5 Reasons to Disable Your Teen’s Smartphone

5 Reasons to Disable Your Teen’s Smartphone
Smartphones offer too many distractions to teens, and can also disrupt home life. (Shutterstock)

My teenager just woke up, walked into the kitchen, and said, “Mom, what day is it?” The days are running together, kids are staying up too late, we are trying to get out of our [pajamas] PJ’s before lunch, we are eating too much and not exercising enough, and everyone needs a haircut. We have lost structure, schedules, and routines, but believe it or not, our teens need to lose their smartphones too.

I know your kids are telling you they need smartphones for distance learning, to keep up with their friends, and to fill downtime because they are so bored. They also want to eat ice cream sandwiches all day and have popcorn for dinner. These phone excuses are as empty as the calories in their current quarantine diet. Their teen brains are attracted to the endless Instagram scroll, but not the endless possibilities of learning new skills and hobbies. They have no idea how rare and valuable this gift of time really is. But you know. Which is why it is time to figure out what day it is: the day we put those phones on a vacation.
If you think your teen was wasting time on her phone before the quarantine, she will waste even more time on it now. (Note: this is written with a girl in mind, but that’s not to say that boys aren’t also over-using their phones.) Teens have a hard enough time managing smartphone use when they have structure and a full schedule packed with school commitments, sports, and extracurricular. But, now with unstructured days and hundreds of hours of free time, we are asking them to manage more than their teen brains are capable of doing.

Here are Five Reasons to Ditch your Teen’s Smartphone, Especially During the Quarantine:

Distraction in Virtual Class. 

If your teen tries to tell you smartphones are necessary for learning, think again! Your teen does not need a smartphone for school in a normal setting and he certainly doesn’t need one now. Texting and gaming during class is more prevalent with distance learning. We already know that teens can’t manage phones during school, but now it is even harder for parents and teachers to set up necessary accountability to keep them focused. It is difficult to pay attention in class when you are playing Fortnite on your phone, talking with your friends or shopping for shoes on Amazon.

Too Much Idle Time

With the shelter-in-place orders, our schedules went out the window and so did what was left of our teens’ self-control. Teen brains are wired to crave the dopamine release found in low-effort/high-reward smartphone activities. This activity is not all bad, but the more time your teen spends mindlessly scrolling for hours the less motivated she will be for other activities. As idle time increases, so do temptations of drifting into risky online activities.

More Anxiety

While you may not feel the same urgency as your teen to instantly respond to texts or posts, your teen is paralyzed with fear of rejection by peers who expect instant responses. Your daughter may feel constantly stressed and judged when she doesn’t answer a text or comment fast enough. She may experience anxiety and feel like the clock starts ticking every time she receives a text. This is a problem in everyday situations, but is magnified in the quarantine. Without a schedule or routine, there is an unspoken assumption that responses should be immediate, because what else are people doing? This stress is more than the average teen can handle which is why so many are depressed.

Exposure to Risky Content

Safety is the most popular reason that parents give their kids a phone in the first place. Parents want to stay in touch with their kids and constantly know where they are. But right now we know exactly where our kids are. It’s not physical safety we need to be concerned with, but online safety. Your teen’s smartphone is the most unsafe place they can be right now. With so many kids staying home on their devices, there has been a spike in online predators and free access to porn sites during the quarantine. Access to smaller screens means more exposure to risky content. So move screen time to larger screens because it is harder to feel comfortable surfing risky content on the TV in the family room or on the kitchen laptop in front of everyone.

Unreliable Parental Controls

It is difficult for parents to manage small personal screens hidden in a teen’s pocket. Parental controls are necessary, but they are not as effective as parents think they are. The quarantine is a great time for your child and her friends to figure out the work around apps on phones. And with multi-age siblings trapped in the house together, you can’t control what younger siblings see on older siblings’ devices. If you have multiple children at home, it’s near impossible to police all the multiple devices.
Additionally, most video games have mobile platforms. So even when parents set console limits, gamers can sneak away and game on their smartphones. Gaming is listed as the second highest grossing business since the quarantine (second only to groceries) and much of that gaming is occurring on phones.

Common questions:

How will my kids stay in touch with friends?

Your teen doesn’t need a smartphone to stay in touch with friends. In general, smartphones are an inefficient way for your kids to build friendships. Texting is good for scheduling get-togethers and quick responses to questions, but not good for strengthening genuine friendships.
Your teen can video chat, voice call and text all on her computer. Remember, bigger screens are easier for you to manage. If she wants to text, she can install your cellular provider’s message program on her laptop or you can get her a non-data phone for voice calling and texting. Be aware that all social media is still unfortunately available on her computer. She really doesn’t need a private phone in her pocket for anything. Now is a perfect time to transition to a text/talk only phone.

What Will She do with Her Extra Time?

Smartphones are a terrible waste of time for a teen. When your teen spends hours hidden in her room, scrolling on a phone, she will lose her motivation to read a book, do chores, hang out with family, or even take a shower. The reward center in her brain stays awake and all the other areas go to sleep. Your child will seem lazy. As a parent, you must provide some structure to get her going with some productive activities. The key in the beginning is to spend time with her doing activities. It will be hard for her to get re-motivated at first. The Instagram scroll is endless, but so is the list of hobbies and life skills.

How do I Take it Away?

One way to get a break is to start by taking a week off. We have designed our ScreenStrong Challenge, a free 7-day program, to help you reset screen habits in your home. Our experience has shown that even a week off from recreational screens is very beneficial for your kids. They will experience less stress and anxiety, and more time enjoying other things.
Here are a few positive reports we hear from teens who remove their phone for even just a week:
  • More time talking with parents
  • Less time needed for homework
  • More time for sleep
  • Fewer distractions
  • More time reading for pleasure
  • Fewer arguments with younger siblings
At the end of this quarantine, what will your teens have to show for their time? Make these extra hours count for something! Will it be hundreds of hours on Instagram or hundreds of hours invested in a new piano piece, new novels, or a new life skill like changing the oil in the car or planting a garden? The answer is up to you.
Melanie Hempe, BSN, is the founder of ScreenStrong, an organization that empowers parents to help their children to gain the benefits of screen media without the toxic consequences of overuse that threaten healthy mental and physical development. The ScreenStrong Solution promotes a strong parenting style that proactively replaces harmful screen use with healthy activities, life skills development, and family connection.
This article was originally published on ScreenStrong.com
Melanie Hempe, BSN, is the founder of ScreenStrong, an organization that empowers parents to keep the benefits of screen media for kids while empowering parents to delay screens that can be toxic—like video games and smartphones. The ScreenStrong solution promotes a strong parenting style that proactively replaces harmful screen use with healthy activities, life skill development, and family connection.