Lions and Tigers and Cellphones Oh, My


The Healthy Family Connections Podcast

Episode 135 · Duration: 00:13:27

Lions and Tigers and Cellphones Oh, My

What do you do when you when you try to limit teen cell phone use, but there’s always a reason they need to have it?

Lions and Tigers and Cellphones Oh, My

Today, we answer a question from Kate, who writes:

We need help with cell phones. We are bamboozled regularly by our daughters because cell phones have so many uses - one of which is to listen to music. You know teens are very soothed by music, so it's hard to say no to that. But I fear they are losing sleep and missing out on real life since they always have their phones in hand. It's like an addiction. All our friends (with teens) are plagued by this as well! Help!

Thanks for your question Kate. Right you are, you, your friends and friends you haven’t met yet are all struggling with this issue. Kids are so attached to their phones that getting it out of their hands feels like we’re committing child abuse. And yet we know that smartphones are creating as much harm as good for kids today.

My colleague, Dr. Lara Honos-Webb, has an upcoming book, Six Super Skills for Executive Functioning: Tools to Help Teens Improve Focus, Stay Organized, and Reach Their Goals, and cites studies indicating a crisis in cognition for adults as well as youth. She cites one study that demonstrates that even the presence of a smart phone that’s not being used reduces cognitive ability.

Kids are so attached to their phones that getting it out of their hands feels like we’re committing child abuse. And yet we know that smart phones are creating as much harm as good for kids today.Click To Tweet

Addressing The Objections

Let’s decide that the rule is no phone with teens doing their schoolwork. Good enough? No. What about music? Well they can use a music only device, or have speakers where they’re working and the phone streaming it someplace else, or god forbid, use an ancient device called a radio.

Not solved yet you say? Because our kids are saying they need their phones to get their assignments, text classmates to work on group projects or ask questions? Well like I said, none of this is good, but if that’s the way it’s working what are we going to do? Let’s figure this out.

If they’re mature enough, honest, and committed enough to using their device for the right reasons and aren’t going off into social media and YouTube distraction, fine. The truth is that most kids, and many adults for that matter, don’t have the focus skills to pull that off. Even if they intend to, it’s a cognitive skill, or executive function that simply isn’t well developed enough in adolescence to pull it off. So we don’t want to set them up to fail. One way past that is to have kids who “need” to use their phone to access assignments or talk with classmates about assignments, do their work where parents can oversee it.

Right now Kate, you and your friends are, to one extent or another, in a Control Battle with your teenagers because you haven’t gotten this figured out yet, and because phones are so, as you commented, addictive.

Setting Reasonable Standards

Let me offer what I think is a reasonable approach to setting reasonable standards and how to change from the struggle you’re in now to a healthier place.

First of all, cell phone use should probably begin early so it isn’t so much of a big deal. As young children, maybe kids take a selfie or take a picture of their cat and post it on Mom or Dad’s Instagram account. They can play a child game on the phone. However, it is unwise for any child to have their own cell phone. Even with all the controls in place, it is a distraction and a burden they don’t need. Most youth will want a phone to be like their friends in 7th or 8th grade, and that’s fine assuming they are willing to follow guidelines. Essentially, having a phone should be treated the same way as having a driver’s license.

It is unwise for any child to have their own cell phone. Even with all the controls in place, it is a distraction and a burden they don’t need.Click To Tweet

Before young teens get their first smartphone, they should do some reading on the downside of phone use: addictive nature, time suck, vulnerability to fraud, bullying, negative impact on mental health and personal development, neural development, physical health and physical development, peer pressure to engage in inappropriate use such as sexting, to name a few. Also research the benefits of having a smartphone: access to information, connectivity to family and friends, music, entertainment, etc.

Then, parents and a young teen together can come up with a plan for healthy limited phone use and it might look something like this:

  • Phone is away in backpack during classes and limited use during permitted school times.
  • Time limited use when home from school, maybe an hour or so.
  • When not in use it goes to the central charging station and stays there.
  • Not in room during sleep hours.
  • When out socially with phone, parental texts are always answered promptly.
  • Kids understand and agree to only appropriate use and to report any inappropriate activity they receive to their parents for discussion of how to deal with it.

Then as kids age and mature, and demonstrate good self-monitoring and self-management skills, they can, little by little, learn to manage their phone use increasingly independently.

Steps To Take Going Forward

Kate, here is what you’re going to do with your daughters. First, let’s avoid labeling them as manipulative since they’re only doing what one would expect; getting very attached to their phones and doing anything to avoid giving them up.

  • Have a sit down with parents and daughters and let them know that cell phone rules have been unclear and now there is too much strife about phone use.
  • Apologize for the lack of clarity and the confusion that’s resulted.
  • Discuss with them what they know about the risks and negative impacts of cell phone use. If it looks like they can benefit from more information, have them do some research on the subject, perhaps take a break in the meeting and do it right then and then reconvene.
  • Discuss the newly clarified rules and let them know that just like having a driver’s license, it doesn’t guarantee that they can drive wherever or whenever they want. It’s all about what’s healthy.

Your conversation might sound something like this:

Girls, I’m so sorry about the struggles we’ve been having about cell phone use. It wasn’t our intention to make this something to fight over, it was to allow you to be connected to friends, have easy access to information, and for us to be connected and in touch as you grow more independent through your teen years. There are the advantages of music and entertainment as well, but there are real health risks with cell phones too and we’d like to discuss them now. We know you’re smart kids, so let’s start by us listening and you telling us what you already know.

Kate, after going through all the risks and problems with overuse, you establish limited and proper use standards or rules and let them know that if it’s a struggle to enforce the standards, then they’ll be demonstrating that they simply aren’t ready for cell phone ownership and they’ll be removed until following the protocols is easier for them.

Parents, therapists and all folks working with teenagers, cell phone overuse and misuse presents a serious threat to adolescent mental health, physical health, and neural development or development of executive functioning. We cannot take this lightly. Let’s treat this seriously and help our teenagers gain the benefits of the connected world they’re growing up in, while limiting the risks and down sides.

Thanks for tuning in today everyone and special thanks to you Kate for your very topical question.

Please, take care of yourselves; you need it, you deserve it, you’re worth it. Bye for now.

Have a question for Neil?

Submit it now for discussion on a future episode of The Healthy Family Connections Podcast:

Don't want to miss an episode?

Be sure to subscribe to The Healthy Family Connections Podcast on iTunes for up to date information and advice from Neil D Brown -- all for free!


Want to tell your friends about The Healthy Family Connections Podcast?

Click here to tweet your followers about The Healthy Family Connections Podcast. They will thank you!Click To Tweet

Want to start a conversation with Neil?

Drop a note in the comment section below.

We look forward to hearing from you!

Posted in The Healthy Family Connections Podcast.