Teens and Smartphones: Should They Be Separated?

Teens and smartphones seem to be attached by some invisible cord. We’ve all seen teens all hunched over, not really there with us, totally absorbed by whatever is going on in their virtual worlds. The nagging voice in our (parental) heads may say, “This is what addiction looks like.”

We’re not wrong.

A recent study by Common Sense Media found that 50 percent of teenagers feel they are addicted to their smartphones. The same study found that 77 percent of parents feel their teens are distracted by their smartphones and don’t pay attention when they are together. When we speak about addiction and not paying attention to the person next to you, in favor of text on a screen, it does suggest there’s something wrong.

So should teens and smartphones be separated for their own good?

More Harm Than Good

Not so fast. Because after all, that invisible cord is strong. The phone is your child’s entire world right now. Taking it away may end up doing more harm than good.

Parents have long understood that withholding or confiscating something important can spur children to an important goal. A parent may link a clean bedroom to a much-desired trip to the mall. A parent may precondition television time to completed homework assignments. It is only natural for a parent to see the smartphone as yet another item to be used for this type of carrot and stick gambit. A parent, in an effort to limit a teen’s smartphone use, might be tempted to say, “You want time on your smartphone, you have to earn it.”

Teens and Smartphones: Networked Publics

But if the phone is really an addiction, and even teenagers say it is just that, you’re looking at more than a carrot. That’s because of something called networked publics. Once upon a time, you see, teens spent time in malls or movie theaters. Today, they don’t.

Instead, social networks like Facebook have taken the place of these once teen-friendly venues. And smartphones are the teenager’s port of access to this world. Cut the cord between teens and smartphones and you’ve taken away their peers, their ability to relate to others, their entire social life.

A parent might argue that tapping on keyboard is not the same thing as relating to friends in real life. You’d think that in taking away the smartphone, you’d be pushing your teen into the real world of real human contact. But in actuality, the smartphone is the hub for teenage communication. It’s the way teens are relating to each other today. It’s how they hang out. The reason for this, say the experts, is that teens have limited access to actual physical sites where they might meet for unstructured social time.

Think about it: teens can’t hang out in bars because of their age. They aren’t going to dine out in restaurants because they lack money. And if teens hang out on the street, someone will be sure to accuse them of loitering. Facebook, Snapchat, and the like, on the other hand, are free spaces where teens can spend time together irrespective of age, for free, and for an unlimited period of time.

Social networks as networked publics also offer teens spaces where they can connect with their friends without adult oversight. This frees teens to try out various ways of expressing themselves as they develop their identities. Teens might, for instance, use bold language in a text that would shock a parent. They’re looking to see what works, what feels right, as they make their way into adulthood.

And again, the phone is the portal to this virtual space.

So what happens if you take away the phone?

Pretty much, you’re taking away the primary vehicle for a teen’s social and emotional development.

The smartphone holds the teen’s entire social network. Take away the phone and you’re taking away everything. Everything that counts in a teen’s life. Instead of your teen relating to peers in the flesh, in real life, take away the smartphone and you will watch your teen withdraw from you, hide from you. Your teen needs that social contact on the smartphone and will be forced to lie and sneak around to get that social fix.

None of this changes the fact that a smartphone is a poor substitute for real face-to-face contact. Teens, in socializing through their smartphones, are missing out on learning how to read body language and social cues. They aren’t learning how to be good listeners. They aren’t learning how to make conversation.

The best solution to this problem is to limit, rather than take away a teen’s smartphone. Teens and smartphones can, for instance, be safely separated for the 45 minutes to an hour that constitutes dinner time at the table with family. But parents have to put their smartphones away, too. Set up a charging station somewhere and have the entire family set their phones to charging while they eat and talk and get to know each other in person over a meal.

Separate teens and smartphones at night, too. The bright light from the screen keeps kids from developing melatonin, the hormone that regulates the sleep/wake cycle. And teens are going to answer texts even if it’s 3 AM. It’s just the way they are. If you want them to sleep, the phone must go until the morning. You can hold it for them for safekeeping. If they are worried about their friends judging them for not answering middle of the night texts, just have them explain the no-phones-at-night rule and blame it on you.

Don’t Confiscate, Impose Limits

Imposing limits on smartphone use makes more sense than confiscation. Your aim, after all, is to help your child regulate his smartphone use, and the way your teenager relates to others and to technology. That makes it quite legitimate and appropriate for you to let your teen know when it’s time to put the phone away for a bit. You can say, “You’ve been on the phone for hours now. It’s time for a technology break. Do something else for a bit, okay?”

Teens, you see, are digital natives. It’s up to us, the adults in their lives, to remind them that there’s another world out there. That other world is an unplugged world that never requires a USB port or a charger.

It’s where stuff gets REAL.

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About Varda Epstein

Varda Meyers Epstein serves as editor in chief of Kars4Kids Parenting. A native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Varda is the mother of 12 children and is also a grandmother of 12. Her work has been published in The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, The Learning Site, The eLearning Site, and Internet4Classrooms.