that was gonna make people less stuck on their phones.
More comfortable online than out partying, post-Millennials are safer, physically, than adolescents have ever been. But they’re on the brink of a mental-health crisis.
One day last summer, around noon, I called Athena, a 13-year-old who lives in Houston, Texas. She answered her phone—she’s had an iPhone since she was 11—sounding as if she’d just woken up. We chatted about her favorite songs and TV shows, and I asked her what she likes to do with her friends. “We go to the mall,” she said. “Do your parents drop you off?,” I asked, recalling my own middle-school days, in the 1980s, when I’d enjoy a few parent-free hours shopping with my friends. “No—I go with my family,” she replied. “We’ll go with my mom and brothers and walk a little behind them. I just have to tell my mom where we’re going. I have to check in every hour or every 30 minutes.”
Those mall trips are infrequent—about once a month. More often, Athena and her friends spend time together on their phones, unchaperoned. Unlike the teens of my generation, who might have spent an evening tying up the family landline with gossip, they talk on Snapchat, the smartphone app that allows users to send pictures and videos that quickly disappear. They make sure to keep up their Snapstreaks, which show how many days in a row they have Snapchatted with each other. Sometimes they save screenshots of particularly ridiculous pictures of friends. “It’s good blackmail,” Athena said. (Because she’s a minor, I’m not using her real name.) She told me she’d spent most of the summer hanging out alone in her room with her phone. That’s just the way her generation is, she said. “We didn’t have a choice to know any life without iPads or iPhones. I think we like our phones more than we like actual people.”
I’ve been researching generational differences for 25 years, starting when I was a 22-year-old doctoral student in psychology. Typically, the characteristics that come to define a generation appear gradually, and along a continuum. Beliefs and behaviors that were already rising simply continue to do so. Millennials, for instance, are a highly individualistic generation, but individualism had been increasing since the Baby Boomers turned on, tuned in, and dropped out. I had grown accustomed to line graphs of trends that looked like modest hills and valleys. Then I began studying Athena’s generation.
Around 2012, I noticed abrupt shifts in teen behaviors and emotional states. The gentle slopes of the line graphs became steep mountains and sheer cliffs, and many of the distinctive characteristics of the Millennial generation began to disappear. In all my analyses of generational data—some reaching back to the 1930s—I had never seen anything like it.
At first I presumed these might be blips, but the trends persisted, across several years and a series of national surveys. The changes weren’t just in degree, but in kind. The biggest difference between the Millennials and their predecessors was in how they viewed the world; teens today differ from the Millennials not just in their views but in how they spend their time. The experiences they have every day are radically different from those of the generation that came of age just a few years before them.
What happened in 2012 to cause such dramatic shifts in behavior? It was after the Great Recession, which officially lasted from 2007 to 2009 and had a starker effect on Millennials trying to find a place in a sputtering economy. But it was exactly the moment when the proportion of Americans who owned a smartphone surpassed 50 percent.
The more I pored over yearly surveys of teen attitudes and behaviors, and the more I talked with young people like Athena, the clearer it became that theirs is a generation shaped by the smartphone and by the concomitant rise of social media. I call them iGen. Born between 1995 and 2012, members of this generation are growing up with smartphones, have an Instagram account before they start high school, and do not remember a time before the internet. The Millennials grew up with the web as well, but it wasn’t ever-present in their lives, at hand at all times, day and night. iGen’s oldest members were early adolescents when the iPhone was introduced, in 2007, and high-school students when the iPad entered the scene, in 2010. A 2017 survey of more than 5,000 American teens found that three out of four owned an iPhone.
The advent of the smartphone and its cousin the tablet was followed quickly by hand-wringing about the deleterious effects of “screen time.” But the impact of these devices has not been fully appreciated, and goes far beyond the usual concerns about curtailed attention spans. The arrival of the smartphone has radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives, from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health. These changes have affected young people in every corner of the nation and in every type of household. The trends appear among teens poor and rich; of every ethnic background; in cities, suburbs, and small towns. Where there are cell towers, there are teens living their lives on their smartphone.
To those of us who fondly recall a more analog adolescence, this may seem foreign and troubling. The aim of generational study, however, is not to succumb to nostalgia for the way things used to be; it’s to understand how they are now. Some generational changes are positive, some are negative, and many are both. More comfortable in their bedrooms than in a car or at a party, today’s teens are physically safer than teens have ever been. They’re markedly less likely to get into a car accident and, having less of a taste for alcohol than their predecessors, are less susceptible to drinking’s attendant ills.
Psychologically, however, they are more vulnerable than Millennials were: Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011. It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.
Even when a seismic event—a war, a technological leap, a free concert in the mud—plays an outsize role in shaping a group of young people, no single factor ever defines a generation. Parenting styles continue to change, as do school curricula and culture, and these things matter. But the twin rise of the smartphone and social media has caused an earthquake of a magnitude we’ve not seen in a very long time, if ever. There is compelling evidence that the devices we’ve placed in young people’s hands are having profound effects on their lives—and making them seriously unhappy.
In the early 1970s, the photographer Bill Yates shot a series of portraits at the Sweetheart Roller Skating Rink in Tampa, Florida. In one, a shirtless teen stands with a large bottle of peppermint schnapps stuck in the waistband of his jeans. In another, a boy who looks no older than 12 poses with a cigarette in his mouth. The rink was a place where kids could get away from their parents and inhabit a world of their own, a world where they could drink, smoke, and make out in the backs of their cars. In stark black-and-white, the adolescent Boomers gaze at Yates’s camera with the self-confidence born of making your own choices—even if, perhaps especially if, your parents wouldn’t think they were the right ones.
Fifteen years later, during my own teenage years as a member of Generation X, smoking had lost some of its romance, but independence was definitely still in. My friends and I plotted to get our driver’s license as soon as we could, making DMV appointments for the day we turned 16 and using our newfound freedom to escape the confines of our suburban neighborhood. Asked by our parents, “When will you be home?,” we replied, “When do I have to be?”
But the allure of independence, so powerful to previous generations, holds less sway over today’s teens, who are less likely to leave the house without their parents. The shift is stunning: 12th-graders in 2015 were going out less often than eighth-graders did as recently as 2009.
Today’s teens are also less likely to date. The initial stage of courtship, which Gen Xers called “liking” (as in “Ooh, he likes you!”), kids now call “talking”—an ironic choice for a generation that prefers texting to actual conversation. After two teens have “talked” for a while, they might start dating. But only about 56 percent of high-school seniors in 2015 went out on dates; for Boomers and Gen Xers, the number was about 85 percent.
The decline in dating tracks with a decline in sexual activity. The drop is the sharpest for ninth-graders, among whom the number of sexually active teens has been cut by almost 40 percent since 1991. The average teen now has had sex for the first time by the spring of 11th grade, a full year later than the average Gen Xer. Fewer teens having sex has contributed to what many see as one of the most positive youth trends in recent years: The teen birth rate hit an all-time low in 2016, down 67 percent since its modern peak, in 1991.
Even driving, a symbol of adolescent freedom inscribed in American popular culture, from Rebel Without a Cause to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, has lost its appeal for today’s teens. Nearly all Boomer high-school students had their driver’s license by the spring of their senior year; more than one in four teens today still lack one at the end of high school. For some, Mom and Dad are such good chauffeurs that there’s no urgent need to drive. “My parents drove me everywhere and never complained, so I always had rides,” a 21-year-old student in San Diego told me. “I didn’t get my license until my mom told me I had to because she could not keep driving me to school.” She finally got her license six months after her 18th birthday. In conversation after conversation, teens described getting their license as something to be nagged into by their parents—a notion that would have been unthinkable to previous generations.
Independence isn’t free—you need some money in your pocket to pay for gas, or for that bottle of schnapps. In earlier eras, kids worked in great numbers, eager to finance their freedom or prodded by their parents to learn the value of a dollar. But iGen teens aren’t working (or managing their own money) as much. In the late 1970s, 77 percent of high-school seniors worked for pay during the school year; by the mid-2010s, only 55 percent did. The number of eighth-graders who work for pay has been cut in half. These declines accelerated during the Great Recession, but teen employment has not bounced back, even though job availability has.
Of course, putting off the responsibilities of adulthood is not an iGen innovation. Gen Xers, in the 1990s, were the first to postpone the traditional markers of adulthood. Young Gen Xers were just about as likely to drive, drink alcohol, and date as young Boomers had been, and more likely to have sex and get pregnant as teens. But as they left their teenage years behind, Gen Xers married and started careers later than their Boomer predecessors had.
Gen X managed to stretch adolescence beyond all previous limits: Its members started becoming adults earlier and finished becoming adults later. Beginning with Millennials and continuing with iGen, adolescence is contracting again—but only because its onset is being delayed. Across a range of behaviors—drinking, dating, spending time unsupervised— 18-year-olds now act more like 15-year-olds used to, and 15-year-olds more like 13-year-olds. Childhood now stretches well into high school.
Why are today’s teens waiting longer to take on both the responsibilities and the pleasures of adulthood? Shifts in the economy, and parenting, certainly play a role. In an information economy that rewards higher education more than early work history, parents may be inclined to encourage their kids to stay home and study rather than to get a part-time job. Teens, in turn, seem to be content with this homebody arrangement—not because they’re so studious, but because their social life is lived on their phone. They don’t need to leave home to spend time with their friends.
If today’s teens were a generation of grinds, we’d see that in the data. But eighth-, 10th-, and 12th-graders in the 2010s actually spend less time on homework than Gen X teens did in the early 1990s. (High-school seniors headed for four-year colleges spend about the same amount of time on homework as their predecessors did.) The time that seniors spend on activities such as student clubs and sports and exercise has changed little in recent years. Combined with the decline in working for pay, this means iGen teens have more leisure time than Gen X teens did, not less.
So what are they doing with all that time? They are on their phone, in their room, alone and often distressed.
One of the ironies of iGen life is that despite spending far more time under the same roof as their parents, today’s teens can hardly be said to be closer to their mothers and fathers than their predecessors were. “I’ve seen my friends with their families—they don’t talk to them,” Athena told me. “They just say ‘Okay, okay, whatever’ while they’re on their phones. They don’t pay attention to their family.” Like her peers, Athena is an expert at tuning out her parents so she can focus on her phone. She spent much of her summer keeping up with friends, but nearly all of it was over text or Snapchat. “I’ve been on my phone more than I’ve been with actual people,” she said. “My bed has, like, an imprint of my body.”
In this, too, she is typical. The number of teens who get together with their friends nearly every day dropped by more than 40 percent from 2000 to 2015; the decline has been especially steep recently. It’s not only a matter of fewer kids partying; fewer kids are spending time simply hanging out. That’s something most teens used to do: nerds and jocks, poor kids and rich kids, C students and A students. The roller rink, the basketball court, the town pool, the local necking spot—they’ve all been replaced by virtual spaces accessed through apps and the web.
You might expect that teens spend so much time in these new spaces because it makes them happy, but most data suggest that it does not. The Monitoring the Future survey, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and designed to be nationally representative, has asked 12th-graders more than 1,000 questions every year since 1975 and queried eighth- and 10th-graders since 1991. The survey asks teens how happy they are and also how much of their leisure time they spend on various activities, including nonscreen activities such as in-person social interaction and exercise, and, in recent years, screen activities such as using social media, texting, and browsing the web. The results could not be clearer: Teens who spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy, and those who spend more time than average on nonscreen activities are more likely to be happy.
There’s not a single exception. All screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all nonscreen activities are linked to more happiness. Eighth-graders who spend 10 or more hours a week on social media are 56 percent more likely to say they’re unhappy than those who devote less time to social media. Admittedly, 10 hours a week is a lot. But those who spend six to nine hours a week on social media are still 47 percent more likely to say they are unhappy than those who use social media even less. The opposite is true of in-person interactions. Those who spend an above-average amount of time with their friends in person are 20 percent less likely to say they’re unhappy than those who hang out for a below-average amount of time.
If you were going to give advice for a happy adolescence based on this survey, it would be straightforward: Put down the phone, turn off the laptop, and do something—anything—that does not involve a screen. Of course, these analyses don’t unequivocally prove that screen time causes unhappiness; it’s possible that unhappy teens spend more time online. But recent research suggests that screen time, in particular social-media use, does indeed cause unhappiness. One study asked college students with a Facebook page to complete short surveys on their phone over the course of two weeks. They’d get a text message with a link five times a day, and report on their mood and how much they’d used Facebook. The more they’d used Facebook, the unhappier they felt, but feeling unhappy did not subsequently lead to more Facebook use.
Social-networking sites like Facebook promise to connect us to friends. But the portrait of iGen teens emerging from the data is one of a lonely, dislocated generation. Teens who visit social-networking sites every day but see their friends in person less frequently are the most likely to agree with the statements “A lot of times I feel lonely,” “I often feel left out of things,” and “I often wish I had more good friends.” Teens’ feelings of loneliness spiked in 2013 and have remained high since.
This doesn’t always mean that, on an individual level, kids who spend more time online are lonelier than kids who spend less time online. Teens who spend more time on social media also spend more time with their friends in person, on average—highly social teens are more social in both venues, and less social teens are less so. But at the generational level, when teens spend more time on smartphones and less time on in-person social interactions, loneliness is more common.
So is depression. Once again, the effect of screen activities is unmistakable: The more time teens spend looking at screens, the more likely they are to report symptoms of depression. Eighth-graders who are heavy users of social media increase their risk of depression by 27 percent, while those who play sports, go to religious services, or even do homework more than the average teen cut their risk significantly.
Teens who spend three hours a day or more on electronic devices are 35 percent more likely to have a risk factor for suicide, such as making a suicide plan. (That’s much more than the risk related to, say, watching TV.) One piece of data that indirectly but stunningly captures kids’ growing isolation, for good and for bad: Since 2007, the homicide rate among teens has declined, but the suicide rate has increased. As teens have started spending less time together, they have become less likely to kill one another, and more likely to kill themselves. In 2011, for the first time in 24 years, the teen suicide rate was higher than the teen homicide rate.
Depression and suicide have many causes; too much technology is clearly not the only one. And the teen suicide rate was even higher in the 1990s, long before smartphones existed. Then again, about four times as many Americans now take antidepressants, which are often effective in treating severe depression, the type most strongly linked to suicide.
What’s the connection between smartphones and the apparent psychological distress this generation is experiencing? For all their power to link kids day and night, social media also exacerbate the age-old teen concern about being left out. Today’s teens may go to fewer parties and spend less time together in person, but when they do congregate, they document their hangouts relentlessly—on Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook. Those not invited to come along are keenly aware of it. Accordingly, the number of teens who feel left out has reached all-time highs across age groups. Like the increase in loneliness, the upswing in feeling left out has been swift and significant.
This trend has been especially steep among girls. Forty-eight percent more girls said they often felt left out in 2015 than in 2010, compared with 27 percent more boys. Girls use social media more often, giving them additional opportunities to feel excluded and lonely when they see their friends or classmates getting together without them. Social media levy a psychic tax on the teen doing the posting as well, as she anxiously awaits the affirmation of comments and likes. When Athena posts pictures to Instagram, she told me, “I’m nervous about what people think and are going to say. It sometimes bugs me when I don’t get a certain amount of likes on a picture.”
Girls have also borne the brunt of the rise in depressive symptoms among today’s teens. Boys’ depressive symptoms increased by 21 percent from 2012 to 2015, while girls’ increased by 50 percent—more than twice as much. The rise in suicide, too, is more pronounced among girls. Although the rate increased for both sexes, three times as many 12-to-14-year-old girls killed themselves in 2015 as in 2007, compared with twice as many boys. The suicide rate is still higher for boys, in part because they use more-lethal methods, but girls are beginning to close the gap.
These more dire consequences for teenage girls could also be rooted in the fact that they’re more likely to experience cyberbullying. Boys tend to bully one another physically, while girls are more likely to do so by undermining a victim’s social status or relationships. Social media give middle- and high-school girls a platform on which to carry out the style of aggression they favor, ostracizing and excluding other girls around the clock.
Social-media companies are of course aware of these problems, and to one degree or another have endeavored to prevent cyberbullying. But their various motivations are, to say the least, complex. A recently leaked Facebook document indicated that the company had been touting to advertisers its ability to determine teens’ emotional state based on their on-site behavior, and even to pinpoint “moments when young people need a confidence boost.” Facebook acknowledged that the document was real, but denied that it offers “tools to target people based on their emotional state.”
In july 2014, a 13-year-old girl in North Texas woke to the smell of something burning. Her phone had overheated and melted into the sheets. National news outlets picked up the story, stoking readers’ fears that their cellphone might spontaneously combust. To me, however, the flaming cellphone wasn’t the only surprising aspect of the story. Why, I wondered, would anyone sleep with her phone beside her in bed? It’s not as though you can surf the web while you’re sleeping. And who could slumber deeply inches from a buzzing phone?
Curious, I asked my undergraduate students at San Diego State University what they do with their phone while they sleep. Their answers were a profile in obsession. Nearly all slept with their phone, putting it under their pillow, on the mattress, or at the very least within arm’s reach of the bed. They checked social media right before they went to sleep, and reached for their phone as soon as they woke up in the morning (they had to—all of them used it as their alarm clock). Their phone was the last thing they saw before they went to sleep and the first thing they saw when they woke up. If they woke in the middle of the night, they often ended up looking at their phone. Some used the language of addiction. “I know I shouldn’t, but I just can’t help it,” one said about looking at her phone while in bed. Others saw their phone as an extension of their body—or even like a lover: “Having my phone closer to me while I’m sleeping is a comfort.”
It may be a comfort, but the smartphone is cutting into teens’ sleep: Many now sleep less than seven hours most nights. Sleep experts say that teens should get about nine hours of sleep a night; a teen who is getting less than seven hours a night is significantly sleep deprived. Fifty-seven percent more teens were sleep deprived in 2015 than in 1991. In just the four years from 2012 to 2015, 22 percent more teens failed to get seven hours of sleep.
The increase is suspiciously timed, once again starting around when most teens got a smartphone. Two national surveys show that teens who spend three or more hours a day on electronic devices are 28 percent more likely to get less than seven hours of sleep than those who spend fewer than three hours, and teens who visit social-media sites every day are 19 percent more likely to be sleep deprived. A meta-analysis of studies on electronic-device use among children found similar results: Children who use a media device right before bed are more likely to sleep less than they should, more likely to sleep poorly, and more than twice as likely to be sleepy during the day.
Electronic devices and social media seem to have an especially strong ability to disrupt sleep. Teens who read books and magazines more often than the average are actually slightly less likely to be sleep deprived—either reading lulls them to sleep, or they can put the book down at bedtime. Watching TV for several hours a day is only weakly linked to sleeping less. But the allure of the smartphone is often too much to resist.
Sleep deprivation is linked to myriad issues, including compromised thinking and reasoning, susceptibility to illness, weight gain, and high blood pressure. It also affects mood: People who don’t sleep enough are prone to depression and anxiety. Again, it’s difficult to trace the precise paths of causation. Smartphones could be causing lack of sleep, which leads to depression, or the phones could be causing depression, which leads to lack of sleep. Or some other factor could be causing both depression and sleep deprivation to rise. But the smartphone, its blue light glowing in the dark, is likely playing a nefarious role.
The correlations between depression and smartphone use are strong enough to suggest that more parents should be telling their kids to put down their phone. As the technology writer Nick Bilton has reported, it’s a policy some Silicon Valley executives follow. Even Steve Jobs limited his kids’ use of the devices he brought into the world.
What’s at stake isn’t just how kids experience adolescence. The constant presence of smartphones is likely to affect them well into adulthood. Among people who suffer an episode of depression, at least half become depressed again later in life. Adolescence is a key time for developing social skills; as teens spend less time with their friends face-to-face, they have fewer opportunities to practice them. In the next decade, we may see more adults who know just the right emoji for a situation, but not the right facial expression.
I realize that restricting technology might be an unrealistic demand to impose on a generation of kids so accustomed to being wired at all times. My three daughters were born in 2006, 2009, and 2012. They’re not yet old enough to display the traits of iGen teens, but I have already witnessed firsthand just how ingrained new media are in their young lives. I’ve observed my toddler, barely old enough to walk, confidently swiping her way through an iPad. I’ve experienced my 6-year-old asking for her own cellphone. I’ve overheard my 9-year-old discussing the latest app to sweep the fourth grade. Prying the phone out of our kids’ hands will be difficult, even more so than the quixotic efforts of my parents’ generation to get their kids to turn off MTV and get some fresh air. But more seems to be at stake in urging teens to use their phone responsibly, and there are benefits to be gained even if all we instill in our children is the importance of moderation. Significant effects on both mental health and sleep time appear after two or more hours a day on electronic devices. The average teen spends about two and a half hours a day on electronic devices. Some mild boundary-setting could keep kids from falling into harmful habits.
In my conversations with teens, I saw hopeful signs that kids themselves are beginning to link some of their troubles to their ever-present phone. Athena told me that when she does spend time with her friends in person, they are often looking at their device instead of at her. “I’m trying to talk to them about something, and they don’t actually look at my face,” she said. “They’re looking at their phone, or they’re looking at their Apple Watch.” “What does that feel like, when you’re trying to talk to somebody face-to-face and they’re not looking at you?,” I asked. “It kind of hurts,” she said. “It hurts. I know my parents’ generation didn’t do that. I could be talking about something super important to me, and they wouldn’t even be listening.”
Once, she told me, she was hanging out with a friend who was texting her boyfriend. “I was trying to talk to her about my family, and what was going on, and she was like, ‘Uh-huh, yeah, whatever.’ So I took her phone out of her hands and I threw it at my wall.”
I couldn’t help laughing. “You play volleyball,” I said. “Do you have a pretty good arm?” “Yep,” she replied.
The many men, women and children who spend their days glued to their smartphones and social media accounts might learn something from Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of the groundbreaking megahit “Hamilton.” Asked in an interview with Delta Sky magazine when and where he finds time to be creative, Mr. Miranda, an avid reader of books and enthusiast for unfettered downtime, replied: “The good idea comes in the moment of rest. It comes in the shower. It comes when you’re doodling or playing trains with your son. ‘Hamilton’ forced me to double down on being awake to the inspirations of just living my life.”
Mr. Miranda’s observation bodes ill for the future, not just of creativity but also of healthy bodies, minds and relationships. No doubt you’ve seen the following scenarios, probably many times:
• Young couples out to dinner pull out their smartphones to check messages, emails and social networks even before scanning the menu, and check their phones repeatedly throughout the meal.
• Shoppers and commuters standing in line, people crossing busy streets, even cyclists and drivers whose eyes are on their phones instead of their surroundings.
• Toddlers in strollers playing with a digital device — a parent’s or perhaps even their own — instead of observing and learning from the world around them.
Observations like these have prompted a New York psychotherapist to ask, “What really matters?” in life. In her enlightening new book, “The Power of Off,” Nancy Colier observes that “we are spending far too much of our time doing things that don’t really matter to us.” Both in and outside her practice, she has encountered many people who have become “disconnected from what really matters, from what makes us feel nourished and grounded as human beings.”
The near-universal access to digital technology, starting at ever younger ages, is transforming modern society in ways that can have negative effects on physical and mental health, neurological development and personal relationships, not to mention safety on our roads and sidewalks.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m no Luddite. I love technology. I love the convenience and assistance afforded by the myriad apps on my cellphone, a pocket-size information bank. I remember being amazed, as a Times reporter back in the early 1980s, when I started using word processing and realized how much faster I could write an article. Now computers save tons of time and effort and avert countless embarrassing errors because I can look up facts, figures, spelling, definitions and scholarly publications without leaving my ergonomic chair.
But I also love putting my computer in sleep mode and going for a walk with my dog, meeting and chatting with friends, acquaintances and strangers, some of whom have become friends.
As with so much else in life, moderation in our digital world should be the hallmark of a healthy relationship with technology. Too many of us have become slaves to the devices that were supposed to free us, giving us more time to experience life and the people we love. Instead, we’re constantly bombarded by bells, buzzes and chimes that alert us to messages we feel compelled to view and respond to immediately.
“Most people now check their smartphones 150 times per day, or every six minutes,” Ms. Colier wrote. “And young adults are now sending an average of 110 texts per day.” Furthermore, she added, “46 percent of smartphone users now say that their devices are something they ‘couldn’t live without.’”
In “The World Unplugged Project,” investigators at the University of Maryland reported that “a clear majority” of students in the 10 countries studied experienced distress when they tried to go without their devices for 24 hours. One in three people admitted they’d rather give up sex than their smartphones.
I fear we are turning into digital robots. Will future generations know how to converse with one another face to face? Will they notice the birds, trees, sunrise and the people with whom they share the planet?
Instead of visiting art galleries, attending concerts or walking on picturesque wooded paths, one woman I know who came to Woodstock, N.Y., last summer spent the weekend on her iPad communing with her many “friends” on Facebook. All I could think was “What a waste!”
Why, you may ask, is it so important to limit our digital lives? “Without open spaces and downtime, the nervous system never shuts down — it’s in constant fight-or-flight mode,” Ms. Colier said in an interview. “We’re wired and tired all the time. Even computers reboot, but we’re not doing it.”
She continued, “It’s connections to other human beings — real-life connections, not digital ones — that nourish us and make us feel like we count. Our presence, our full attention is the most important thing we can give each other. Digital communications don’t result in deeper connections, in feeling loved and supported.”
How often is your real work interrupted by signals from your smartphone that you find impossible to ignore? Have you ever avoided intimacy with your partner because you’re in the midst of iPhone Scrabble? Is endlessly snapping selfies and posting your every action and thought on social media creating an unhealthy self-centeredness?
As for physical well-being, every hour spent on a device is likely to be an indoor, sedentary one. Screens are stealing time that children and adolescents should be spending on physical activity and sports, reading, or creating and engaging directly with other children, all of which are critical to healthy physical and social development.
“Children who overuse online media are at risk of problematic internet use, and heavy users of video games are at risk of internet gaming disorder” (translation: addiction), the American Academy of Pediatrics wrote in its latest policy statement on media use.
Ms. Colier, a licensed clinical social worker, said, “The only difference between digital addiction and other addictions is that this is a socially condoned behavior.” While her book contains a 30-day digital detox program, in our interview she offered three steps to help curb one’s digital dependence.
1. Start by recognizing how much digital use is really needed, say, for work or navigation or letting family members know you’re O.K., and what is merely a habit of responding, posting and self-distraction.
2. Make little changes. Refrain from using your device while eating or spending time with friends, and add one thing a day that’s done without the phone.
3. Become very conscious of what is important to you, what really nourishes you, and devote more time and attention to it.
In the Broadway classic “The Music Man,” set in 1912, the con artist Harold Hill shows up in River City, Iowa, and attempts to persuade the otherwise contented townspeople that their youth are slipping into degradation. He singles out a billiard parlor, “the devil’s playground,” as the root.
“You got trouble,” he sings. “With a capital ‘T’ and that rhymes with ‘P’ and that stands for pool!”
These days, you don’t need goosed-up threats of nicotine stains and rebuckled knickerbockers to rouse the anxieties of parents. All you need is to broach the one subject that everyone views as Trouble.
By now, all parents know that technology poses at least some threat to children. Just last month, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a study that said while digital and social media can help early learning, they also come with a host of risks, including negative effects on sleep, attention and learning, along with higher incidence of obesity and depression. The group recommends that parents develop a Family Media Use Plan.
Fair enough, but what should be in such a plan? As the parent of adolescents, I want more than bromides. I want to know what other parents are actually doing that works.
For the last six weeks, I’ve circulated (on social media!) 20 questions covering topics like homework, passwords, bedtime and punishments. I received responses from more than 60 families, and though the survey was unscientific, the answers have already changed how we manage tech at my house.
FIRST PHONES The vast majority of parents who responded gave their children their first phones in sixth or seventh grade, with a few holding out until high school. But those devices aren’t always cutting edge. Parents opted for “dumb phones,” “flip phones” or “hand-me-down phones” from siblings or grown-ups. They also turn off features, including Wi-Fi, Siri, even internet access.
Other popular restrictions include: “Writing an expected behavior contract.” “No use of the internet on school days (except schoolwork).” “Screen time limited to 30 to 60 minutes per day during the week, unlimited on Saturday mornings.”
Another is a partial ban on group texting. “I was able to help my son feel better about not having this by allowing him to view group texts on the family iPad,” one parent said. “It helped him see how little value the group chatter has.”
Phones during friend visits are another issue: “Nothing more disappointing than seeing my children’s friends bring their devices to my home and have them focus on the devices to the exclusion of hanging out with my children.”
My own favorite way to limit tech use: “Poor reception — the phones don’t always work.”
Asked to give other parents advice on when to give their children a phone, the consensus answer was: Wait as long as possible. Once you provide it, it’s very difficult to take back.
HOMEWORK Should children be allowed to communicate with friends while doing homework? Two-thirds of the parents say yes; one-third say no.
Among the comments by the Yeses were, “Only if they are in common areas of the house” or “Only with the door open (so we can monitor).” Another added, “Depends if they are working on a project together, which is difficult to enforce.”
The Nos said that homework is done independently, and that if kids need help, they should find a parent, or the parents contact a teacher.
Wider use of computers for homework also drew mixed reactions. Some parents are quite strict, limiting all technology “outside of a computer for spelling or Google docs.” “Only homework-related sites and no social media.” “Only certain educational sites are allowed. Wikipedia is completely discouraged. I strongly believe that actual books should be read for research purposes as opposed to ‘Googling’ everything.”
Others are more lax: “You have to let them use the tools they will need in their lifetime. Otherwise, let’s give them coal and a slate slab, like Lincoln.”
BEDTIME Researchers at King’s College London have found “strong and consistent association” between using devices at bedtime and inadequate sleep, poor sleep and increased sleepiness during daytime. Parents have gotten the message.
An overwhelming majority ban phones from bedrooms at bedtime. “Tech needs a bedtime, too, in our house, 30 mins before lights out.” “No technology one hour before bedtime.” “At 9 p.m. she brings her phone downstairs, where it stays until 7 a.m.” “Devices are supposed to be parked outside the kids’ bedrooms before they turn in for the night.”
Some parents make exceptions on weekends or as kids get older. A few have no restrictions at all, though one otherwise tech-friendly mom said: “No earbuds! Our carbon monoxide detector went off one night and he did not wake up because he was sleeping with earbuds in.”
At least one dad goes to the opposite extreme, turning off the Wi-Fi in the house at an appointed time each night. “Same rules, better enforcement,” he said.
Also popular is to require phones to be charged outside the bedroom. “Everyone in our house puts phones on a charging station in our kitchen before going to bed.” “Devices are charged in the kitchen. (I cook a lot and I can keep an eye on them, especially when the children are punished and still try to sneak off with them.)” “At bedtime, devices go in the bathroom for charging.”
One mother has no specific place, only not in the child’s room: “My husband and I simply ask where the phones are charging during our ‘audits of responsibility.’ If the children try to work around the rule, they know the device will be placed in ‘jail.’”
SOCIAL MEDIA Many parents restrict first-time phone users to a single social media platform. “Only Snapchat; no Instagram, Twitter, Facebook.” “Only Instagram, and I check it occasionally.” “One platform at a time.”
Regardless of the sites, most parents insist on knowing passwords and logins. “My rules, until he was 18, were that I get all the passwords to all accounts. I did spot check from time to time.” “I have ALL usernames and passwords, and if they change, she has to update my list. If I try to log on and cannot, I get the phone until it pleases me to give it back.”
Do parents actually monitor their children’s online behavior? Some do. “I read texts frequently.” “We are ‘friends’ or ‘following’ all of his social media accounts, so we see every post.” “I have asked to read texts when daughter was hiding device as I came into the room.” “I do random audits. We talk about digital citizenship and positive words.”
But others prefer to give their children freedom. “When they each began texting, I read random texts. And I asked about the ones I read. (‘I see you and friend are chatting about the Jets,’ or ‘I see you and friend are chatting about another child in class.’) That way they know I can read any text at any time, even though I don’t.” “They’re almost all very boring.”
PUNISHMENTS What happens if children violate the family rules? Is it actually possible to separate a digital native from a device for an extended period of time? Behold, skeptical ones: Many parents say yes.
“Yes when younger.” “Yes, she responds to it.” “YES!! It’s the ultimate motivator!” “Yes. Weeping and gnashing of teeth, and then they find other things to do.” “I have. He gets very angry initially but eventually he calms down. Last spring I implemented a 3 week digital cleanse. He was angry each day for 3 days but also became more pleasant.”
Another common way to get children to adhere to restrictions is to have them pay for overages. “We pay the fee but have her pay overages.” “We also cut data off.” “She now babysits family friends to earn more and has to learn basic budgeting.”
FAMILY TIME Perhaps the biggest complaint about technology is that it eats into family time. So what techniques have parents used to take back that time?
First, tech-free dining. “No devices for all meals.” “No phones at the table, and that’s not just at our house. Siblings, nieces, nephews and my mom’s home have the same rule. No one gripes about it, they just do it.” “No devices at meals. No earbuds in the car.”
Second, consider positive alternatives. “Doing things that make phones a burden. Playing a fast-moving game, hiking, attending concerts or performances.” “We watch movies together, have a fire in the yard or swim when it’s warm and have game night, only board games allowed. They used to complain, but have found favorite games and look forward to it now.”
“Do something constructive together. Make sure everyone (even mommy and daddy) get their hands dirty. We often will cook together and make some of the worst meals ever, but it’s O.K. because we did it together.”
Finally, when all else fails, many rely on the old parental standbys: threats, bribes and public humiliation. Threats: “Randomly I scream, ‘Take that phone out of your hand!’ It limits their use for the next five minutes.”
Bribes: “Parent-child date night. (Parents alternate taking one child out for a treat; fourth week is parents night out.)”
Public humiliation: “If a device is picked up during family time, we get to open texts, and my husband and I do dramatic text reading.”
Now that’s a technique even the parents of River City might embrace. These days, trouble may start with the phone, but the solution still begins at home.