Editor’s Note: The following essay is an excerpt from Chapter 4 of Naomi Schaefer Riley’s new book, Be the Parent, Please: Stop Banning Seesaws and Start Banning Snapchat, released January 8, 2018, by Templeton Press. It is used here with permission.
Rena, the mother of two preteen girls in New Jersey, gave her daughter a cell phone when she started middle school. She was doing extracurricular activities that made pickups and drop-offs more complicated, so the phone seemed convenient. Her daughter can text and call, but there is no social media. At nine, Rena takes the phone and plugs it in next to her own bed so there is no chance her daughter can use it at night. Her friends’ parents do not have the same policy, as Rena often sees her daughter’s phone buzzing with incoming texts at midnight or later. What this means is not just that the content of their conversations is probably going unmonitored. It’s that the conversation never stops.
When kids have their own devices, they are tempted to be in touch constantly and maybe even feel obligated to be in touch when they don’t want to. A ten- or eleven-year-old without a phone can simply tell her friends that she couldn’t talk because she has to use a family computer or family phone in order to communicate. She can even say that she cannot be available after a certain time because her mother confiscates the phone. But once you have a phone, it is hard to ignore it. As in the adult world, not answering implies you are ignoring someone or something.
Mark Lerner, a clinical psychologist based in New York, says that he believes that many of the mental health issues young people are facing today can be traced to technology. He recalls being out on a fishing boat with his son. “He was looking at his iPhone and he said, ‘Oh my God. Robin Williams just committed suicide.’” There is a constant stream of this kind of news that we simply can’t get away from because we take our phones everywhere. Says Lerner, “These mechanisms of distribution are overwhelming us with information.” They are taking a toll on adults, but, as Lerner notes, they are even worse for children.
So much of our job as parents is helping kids to keep the events of their lives in perspective. Sure, we have big first birthday celebrations and are thrilled when they learn to walk and graduate from diapers. Of course, we want to celebrate their highs and offer sympathy for their lows. But our job is often to say—as my grandmother did—“This too shall pass.” We can’t let them think that they are set for life because they got an A on their math quiz. But we also can’t let them think that life is over because a friend got mad at them. Because we have lived longer and have some sense of which events are big and which are small, we can pass along this important information to them.
But it is hard to distinguish, as many adults realize, what is important and what is not when the information is coming in through phones. People use text messages instead of email because they pop up on a screen immediately. They have the sense of urgency about them—even when they just say, “Hey, What’s up?”
In his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman writes that we live in a:
“peek-a-boo world, where now this event, now that, pops into view for a moment, then vanishes again. It is a world without much coherence or sense, a world that does not ask us, indeed, does not permit us to do anything; a world that is, like the child’s game of peek-a-boo, entirely self-contained. But like peek-a-boo, it is also endlessly entertaining.”
Postman probably never could have imagined the peek-a-boo worlds of our Facebook feeds, in which a celebrity’s death is listed just after the birth of a cousin’s baby, where an article about a school shooting in another state appears after pictures from the kids’ soccer game. Some of these things are of great importance, some less so. Very few of them affect us directly. But when they come in through a phone, they all seem pressing. And many of them seem to demand an immediate response.
It is not an exaggeration to say that giving your kids a cell phone is giving them the keys to the kingdom. There is a whole world out there that they can now access without your knowledge. That world, which will be constantly beeping at your child, will forever change him or her.
Giving kids cell phones may give parents peace of mind, but they also make kids more anxious. This has effects that are deeply harmful in some very obvious ways. In his book The Collapse of Parenting, psychiatrist Leonard Sax describes how parents have come to see him complaining that their kids were not able to focus at school. These mothers and fathers had assumed that it was because of ADHD or some other medical disorder and were looking for him to prescribe some medication. With a little probing, Sax found that the kids were texting their friends well into the night without their parents’ knowledge, missing out on valuable hours of sleep. These kids felt compelled to stay connected as long as possible because they didn’t want to be the last one to know what was going on.
Kids want to be in the loop even if what’s going on is totally unimportant. In an essay he wrote for Acculturated, Mark Bauerlein explained how adolescents today can surround themselves entirely with media that feature them. They can go from texting and using social media to watching television programming that revolves around them entirely. Not only does this encourage a level of narcissism unknown to previous generations, but it makes it very hard for them to keep the dramas of their lives in any kind of perspective.
This is one reason that researchers have found higher levels of narcissism among young people today. Research by Jean Twenge found that scores on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI) increased about 30 percent among college students between the 1980s and early 2000s. She found similar results for high school students. It’s not just the helicopter parents praising kids for every small accomplishment or the self-esteem movement taking over schools and promising each child that he or she is special. It’s also technology. Most obviously, it’s the selfie. How can you take dozens of pictures of yourself a day and not become more self-involved?
But technology produces more than just individual narcissism. It creates generational blinders. Anyone who is outside of your immediate age range is no longer in your line of sight. So much time is spent keeping up with the drama of friends and schoolmates, and technology means that it can never be turned off.
In 2015, a team of childhood development experts worked with CNN to survey the social media postings of two hundred thirteen-year-olds from across the country. After combing through more than 150,000 posts (from Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, etc.), the experts concluded that, as Anderson Cooper put it, being thirteen is like a “real-time 24-7 popularity competition.”
Maybe that doesn’t sound so much different from what you remember of middle school, but the resulting documentary, #Being13: Inside the Secret World of Teens, will seem deeply troubling to anyone over the age of thirty. First, of course, there’s the frequency with which teens are on mobile devices. The boys and girls interviewed acknowledged checking them more than one hundred times a day. Sometimes two hundred.
When the producers at CNN asked parents to take their kids’ phones away for a couple of days, the kids went berserk. One mother recorded her daughter’s screams and tears. “I would rather not eat for a week than get my phone taken away,” said Gia. “When I get my phone taken away, I feel kind of naked,” said Kyla. “I do feel kind of empty without my phone.”
While the experts were reluctant to call this “addiction,” at least in any medical sense, the parents weren’t. In a focus group interview with mothers and fathers of eight of the teens, all readily agreed that their teens were addicted. One father described how his son became a completely different person for weeks—withdrawn and depressed—when his phone was taken away.
When it comes to technology, parents must examine not only how they want their children to relate to the devices or how much of their time they want kids to spend texting or emailing or gaming or surfing. They need to decide something more fundamental—how their children are going to interact with the rest of the world.
It is not an exaggeration to say that giving your kids a cell phone is giving them the keys to the kingdom. There is a whole world out there that they can now access without your knowledge. That world, which will be constantly beeping at your child, will forever change him or her. It may change how your child views friendships, how he or she interacts with the outdoors, how he or she experiences time alone.
When we hand over phones and tablets to children, we are likely to be changing not only the information they can access but also their habits, their personalities, and their tastes. And while they may see their online life as a privilege—if not a right—we should also be honest enough to understand it as a burden. For the sake of our own convenience and their entertainment, we are giving up their freedom and perhaps even some of their happiness.
Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum and a columnist for the New York Post. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.