A study published this week leaves none of us surprised: Screen-addicted teens are unhappy. The lead author is Jean M. Twenge, the professor of psychology who wrote The Atlantic piece "Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?" (In a nutshell, maybe, but it's a hopeful sign that teens themselves are beginning to link their mental health troubles to their always-buzzing devices.)
What Twenge and her team at San Diego State University found in their new research is that the happiest teenagers used digital media for less than an hour per day. They spent their time doing other things instead - playing sports, reading newspapers (really?) and engaging in good old-fashioned face-to-face interaction.
This whole crisis of kids being glued to their screens is not slowing down - two large Apple investors have been urging the company to fight kids' phone addiction, believing it's part of its responsibility. Parents obviously cannot and should not rely on companies to do the hard work for them. And yes, it can be hard work, especially when so many of us haven't been able to curb our own device obsessions.
One thing that's giving me a (possibly too-rosy) sense of hope are the accounts of teens ditching their smartphones for flip phones or other "dumb" phones - and finding a weird sense of freedom. Today did an experiment where they asked teenagers to trade their smart phones for flip phones for a week, and at first, one girl reported she was "going insane," but then they started getting into some very peculiar activities, like reading books and talking to their families.
In Seventeen magazine, 16-year-old Janey Litvin wrote about the joy of using a purple 2008 Motorola flip phone after her iPhone dropped and broke. (Give the article to your kid if she doubts it is possible to not turn into a complete social pariah.)
Before that fateful day, although I wouldn't have admitted it, I was totally addicted to my iPhone. It literally called to me: notifications of incoming snaps, the vibrations of a hundred group chat messages. Being away from my iPhone only made more work for me when we'd reunite because then I'd have to answer EVERYTHING. And check Instagram and Facebook too, you know, just in case I missed anything. It was like homework — I had to keep up with it or else I'd be behind. Every once in a while I'd slack for a bit, and the amount of unread messages would keep climbing, and that little red number on the messaging app icon would get bigger and bigger, I'd feel more and more stressed. But a broken iPhone changed everything. Suddenly, there was no pressure to respond or stay updated on everyone's latest move, and it was … nice.
The New York Times just published the piece "Is Your Child a Phone Addict?" In it, Ana Homayoun, the author of Social Media Wellness: Helping Teens and Tweens Thrive in an Unbalanced Digital World, encourages parents to get their kids flip phones, and then "wait until they have developed good overall habits before giving them a smartphone."
"Just as kids learn to ride bikes with training wheels or get junior licenses when they learn to drive, kids shouldn't be expected to manage their first smartphones all by themselves," Homayoun writes.
It's not a cure-all, and you have to admit there are some parts of having an old-school device that will make teens want to bang their heads against it (to text the letter "C," Litvin has to go to the number 1 key and then click through A and B - remember those days?). But it seems worth trying. Wait Until 8th, a project in which mums and dads are pledging to delay giving their children a smartphone until at least eighth grade, has a Pinterest page full of these dumb phones and phone watches, which allow people to be able to reach your kid and ... that's about it.
Now the only question that remains is: Motorola Razr or Nokia 3310?