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From Where I Stand: Freeing tweens and teens from the hold of screens

Mother glances anxiously at smartphone and tablet using children

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Posted on: May 9, 2024

By HEATHER WRIGHT

“When can I get a smartphone?” your child asks. “Everyone else has one.” A modern question, followed by a time-honored rationale. 

You’re leery of the addictive quality of smartphones and social media, and you’ve read the  research — much of it consolidated and examined by Jonathan Haidt in The Anxious Generation linking anxiety, depression, poor attention and sleep deprivation to their use. And then there’s the question of what early exposure to pornography and explicit violence does to the developing brain. 

Haidt’s central claim in the book is that “two trends — overprotection in the real world and underprotection in the virtual world — are the major reasons why children born after 1995 became the anxious generation.” In a compelling vignette, he describes a mom whose 14-year-old daughter attended a six-week summer camp that didn’t allow phones or electronics. “Whenever we picked her up from camp she was her normal self. But as soon as she started using her phone again, it was back to the same agitation and glumness,” she told Haidt. “Last year, I took her phone away for two months and gave her a flip phone, and she returned to her normal self.” 

After reading the book, I became more curious about families in Hyattsville who had, for various reasons, decided to protect their children more in the virtual world — and what this might look like. I interviewed four Hyattsville moms of tweens and teens who have taken a lower-tech approach to parenting.

Shani Warner’s seventh grade daughter has never asked for a smartphone and seems fine without one, which Warner credits to her 12-year-old’s disposition — “My kid is very chill and kind of nerdy and bookish and a little introverted.” Warner points to a few other factors, too, including friends and activities within walking distance, a standing weekly playdate, and a laid back weekend schedule that allows drop-in friend visits.

To avoid acting as their daughter’s social secretaries, Warner and her husband gave her a flip phone, which she rarely uses. “It’s like a paperweight at home that is usually uncharged,” Warner explained. The 12-year-old doesn’t have a social media presence and only has access to YouTube when a parent is present. Warner half-jokingly said she wanted to delay her daughter’s smartphone ownership until college, but is willing to follow her daughter’s lead. 

Anne Baum’s approach with her two daughters, grades seven and nine, has focused on proactive discussions and the parental controls available, especially on iPhones. 

Baum said that she and her daughters have repeatedly discussed relevant topics like how social media can affect girls’ emotions and the ubiquity of online pornography. In describing her overall approach, Baum said, “I want to protect my kids, but then I also try to be aware that this is the world in which they live. So I want to try as best I can to expose them to those things they’re going to be exposed to while I can still have some influence over it.” 

Baum’s younger daughter has a smartwatch, and her older one received her first iPhone only after graduating from eighth grade. But the phone came with lots of limitations, including no social media apps and no use from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. After a successful first quarter of high school, her ninth grader negotiated successfully for 30 minutes on Instagram. Baum noted that she finds it much easier to limit and track internet use on a smartphone than on a laptop.

Lara Beaven said that she and her husband didn’t purposely set out on a lower-tech path, but as they learned more about the downfalls of social media and the darker side of the internet, they became more deliberate about limiting their children’s access.

Neither child has a smartphone, and the schools they attend help support this choice. Their sixth grade son attends Takoma Academy Preparatory School, which strongly discourages smartphone use during the school day, according to Beaven. Their daughter is a freshman at a Virginia boarding school that, as of this school year, only allows Gabb phones, which have no internet browser or social media apps — and the school collects even these phones at night. The school has its own computer labs and doesn’t allow any personal digital devices, like laptops or tablets.

Jeanne Schindler and her husband are purposely creating a lower-tech ethos for their three children, grades six, eight and 10. About three years ago, when their older son, then age 12, faced pressure from peers to get a smartphone, the Schindlers sought out other like-minded families so that their son wouldn’t feel as left out. Twenty-four Hyattsville-area families, most of whom homeschool or send their kids to Catholic schools, attended two planning meetings — giving rise to their creating what they call the Postman Pledge, in fall 2021. (The name pays alliterative homage to the work of media critic and education professor Neil Postman.) Consistent with the pledge, none of Schindler’s children have smartphones or access to social media. 

Schindler emphasizes that the pledge’s tech restrictions are in service of something positive: celebrating culture, communities and friendships. To that end, the group, which has grown to 40 families, holds monthly events that incorporate some combination of community dancing, live music and singing, and games. “I want my children to be free to encounter the world as it is, not mediated through a screen,” Schindler said.

A number of strategies used by these local families are in line with Haidt’s recommendations for parents, including delaying giving kids smartphones until high school; delaying the opening of social media accounts until 16; using devices’ parental controls and content filters; setting up regular and structured screen-free family and communal activities; talking with children about online risks and listening to their thoughts; and focusing more on in-person activities and sleep than on total screen hours.  

Most of the moms I interviewed said they experienced some challenges, including pushback, as they sought to limit their children’s exposure to technology. Both Baum and Beaven noted difficulties monitoring and restricting the use of non-phone devices, like school-issued Chromebooks. Beaven’s and Schindler’s sons periodically complain and argue about their tech restrictions. Schindler added that her older son has a number of friends outside the pledge group who’ve mocked and criticized him for not having more digital access.  

Still, they trust that their children understand (or will, eventually) their concerns about screens and social media. 

Baum described an encouraging moment when she was driving her older daughter and some of her friends this past fall. One of her daughter’s friends explained that her parents limited her time on social media. After Baum’s daughter said that her parents did, too, the friend continued, “Yeah, but I’m kind of glad that my parents do that because it shows me how much they care about me.” 

 

Heather Wright is the associate editor of the Life & Times.

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