Lesson #5: Delay and restrict smartphone use

There are few struggles in parenting that have plagued me more than the topic of smartphone use. For those with kids younger than my own, I have some hard-earned parental wisdom: delay and restrict smartphone use for as long as possible. Because once that genie’s out of the bottle, it’s really hard to put her back.

Are smartphones destroying our kids?

My daughter had relatively unrestricted access to a smartphone and social media accounts long before Dr. Jean Twenge’s story Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation? appeared in the September 2017 issue of The Atlantic.

If you’re unfamiliar with Twenge’s research, here’s a quick summary: Twenge studies generational differences, and noticed that in 2012, there was an abrupt shift in adolescent behaviour and emotional states. That same year, the proportion of Americans who owned a smartphone surpassed 50 percent. By 2017, three of four American teens had smartphones. As smartphone use shot up, adolescent well-being plummeted.

Graph showing decline in teenagers' well-being after 2012
Research conducted by Jean M. Twenge and Gabrielle N. Martin, Department of Psychology,
San Diego State University; W. Keith Campbell, Department of Psychology,
University of Georgia shows declines in teenagers’ well-being, as reported by 8th, 10th and 12th-graders,

She argues that while teens are safer physically, the post-millennial generation is “on the brink of the worst mental health crisis in decades.”

There are many who disagree with Twenge’s siren call.  Dr. Sarah Rose Cavanagh, in her column for  Psychology Today, argued Twenge cherry picked her data, that her research showed mere associations vs correlations.

Similarly, Elizabeth Nolan Brown on BuzzFeed called bullshit on Twenge’s theory citing that suicide rates have fallen dramatically since the 1990s. So has the use of alcohol, smoking, car accidents and teenage pregnancies. She writes, “the kids, by almost all measures, are more than alright.”

In Nature, an international journal of science, author Candice Odgers reports that smartphones are bad only for some kids, not all. Online activity, the author argues, is only reflecting and potentially worsening existing vulnerabilities.

So, what’s a parent to do?

I’m not a scientist, but here’s what I know for sure: My daughter was a Snapchat fanatic by the age of 13 with thousands upon thousands of snaps under her belt. She seemed fine. Until she developed clinical depression.

The ying and yang of smartphones

My kids, because of Instagram, Facebook and YouTube, have a far more developed understanding of the world, social justice, economics and politics than I did at their age.

They’re incredibly resourceful, strong visual communicators and adept at learning new skills.

They have vast social networks that often spill over into real friendships in the real world. They’re also able to better maintain these friendships through constant contact, images, video and chats that allow them to share parts of their lives even when they’re physically apart.

But there’s a flipside. Both my kids are dependent on their phones. Both are triggered emotionally by incoming messages, good or bad. They get angry when WIFI isn’t working. And, while they’ll happily live device-free for weeks at a time at camp in the summer, they show all the signs of addiction the rest of the year.

I also know that one of the first things doctors did when my daughter was hospitalized for her depression was take away her smartphone. It was  deemed detrimental to her recovery, an unnecessary distraction.

She was livid. It was a surreal moment. We were seriously worried (like hospital serious) that she would harm herself. She was worried about breaking her Snapchat streaks.

As I watched her alternate between lashing out in anger and trying to convince me to snap on her behalf, I became aware that she lived her life in some other reality. It was as real as my own–she wasn’t delusional by any means–but it was vastly different.

It wasn’t a world I knew or even understood. There were different rules, different societal conventions. Different and powerful omnipresent pressures and influences.

I realized then that my stranger danger training was so woefully inadequate and misguided. It left me riddled with guilt. Why did I ever think it was ok to let my kids run free in the digital world?

Are smartphones our modern-day Frankenstein?

In 2011, before smartphones became an appendage, Joel Bakan, the author of The Corporation wrote a second book called Childhood Under Siege.

It was an extension of his theory that corporations, who’s sole reason for existence is to make money, were starting to prey on our kids, a new market of easily persuadable consumers.

Bakan wrote the book because as a parent, he felt he was losing control of the ability to make the right decisions for his kids. He was feeling powerless when faced with powerful multi-billion dollar companies that were focusing their R&D efforts on making their technology as addictive as possible.

I hear you, Joel.

My daughter was diagnosed with major depression and anxiety in the fall of 2015, almost three years before tech bosses admitted they didn’t let their own kids use the technology they created.

It was before Apple came under fire from its own investors, demanding that Apple study the addictive nature of their devices and do something about it.

It was before The Guardian reported that Facebook’s ex-president fessed up, admitting their core motivation in developing the platform: “How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?”

Maybe my daughter hitting middle school in 2015 was just a case of really bad timing. She was one of the unlucky ones, caught up in that deadly trifecta of puberty, parental ignorance, and the rise of Snapchat.

It sometimes seems that way.

Today, if you Google Smartphone Use Depression you’ll find over 10 million results. The top articles, below the scholarly reports, have headlines that range from “The Risk of Teen Depression and Suicide is Linked to Smartphone Use” to “Study finds smartphone usage causes depression in teens” and “With teen mental health deteriorating over five years, there’s a likely culprit.”

Now, there are warning messages on many of the accounts and hashtags my daughter once followed on Instagram while seeking out support and resources for her depression.

Internet addiction treatment programs are a thing. France has banned smartphones from elementary and middle schools. Digital empathy is being taught in some US and UK classrooms.

But we need to do more. As parents we need to advocate for more.

Strategies to delay and limit smartphone use

In June 2017, the Toronto District School Board blocked Snapchat, Instagram and Netflix for its staff and students.

The board was finding that the use of these sites by staff and students accounted for 20% of the network use. It was making tasks such as attendance, registration and report cards impossible to complete.

In August 2018, they announced the sites were unblocked again. They solved the problem of not being able to do basic administrative school work by upgrading their network! Have we have all lost our minds??

If I had my wish, we’d ban smartphones from elementary and middle schools. Kids would leave their phones at home in the morning and be forced to suffer through device-free lunches and recesses.

Public payphones would be installed and maintained in schools so kids could reach parents. Parents would call the office if they needed to  reach their kids.

There would be real after school programs for kids ages 12-14, located near schools, that started after school.

Maybe I’m looking in the wrong places, but it seems that once you hit 12 years of age, programs start at 5pm or 6pm. I don’t need to fill the dinner hour. It’s the time between school and dinner that my kids are left to–literally– their own devices.

I’d also make empathy training and digital health part of the school curriculum. We need to teach our kids about more than online predators or cyberbullying. We need to teach them about the potential health risks-both physical and mental.

Tips for parents with young kids

Until that happens, having made ALL the mistakes, here’s what I recommend to parents with young kids.

  1. Don’t give in to your child’s pleading. If your children are too young to self-regulate, they’re too young for smartphones. Approach smartphone use the same way you would if they had a peanut allergy. Teach them about the health issues from an early age and stand firm.  Get them a flip top phone if you need to reach them during the day.
  2. Related, get your kids involved in competitive sports or music or some other activity that uses their hands and bodies and minds. Kids can’t be on their phone at swim practice. Idle time leads to idle scrolling, which we now know is the worst type of online behaviour when it comes to mental health.
  3. Don’t allow your kids to sleep with their phones in their room from the start. In addition to messages popping up all night long when they hit their tween years, the blue light from phones disrupts our circadian rhythm, and the radiofrequency energy isn’t good for us either.
  4. Consider installing a parental control app if you think it’s necessary. I haven’t gone this route, yet. They feel overly controlling to me. But I haven’t ruled them out. The apps allow you to control both the apps your child can download and the amount of time they spend on them. For kids who struggle with self-regulating their smartphone use, these apps may help.
  5. Advocate for device-free elementary and middle schools. If nuts can be banned, so, too, can smartphones.

For my part, I am committing to leading by example, starting with my own Netflix addiction. I’m officially cutting the cord, people! It’ll be painful at first, no doubt, but I survived decades without it. I’m sure I can do it again.

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