Smartphones Are Making Our Teens Unhappy

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I walked into a football game with my kids a few weeks ago. They desperately wanted to go, and I figured it would be good family bonding. They are 11, 12, and 13 years old and were excited to meet up with their friends.

But despite the lively, fun surroundings, my two older kids had their faces buried in their cellphones almost the entire time — just like everyone else they were with. They weren’t talking or interacting with the people they were so excited to see.

I know it is a thing we talk about all the time — how it’s a shame that we can’t seem to find a healthier balance with our kids and their technology, that they are missing out on human interaction and real experiences, blah blah blah. It’s true, but most people are sick of discussing it or feel helpless to fix it.

But I’m to the point where I’m about to fucking tear my hair out, people.

This is different than letting your toddler or elementary-school-aged child watch YouTube videos. I’m not talking about handing a device over to your child so you can enjoy your time at a restaurant or get through the grocery store without tantrums.

I am talking about our older kids having free range with their phones.

I feel like every time I take my kids somewhere — the movies, on a hike, dropping them off at a dance, going out to eat visiting family — the damn cellphone is the number one accessory for literally every child.

If I make my kids leave leave theirs at home, which I sometimes do, they are often the only kids without one, and they “feel like a stupid loser.”

On school nights, I make them put it away around 8:30 p.m. — something I feel is very reasonable, so they can wind down, brush their teeth, get ready for bed, and do some reading. They often tell me they “are the only ones who have to put their phones away that early” or piss and moan about how their friends can “play with their phones” until they fall asleep.

Maybe it’s true, and maybe it’s not. I just know that come 8:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, they are saying, “I have to go now” because this mom is done. Time to talk to your siblings or read a real book, kids.

This isn’t sanctimony. I am by no means a perfect parent, and I’m honest about my shortcomings. But recently, I’ve taken drastic measures with my kids’ phone time.

I’ve started to see something that scares the shit out of me, and it goes beyond the zombie-like staring at a screen for a few hours a day. It’s mood swings, depression, anxiety, even crying if I make them get off their phone. This might be withdrawal, or it just might be a tactic to get their device back (it doesn’t work), but it doesn’t matter. This behavior bothers me, and it’s not healthy.

I’m not talking about a young child who has to stop playing and go take a nap. I’m talking about my 11-, 12- and 13-year-olds. The thing is, most kids end up on their phone because it’s easily accessible, right there on their person at all times. My oldest has said he can’t help it — he just instinctively reaches for it and starts scrolling. And I know he’s not alone. It seems most teens are not capable of limiting their smartphone time on their own. Hell, most adults I know struggle with it.

Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University and author of iGen, has been studying generational differences for over 25 years and said in an interview with The Atlantic, that in 2012, she noticed dramatic changes in teen behavior. “In all my analyses of generational data — some reaching back to the 1930s — I had never seen anything like it,” she said.

Twenge goes on to say that 2012 was the year over half the population owned a smartphone. After digging further, doing more surveys, and talking with more teens, Twenge says, “the clearer it became that [theirs] is a generation shaped by the smartphone and by the concomitant rise of social media.”

Ever more alarming, Twenge reports, “Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011. It’s not an exaggeration to describe i-Gen as being on the brink of the worst mental health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.”

Is it a coincidence? I don’t believe it is, and neither do researchers. Our kids are the first generation to be exposed to this much technology at such a young age — many of them will never know life before social media. And we are the first generation of parents navigating our way through this.

And it’s hard.

When my kids first got their phones, I knew boundaries would be an issue, but I never thought it would suck their personality away and cause them to feel depressed or anxious, but here we are.

So I really don’t care if my kids feel like “losers” or think they are missing out if they don’t have their damn phones on them all night and day. There is no need to risk their mental and emotional well-being so they can feel like they aren’t missing some juicy gossip.

They can hate me for it for a while if that’s what it takes. I don’t care.

My teens are not able to manage this responsibility entirely on their own, just like so many other kids, and until they can show some restraint, I will police this shit like a motherfucker.

I can already tell you my kids have come to life again since I’ve tightened the reins. Even though I am the “most uncool mom ever,” I can see them riding bikes more, exploring outside more, digging out the board games more, and laughing together more.

I’d rather be uncool and have happy kids than be labeled “cool” and have my children suffering emotionally. And honestly, that is exactly what was happening in my house. So the phones are still here and still in use, but not nearly as much as before. Thank god.

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