By: Melanie Hempe
We made it! My daughter made it to her 18th birthday without a smartphone. She is alive and well and, might I add, a very happy teen. I didn’t start off with a plan to delay her smartphone use in high school. It just unfolded that way due to life circumstances. This is what happened….
After dealing with video game overuse with my oldest son (to the point where he dropped out of college his freshman year like many boys do because of his gaming habit), I thought twice before I jumped on the smartphone-in-the-hand-of-every-teen bandwagon.
I knew that giving my daughter a smartphone would definitely involve a trade-off, just as allowing video games involved a huge trade-off for my son. I was finally clear on the risks of video games for boys, but what was the risk for girls having smartphones? Her smartphone would allow her to connect with friends, but what would the real cost be for that constant connection?
More phone time would mean less.
More phone-screen minutes would mean fewer minutes spent on other things in her life: fewer minutes with her family, fewer minutes at the kitchen table after dinner talking with us, and fewer minutes playing on the trampoline outside with her brothers. It would mean less “free time,” less time to curl up with a good book, and less time doing other hobbies. As a nurse, I already knew that teens have a hard time controlling impulses; they are stressed easily and take uncalculated risks due to an underdeveloped frontal cortex. They naturally pick low-effort/high-reward activities; they need more sleep. Teen girls especially can struggle with self-esteem issues. I had to think long and hard about how a smartphone would take away from her “free time” and what she would be missing.
More phone time would also mean more.
The trade-off would also mean more of a few things: more time to gossip; more time to view unhealthy web-content; more temptation to cheat in school (over 50 percent of kids admit to doing this); more rejections from being left out of group texts, tags and comments; more chances to compare (and be unhappy with) her body, her hair, her clothes, and her skin; and overall, more wasted time. I was very aware of this dilemma as I watched other moms around me struggle daily with their daughters’ smartphone and social media dramas. Some girls I knew were making “lack of privacy” mistakes that have turned out to be life altering. My daughter was doing fine with her text phone, so why would I rock the boat?
As her 16th birthday approached, I thought it was the right time to give her a coveted smartphone. We had made it through the middle school years with only a text phone. I was ready to pull the trigger.
A life-changing lunch with friends.
I remember every detail and emotion of that eye-opening, fork-in-the-road moment. I was out to lunch with a very good group of mom friends who all had 16-year-old daughters. When I mentioned that I was going to upgrade my phone and give my old smartphone to my daughter, they all very firmly and loudly said, “Whatever you do, do not get her a smartphone—you will lose her!” I was stunned. They continued to talk and share stories of their smartphone woes.
“Our girls have them, and it has been by far, the worst parenting decision we ever made. All they do is take silly selfies and stay up all night texting each other and searching the Internet instead of doing their homework. They stick their tongue out and take pictures all day. They take pictures of their food, their pimples, their socks, their dogs going to the bathroom, and any embarrassing thing going on in our home. Then they send it to each other on Snapchat, Instagram, and group texts that we can’t follow at all. At 16, they are still obsessed with silly, stupid middle-school jokes and bathroom humor. They are actually regressing and not growing up, so we emphatically say, ‘Don’t do it, Melanie!’”
So, with eyes wide open and jaw dropped, I listened to them. I have been a mom long enough to know that the best parenting advice often comes from listening to moms who have made mistakes in their own homes and found solutions, rather than relying on any trend, survey, research study, or other cultural persuasion. Suddenly empowered, I delayed the smartphone decision that day, and decided to keep her text phone. I got her some cute boots for her birthday instead. I had no way of knowing the benefits of their tested wisdom and that decision—until today.
For our family, the no-smartphone decision turned out to be an exciting and fabulous decision with a multitude of benefits. Here is a quick list of the perks we found by delaying social media access and a smartphone:
She never went to bed in tears because someone said something mean to her on social media. Never.
She never woke up checking her phone to see how many likes she got before she could get dressed and proceed with her day.
She never went to a therapist for social media depression and anxiety, a new all-too-common reason for therapy for some of her friends.
We spent a lot of time talking when she got home from school and her gymnastics practice every day—the natural, undistracted kind of talks that firmly ground kids.
She was detached from the social drama, so when she walked in the door she really came home. I heard all about the day’s events first before social media made them “public,” and I was the first voice offering mom-wisdom and advice.
I was able to really listen to her and be present without either of us looking down at our phones. Teens desperately need to be heard by their parents, the face-to-face type of hearing that says and makes them feel that they are deeply and unconditionally understood and loved. If they don’t find this at your kitchen table, they will search for it outside your home.
She used her brain and thought through situations and problems instead of instantly googling every littlelife situation. She practiced making little decisions well by herself (what to wear, how to work out a relationship problem, and what to get a friend for a birthday gift without asking 100 people for advice). These small steps are necessary to master before the larger ones come along.
She didn’t talk ugly about us, her parents or our family, on social media as I am sadly discovering so many of her friends do on social media. It is shocking.
She experienced pure unconditional love from us and didn’t expect or put that pressure on her friend relationships, which is a good thing since teens are not capable yet of giving unconditional love to each other.
She didn’t re-post or “share” or “like” the latest gossip gathered from the school day.
She was never distracted by her phone when doing her homework. She worked hard, but never complained about having too much homework.
She focused on her gymnastics and read a lot of good books.
She played with her little brothers a lot, taking them on bike rides, playing board games, wrestling with them, and just laughing. She never ignored them to look at her phone and they never saw inappropriate stuff on her phone. They benefited in this decision, too.
She talked to us about moral dilemmas and current issues instead of being shaped by the latest social media platform.
She had more real down time, developed her art skills, and joined an art club. She actually practiced and experienced the gift of daydreaming and being alone.
As a family, we played cards and board games, worked on the family puzzle, watched movies together, and participated and fully experienced silly family jokes and stories that bind families together like glue, reinforcing that all-important strong emotional foundation.
She learned to trust that we “had her back” and knew what was best for her and our family. We were not her friends, but rather her loving parents, her life coaches who loved her and wanted the best for her more than anyone.
When we went out to dinner we never competed with the phone at the dinner table; the night out was spent on just being together and priceless “teen-talk” conversation as we shared life stuff. I knew one day she would be out of the nest and I would long for these undistracted, irreplaceable conversations when we got to hear all about her dreams to be a college gymnast, her fears, her funny stories, her opinion on politics and all the things that made her the unique person she is. And we loved to hear her laugh.
When she signed her National Letter of Intent for a full four-year athletic scholarship at large university to be on their gymnastics team, we, her family, were the first to hear it and experience it with her; not hundred’s of her social media followers. We relished that moment together as a family. I often wonder if that offer would have worked out so well if the coaches had to review years of social media drama, questionable photos, bathroom humor or worse before they recruited her. Parents and teens forget that social media decisions can have lifetime consequences; indeed, some kids don’t get recruited, hired, or married because of their social media mistakes.
A few months before she left for college I gave her my old iPhone, but not as a gift, so I could teach her how to use it and how to manage her social media well. As you may have guessed, it took her about 4 minutes to learn how to use the phone; whew, it didn’t take her 6 years! And because she is just an “apprentice adult” (and not a mature adult until sometime around age 25), over the first few months I checked in on her texts and followed her social media. I made suggestions and she occasionally asked me questions about posting things. I witnessed her caution and her budding wisdom; her use at 18 is certainly much better than her use at 13 or even 16 would have been.
Our daughter will have the rest of her life to deal with all the benefits and responsibilities of having the distraction of a phone 24/7 and her wisdom to do so will be built on a solid foundation. But she won’t have the rest of her life to redo her childhood. I only had one chance in her first 18 years of life to create a strong family-centered foundation. And I know in my heart that I’ve given it my best shot.
In short, our daughter’s phone is not her life. She has not wasted years aimlessly trying to find something that her screen will never provide. She has had a rich, real, full childhood. She has learned early that she doesn’t have to “follow the crowd” and give in to all the peer/cultural pressure around her. She learned that a phone shouldn’t control you. I am guessing that her smartphone-free experience will help her much more in her future than undoing mistakes from years of social media recklessness. She is not behind socially. She is not being controlled and fragmented by the “slot machine” in her pocket.
When she was home for her first visit after starting college, we were getting ready to go out to dinner and her phone was on the kitchen table. I asked her if she needed her phone as we headed out the door. She said, “No, Mom. I don’t need my phone at dinner. I’m with y’all and I can’t wait to catch up.” Her two giggling little brothers, like monkeys, were hanging on her as she walked out the back door. My eyes filled with tears as I turned to look for the car keys. At that moment, I realized that we gained much more than we lost with that one simple decision on her 16th birthday. It really did change her life...both in ways we can measure and in ways we are still discovering.
Each time I share this story with others, the same sorts of questions come up. Below are the FAQs I hear in regard to raising a teenager without a smartphone:
Did I worry that she wouldn’t understand our decision or be mad at us?
No. I learned through parenting our oldest son that that fear is never a sound basis for any parenting decision. My confidence grew and so did hers; she trusted me and I knew she would understand the importance of this decision one day. We took the “power and control” away from the phone with that decision, and it was pretty freeing! I cared less about being the “cool” mom. I also realized that if she was going to be mad at me forever over not giving in on the smartphone/social media decision, then we had much bigger problems that needed to be addressed.
Does she feel that she has been left out?
No! If she was “left out” she never knew it; her peers on social media felt much more left out than she ever felt. She didn’t have the large numbers of virtual social media “friends” in high school like most of her classmates, but she said she had deep friendships, which many young people today don’t have. She never missed a party she was invited to because she didn’t know about it. She had texting on her basic phone. She maintained a very healthy, active social life with different friend groups. She also says that many of her friends came to her for social media drama advice because they know that she was an unbiased third party. The only time that she felt left out was when her friends would come over and spend their time looking and laughing at their phones when she was sitting right there in front of them.
Was I concerned she was not going to be prepared for the digital world?
No. Social media is just another form of entertainment. It is not building rare or valuable skills for our kids’ futures. And it is not worth the time away from other important skills teens need to learn. It is designed to grab their attention. It collects their personal information, likes, and desires and mashes it all together in an algorithm that can be used for marketing products and services to them. Is it all bad? No, but it is an extremely addictive, distracting form of entertainment. Since teens are really good with the “accelerator” and really bad with the “brakes” most can’t use it in moderation. She is much more prepared for the digital world as a result of her maturity, not as a result of her record breaking number of “likes”.
Does she regret not having a smartphone or social media?
No. She confidently told a group of moms recently that she loved her family when asked if she “hated her parents” for not allowing her to have a smartphone. She explained that while she did not have tons of “social media followers” in high school, the relationships she did build were developed over time and in person. And as a result, she learned how to be a “true, loyal friend” and how to find those same qualities in others. No regrets.
Did she “binge” and “go crazy” when she finally got her smartphone?
No. I know many parents worry about this, in fact this is one of the top worries that parents seem to have when struggling with the decision. But it is a myth. When she did get her phone, she was older and had established good time-management and excellent social skills and habits. She continued to do her favorite things that fulfilled her and the phone was just the tool that it was meant to be. She even turned it off at night so it wouldn’t wake her up and she didn’t use it when she was driving. When she got to college, she didn’t go crazy with social media. She actually ended up taking the Snapchat app off her phone when she realized it was “causing her too much stress” (her words).
Will she be behind when it comes to technology use for a future job?
No. Texting and social media can be done by most 4-year olds. Teens don’t learn technology skills on these platforms. They don’t learn non-verbal communication skills, empathy, listening skills, respect, writing skills etc on their phone either. Business owners know that these skills are rare and more valuable than a job skill that can be easily trained. Young workers with good work habits and strong face-to-face communication skills will be way ahead in the job market now and in the future.
Do we regret our decision to delay my daughter’s smartphone?
You bet we don’t! We traded the conflict, the arguments, the social media mistakes, and the scars for something far greater; strong family attachment and grit. This choice not only put her on a healthier path but it also created a strong foundation for our relationship that will last forever. If I had to do it again I would do exactly the same thing.
If you are leaning toward delaying a smartphone for you teen, let me encourage you to join the crowd that is doing just that. Your child’s health and happiness depends on it. With confidence wait until they are 18 and don’t believe the myth that teen smartphone use is worth the emotional pain and suffering it causes. In the blink of an eye your child will an adult, so don’t second guess your decision. Instead, invite their friends over, or better yet, tell them that you want some one-on-one time with them today to do something fun. Smile really big when they roll their eyes. After all, real connections are the only things they want more than their smartphone.
Melanie Hempe is the founder of Families Managing Media. She has coached hundreds of families on the effects of screen media use and has helped them achieve a healthier, more balanced media life. With a nursing degree from Emory University, Melanie draws upon her medical background to demystify the questions of why technology has such a strong grip on our kids and why it is replacing normal childhood activities. She offers busy parents easy-to-follow scientific information and practical solutions for children of all ages, as she stresses the importance of REAL life connections in a digital world.
Melanie and her husband, Chris are raising four children in a media balanced home – and have successfully replaced video games with sports, music, art and good manners and they have also done the impossible: they have kept social media and smartphones from controlling their teens. For more information on local events, reclaiming your kids and reconnecting your family, visit www.FamiliesManagingMedia.com
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