- Parents who grew up using landlines may be mystified by teens who are glued to and cannot be parted from their devices.
- Understanding developmental, cultural, and neurobiological reasons for this phenomenon can spark empathy and more productive conversations.
- Parents can encourage a healthy balance of real-life experiences that may benefit the whole family
If you think your teen or tween is “always” on her screens, you’re probably not wrong. These days, almost all teens have access to cellphones and half admit to being on them “all the time.” Before COVID hit, tweens (ages 8 to 12) reported using screens for an average of more than four and a half hours every day. For teens (ages 13 to 18), that number was almost seven and a half hours daily. During quarantine, 12- and 13-year-olds doubled their screen time to nearly eight hours per day—and that’s in addition to the time they spent in remote learning.
The soaring use of technology within the last couple of years makes sense. With stay-at-home and social distancing restrictions in place, teens and tweens couldn’t see friends who provided emotional support. Isolated and worried, teens turned to screens for much-needed interactions with peers, entertainment, and stress relief. Watching movies, video chatting, messaging via social media, and participating in multi-player video games became lifelines to much-needed connection, quasi-normalcy, and emotional wellbeing.
Now that most students are back in school, however, many parents are not seeing screen use decline. You may wonder, in fact, why your teen is as glued as ever (if not more) to her devices, regresses to toddler-like tantrums if asked to unplug, and insists on having her cellphone when she is with friends. Since you probably grew up talking to friends on the family landline, hoping your parents or siblings didn’t listen in to your conversations, all this may seem rather foreign.
Understanding the roots of your teen's otherwise inexplicable behavior can help you to empathize with her, which facilitates more productive conversations. And with some recent reports of excessive screen use potentially harming teens' developing brains, strategies for encouraging moderation in your child's media consumption are probably timely. Although online activities offer her many benefits, especially during periods of COVID isolation, you probably want to encourage a balance with valuable real-life experiences—for example, exercising, interacting face-to-face, being outside in nature, reading for pleasure, participating in school clubs, sports, and playing a musical instrument.
Why Your Teen Is Glued to Her Devices
Technology instantly satisfies adolescents’ age-old, developmental longings for peer attention, validation, and connection—and it can be especially alluring to teen girls. Social media apps give your daughter a platform for being noticed and standing out for whatever attributes she values most. She may look to metrics such as the number of messages she gets (and from whom), as well as how many times her posts are viewed, liked, and reposted, as markers of her social status.
Every incoming message may be a mini-thrill. Knowing that friends are thinking about her makes her feel flattered and important, as if she matters, momentarily relieving notorious adolescent fears of being overlooked or excluded. With such powerful confidence boosters, no wonder it may be nearly impossible for your teen or tween to muster the self-discipline to stop checking her social media accounts, silence her notifications, or turn off her phone. Access to her device provides a perpetual conduit to peer inclusion and gratification.
Why Teens Regress to Tantrums When Asked to Unplug
A teen's psychological dependency on devices is bolstered by neurobiology. Sending and receiving messages appears to trigger the release of dopamine, the “feel-good” chemical in the brain that creates a pleasant buzz. The "intoxication" a teen experiences when she hears notifications of incoming messages may be hard to resist.
Whether she is in class, asleep in bed, or banned from her devices, when your teen or tween stops getting messages, her pleasure dissipates and she may even appear to suffer from a sort of "withdrawal." At this point, she no longer sees her cellphone as a mere fun or handy device, but rather a portal to contentment with which she is desperate to be rejoined. Until your daughter gets her next “fix”—that is, a chance to see who is thinking about her and what they are saying—she may appear anxious and out of sorts. Or acting just as she did when you limited her to one lollipop or ice cream cone.
Why Teens Insist on Having Cell Phones in Social Situations
It may drive you up the wall to see your teen or tween pay more attention to her device than to the friends who surround her in real-life (IRL) interactions. It may be that she finds digital messages—or the people who are sending them—more compelling than her current social activity. But it is also possible that she is using technology to alleviate the social anxiety and awkwardness she secretly experiences when meeting with people face-to-face.
As more teens socialize online, parents are increasingly concerned about girls becoming self-conscious and tongue-tied when out in the world. As Zizi, age 15, describes, “I’m uncomfortable being… without my phone. I feel really awkward because I don’t know what to do with my hands. Even if I’m not using it or it’s in my pocket, having my phone is kind of like a comfort. If you’re in an awkward situation or you finish a conversation and don’t know what else to say, you can pull out your phone and show them something or pretend you have to go somewhere. It's an easy way out.”
Teen girls are not alone in using screens to defuse social tension or discomfort; for some of the same reasons, adults are taking out cellphones in work-related or social gatherings. Do you relate to this scenario? Do you look at your phone when you’re waiting for someone, bored, or impatient? If so, you may find yourself and the entire family benefiting from these strategies to help your teen achieve a healthier balance of on-screen and real-life experiences:
Setting Screen Boundaries and Encouraging Real-Life Experiences
- Develop media guidelines for the whole family. This avoids singling out any individual, encourages parents to set a good example, and encourages teen compliance.
- Consider creating a family contract that specifies the rules, the consequences of not following them, and valid exceptions.
- Ban screens during dinner, family time such as vacations and sports events, when hosting visitors, and in the hour before bedtime.
- Ask teens to “experiment” with how they feel after limiting screen time. Are they less edgy or irritable? Can they think more sharply or creatively? Do they have more energy? Have they enjoyed activities or even chores (like straightening their rooms) that they may have neglected?
- To ease social anxiety, talk with your teen about in-person conversations. What is the difference between companionable silence and uncomfortable gaps? What concrete steps can she take when she feels awkward or self-conscious?
- Give your tween a chance to practice or roleplay handling conversational gaps so she is less inclined to pull out her cellphone. She might, for example, bring up shared experiences or interests or ask other people questions about themselves.
- Because teens learn more from what parents do than what you say, be scrupulously self-aware of how often and in what circumstances you are on your devices. To avoid accusations of “unfairness” or hypocrisy, it’s best to walk the walk.
Adapted from Anything But My Phone, Mom! Raising Emotionally Resilient Daughters in the Digital Age.