Defending parents who refuse or restrict smartphones for children

In 2019, Common Sense Media, which has been tracking media usage since 2003, shared a survey of media use among children ages 8-18. It concluded:

  • Nearly 1 in 5 eight-year-olds now have their own smartphone.
  • 53% of kids have their own smartphone by age 11. By age 12: 70%. By the time they’re 16, 89%.
  • Teens average 7 hours per day on screens; tweens, 5 hours.
  • Average time spent watching online videos has doubled since 2015.
  • Parents spend 9 hours per day connected to screen-based media.

The Washington Post added in May (2022), “An earlier report by Common Sense Media found that 50 percent of teenagers felt addicted to their smartphones and that 59 percent of their parents thought that was the case. All of this has coincided with a startling increase in mental health challenges among adolescents, which some psychologists believe might be tied to the adverse effects of social media use.”

In the WP column “Meet the parents who refuse to give their kids smartphones,” writer Ellen McCarthy spoke to parents who are bucking the trend of supplying internet-accessible smartphones to their children. And their revolt, which is founded in solid psychological science about the development of healthy brains and personal boundaries, is being led by health care and adolescent professionals.

Dr. Adriana Stacey of Fayetteville, Arkansas, said, “I’ll never buy a smartphone for any of my children.” Stacey is a psychiatrist who works primarily with high school and college students, many of whom are regularly dealing with anxiety, depression and a lack of focus. She says it’s rare for any of her young clients to admit to less than nine hours of daily smartphone use, which means that they spend more time on their phones than they do sleeping.

Adriana’s daughter, Annalise, admits that it’s hard being one of the only girls at her dance competitions without a smartphone. She said, “I was frustrated because I felt like I was definitely getting left out of things and I didn’t really know how to get included. … I’d try to talk to people, but they’d just kind of go on their phones or on Snapchat or whatever.”

Emily Cherkin of Seattle, Washington, understands the struggle. Cherkin spent 12 years teaching seventh graders and now works as a coach and activist, counseling parents on appropriate developmental boundaries for smartphones.

Cherkin reported, “6 Myths and Truths About Kids and Screens”:

Myth: “My kid can make good choices about screentime. I trust my kid.”
Truth: It is our job to set limits.

Myth: “Everyone else has a phone.”
Truth: No, they don’t.

Myth: “I watched TV and played video games when I was a kid. I turned out fine.”
Truth: It’s pretty different today.

Myth: “This is a kid problem. They’re addicted!”
Truth: Adults need to model tech health.

Myth: “Parental controls keep my kid safe. That’s all I need.”
Truth: Be the mentor, not just the monitor.

Myth: “My kid needs tech now to be prepared for the future.”
Truth: Messy play warps brains. Tech can come later.

“What really troubles me is that we are giving [our kids] devices and products and apps that are designed to be addictive to children,” Cherkin says, referring to whistleblower accounts of algorithms devised to maximize user attention. “And then we’re expecting them to self-regulate and getting upset when they do stupid things. Middle school was a safe place, for the most part, for kids to screw up and learn how not to do it again the next time. We’ve just taken away the safety net of messing up without being blasted or shamed across a digital platform.”

The Washington Post went on to quote Dr. Bradley Aaron Zicherman, who runs a recovery clinic for adolescents at Stanford Children’s Health. He says that smartphone addiction mimics substance abuse in the way it triggers dopamine responses in the brain.

In fact, “Zicherman uses the same techniques, including family therapy sessions and interviews designed to help patients find a motivation to change, in treating both disorders. ‘It’s maybe even more challenging than some substance abuse issues,’ he says, because technology is everywhere. Unlike drug or alcohol abusers, smartphone addicts have to learn to self-regulate their use, not abandon it entirely. And some of his patients have had unfettered access to screens for most their lives. By the time they show up at his clinic, their habits have hardened.”

“A lot of cases I get are cases where parents are afraid to limit screen time because it gets to the point where suicidal claims will be made,” Zicherman says.

Since setting up the clinic in 2019, Zicherman says he’s been shocked at the number of patient referrals he got for technology-related behavior. “Half of my intakes are parents requesting help,” he says, “because they feel like their kid’s screen time is out of control and they don’t know what to do at this point.”

As parents, I think one thing we all can agree on is this: Part of loving and raising our children is regulating their access to opportunities and situations until they are developmentally ready to show good judgment and self-control. But we also need to protect them from those who prey upon them, and too few parents realize just how proliferating the online predators have become.

As I explained in one of my recent columns, titled, “Teens buying fentanyl on social media, and the sales are soaring”: Tragically, most American parents are completely unaware covert dealers – including cartels – are using social media to entrap their kids by offering powerful drugs to them for cheap. Dealers are using innocent emojis to sell fentanyl doses (laced in other labeled pills) in literally seconds online to millions of teens. And then, they deliver the pills door-to-door by personal drug mules, dodging the postal service and, mostly, parents.

All of the above online hazards are leading to a revolution of rebellion in which parents are refusing to bow to “the necessity” or “positives over the negatives” of their children owning a smartphone. They are even beginning to question their own “needs” for them. Hence, the reason many are returning to cellphones that are “light or dumb,” merely functional to send and receive calls.

Founder and CEO of Denver Institute for Faith & Work, Jeff Haanen, is also a very concerned parent of four daughters. He wrote the insightful article, “Your Smartphone Is Neither a Cancer nor a Cure-All.” In it, he confesses his own technologically obsessive journey: “I remember the day I got my first smartphone. Upgrading from a ‘dumb phone,’ I was dazzled. Crisp and clear pictures. Email and calendar in one place. Ready access to Twitter, Facebook and any search engine I wanted. In the words of the AT&T ad, I could now ‘move at the speed of instantly.’

“But as the months went on, I realized my smartphone was not a neutral tool that would leave my life unaffected. My days started to change – sometimes drastically. It began with email. I started checking it almost obsessively. Wake up, turn over, check email. Get coffee, check email. My daughter would ask a question. ‘Hold on, honey, I’m just finishing this email.’

“Then came social media. I could now post pictures directly to Facebook. Yet rarely did I consider whether my 300 ‘friends’ needed to see my weekend family adventures. Twitter became my news source. Even though I clicked on dozens of articles, I noticed I never read them through. My thoughts started to fragment into smaller and smaller pieces. Oddly enough, even though I now held in my hand the key to unparalleled productivity, at the end of the workday I felt a new level of exhaustion.”

Haanen then quotes from Tony Reinke’s book, “12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You,” which “makes explicit what many of us feel bubbling under the surface: Quietly, subtly, our phones are changing us. He catalogues the quiet catastrophe he believes our phones are causing. For instance:

  • “We’re distracted and ignore others, especially those closest to us. We check our smartphone 85,000 times a year, or once every 4.3 minutes.
  • We’re a hazard to others. Texting and driving make us 23 times more likely to get in a car accident.
  • We crave (are addicted to?) media approval. Each social media moment is another scene in our ‘incessant autobiography.’
  • We live our lives by headlines and popularity. Our attention drifts from things that matter most in this life toward the latest headlines and gossip.
  • We become lonely while we ‘believe we are connecting.’ Technology is drawing us apart, by design. We feel the sting of loneliness in the middle of online connectedness.
  • We get lost in the digital noise. The average daily social media and email output is larger than the Library of Congress.
  • We lose track of and waste time and our lives. The wonder of people, plants and nature – even God himself – gets lost in the whirl of ‘urgent’ notifications.”

Haanen then explained, “The redeeming gem of Reinke’s book is found in asking readers to define those boundaries. After reading a list of 12 questions under the heading ‘Should I Ditch My Smartphone?,’ I asked myself, What do I really need my phone for?

“As I began deleting apps and setting new boundaries, I found myself catching an appealing vision of a better – and slower – life. And my phone once again became just a tool. …”

Hannen concluded, “We miss the point if we become either pro- or anti-technology. Instead, liberation from our smartphones (and all our technology) is best summed up by the psalmist: ‘I will walk about in freedom, for I have sought out your [teachings]’ (119:45). In contrast to the American view of freedom – essentially, lack of restraint on individual choice – the Bible sees true freedom as a matter of living within proper [and healthy] boundaries.”

(For more information and helpful resources, I highly encourage parents to read Ellen McCarthy’s great Washington Post piece, “Meet the parents who refuse to give their kids smartphones.” Also, check out the excellent and helpful services and resources of “The Screentime Consultant,” Emily Cherkin. And then order and read as soon as you can Tony Reinke’s book, “12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You.” Your kids’ and even your own mental health, future, relationships and lives may depend upon it!)

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This article was originally published by the WND News Center.

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