Why You Should Disable Your Teen’s Smartphone

Quarantine is the perfect—and essential—time to wean teens off smartphone
May 16, 2021 Updated: May 21, 2021

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’re trying to get out of our PJ’s before lunch, we’re eating too much and not exercising enough, and everyone needs a haircut. We’ve 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’re 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 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’s time to figure out what day it is: the day we put those phones on a vacation.

If you thought 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 with unstructured days and hundreds of hours of free time, we’re asking them to manage more than their teen brains are capable of doing.

Here are five great reasons to help your teen ditch their smartphone—especially during the quarantine.

Distraction during virtual class

If your teen tries to tell you smartphones are necessary for learning, think again! Your teen doesn’t need a smartphone for school in a normal setting and he certainly doesn’t need one now. Texting and gaming during class are more prevalent with distance learning. We already know that teens can’t manage phones during school, but now it’s even harder for parents and teachers to set up necessary accountability to keep them focused. It’s difficult to pay attention in class when you are playing Fortnite, 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 hours your teen spends mindlessly scrolling, the less motivated she’ll 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 during quarantine. Without a schedule or routine, there’s 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 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’s 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’s difficult for parents to manage small personal screens hidden in a teen’s pocket. Parental controls are necessary, but they’re not as effective as parents think they are. The quarantine is a great time for your child and her friends to figure out the workaround 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 their 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’ll 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 remotivated 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’ve designed our 7-day ScreenStrong Challenge 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’ll 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

The quarantine is the perfect time to take The ScreenStrong Challenge because you have more time now to focus on jump-starting other interests.

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 and executive director of ScreenStrong, a national nonprofit organization that offers a countercultural approach to eliminate childhood screen dependency. Her three books can be found on Amazon: “Will Your Gamer Survive College?,” “Can Your Teen Survive—and Thrive—Without a Smartphone?,” and “The ScreenStrong Solution: How to free your child from addictive screen habits.” This article was originally published on ScreenStrong.com

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated that the 7-day ScreenChallenge program was free.