You may have thought we wouldn't get to this point. More than one in three U.S. teenagers now uses a personal smartphone. According to a March 2013 Pew Internet and American Life study (download the PDF), 37 percent of the nation's teens has a smartphone, up from less than one in four in 2011.
Whether teenagers have their own smartphone or a hand-me-down, it only takes an hour in your local shopping mall to corroborate Pew Research's data. You're more likely to see a group of teens with phones in hand and screens in faces than talking with one another, ambling between Forever 21 and Hollister, trying not to bump into the mall cops.
Where is all this teen smartphone use taking us as a society? As a working parent, have you thought about how this affects your kids, their health, and your overall family dynamics? You probably don't get a lot of one-on-one time with your teens as it is. Mobile devices can add another barrier to meaningful relationships.
Comedian and actor Louis C.K. (Parks and Recreation, Saturday Night Live) has strong opinions on the subject. In another already-legendary appearance on the Conan O'Brien show (search YouTube for "Everything's amazing and nobody's happy." The original clip appears to have been removed.), he explains why his children won't be getting smartphones. Note: a couple of NSFW words here.
There is profundity behind the humor: Louis C.K. makes a connection between a teenager's ability to develop empathy for others and his or her lack of personal interaction due to smartphone use. At the risk of quoting Homer Simpson, "It's funny because it's true." The comedian isn't willing to give in to societal pressure to equip his kids with smartphones because he wants them to learn how to "be a person."
How about the rest of us dads? By our actions and priorities, do we communicate to our children that our need for connectivity outweighs our desire for their company? Are we able to simply rest in a quiet moment, or do our devices serve as a constant escape from emotional growth?
The invasion of the smartphone is over. For your family, it may not be an issue of prevention, but containment. To be sure, connected devices can be powerful, helpful tools, when used responsibly. Teaching your kids how to do this has become an indispensable part of our parenting arsenals. But it starts with us doing it, ourselves.
Here are a few ideas to get started on reducing screen time and increasing face time.
- Insist that devices remain away from the dinner table. But wait, that means that you need to have family dinners together! Well, there's another thing to work on.
- Get in the habit of keeping your phone out of your hand during personal conversations. Your kids deserve your undivided attention. And you deserve theirs, too. Find a polite way to request it.
- Don't be shy about sharing with your kids the cool, helpful apps and tricks you use the most. Instead of being a barrier, your phones can become another way to connect personally as a common interest.
- Allow occasional device "fluff" time. Playing a game or posting to Facebook can be a fun distraction after a stressful day at school. Show your kids you're not totally against their phone use, but that you believe in healthy limits.
- Pull the trigger if you have to. Taking away a teen's phone can be catastrophic - for the teen. And that's exactly why you should be willing to do it when necessary. Just be sure you're clear about what actions will lead to that consequence and how long the punishment will last.
Good luck, connected parents. And please leave comments about your family's experiences fighting against smartphone distraction.