This article was originally published in the September 2017 Princeton Echo.
The shocked look on my daughter’s face when I gave her an iPhone for her middle school graduation present was priceless. Several generations older, it wasn’t brand new, but for her it was an incredible upgrade from the flip phone she had had for the past two years. Knowing full well how tethered I have become, my goal was to wait as long as possible before introducing her to all that comes with the phone-obsessed world.
It took just under two months for her to ask, phone in hand, why I didn’t tell her the phone would make her depressed. Fourteen and more self-aware than most adults, she’s right. Why didn’t I tell her? I’ve often found myself spending entirely too much time online, and, consequently feeling a bit blue. She asked if we can both get rid of our phones. And, in the next breath, she said that she wants to use the camera and doesn’t want to give it up. To me, that sounded a lot like, “Mom, please give me limits.”
As I work on defining limits in a mostly technology-addicted society, social media has been buzzing over an article that appears in the September issue of the Atlantic, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?,” by Jean M. Twenge, about the group she has named iGen (born between 1995 and 2012). Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University who has been researching generational differences for a quarter of a century, writes that “the arrival of the smartphone has radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives, from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health. These changes have affected young people in every corner of the nation and in every type of household. The trends appear among teens poor and rich; of every ethnic background; in cities, suburbs, and small towns.”
She paints a bleak picture of teenagers who are at greater risk for suicide and depression, who have no strong desire or motivation to become independent, and who appear to be more comfortable living their lives online, rather than physically being with others. The article alludes to results from a long-running annual survey of teenagers that indicate what should be obvious to all of us, “all screen activities are linked with less happiness, and all nonscreen activities are linked to more happiness.”
I can hear the critics of Twenge and her conclusions loud and clear. Yes, there are advances that come with technology that benefit us all. However, it seems wise to listen closely to what our kids are saying. Athena, a 13-year-old who was interviewed for the article sounds a lot like my own teen when she talks about how frustrating it is when her friends are often glued to their phones instead of actually talking to her when they are physically together. She talks about a time when she yanked a phone out of her friend’s hand and threw it at a wall (which reminds me of a time I walked out on a date because he was more interested in his phone than our conversation).
Two months in and I have got minimal protection in place, as in I have to approve any apps my daughter wants to purchase. I just received a school e-mail with the dates on which I can pick up my teen’s Chromebook. Before school begins, my goal is to expand usage limits through our provider for the both of us. Beyond that, it’s me telling her to put the phone down. I’m having a hard time navigating a healthy path for my daughter and me when screens surround us. I don’t imagine I’m alone.
Tips for parents
• Talk to other parents to see what’s working and not working for their families.
• Check out sites like Family Online Safety Institute at www.fosi.org and Child Mind Institute at www.childmind.org.
• Set up boundaries and discuss them with your child.
• Consider creating a contract of expectations.
• Continue the conversation about what apps they are using, who they are talking to, and have some oversight of what they are posting on social media.
• Determine set times for cell phone use.
• Do not let them take the phone to bed with them.
• Follow the same rules for yourself that you set for your child.
A librarian at the Princeton Public Library, Kristin Friberg oversees and writes for the library’s blog at www.princetonlibrary.org/blog. She has a bachelor’s degree in communications, and worked in publishing, the recording industry, and in public relations before returning to library school for a master’s degree. Her daughter is entering high school after completing her studies at the Princeton Friends School.