Here’s a pro-tip from this mother of five: Just say no to smartphones and social media.
The power struggle between Congress and Big Tech is heating up in the wake of bombshell whistleblower allegations about Instagram’s harmful effects on the mental health of teenagers. In response, Republican senator Marsha Blackburn and Democratic senator Richard Blumenthal teamed up for a laudable bipartisan investigation, but concerned parents should not expect much to change.
Parents could, however, take matters into their own hands. Parents are the real power brokers when it comes to their children, yet we often give in to the relentless pleas for iPhones, Instagram, SnapChat, and TikTok. Here’s a pro-tip from this mother of five: Just say no to smartphones and social media for your teenagers. No smartphone. No social media. It is easier than you think.
First, happier kids are generally easier to raise. Teens on social media tend to be less happy — and more likely to be depressed, anxious, and lonely. Parenting gets more complicated if your child’s brain is being wired by content that is shockingly disturbing. Today’s teens are inundated with exponentially more damaging messages than the sex, drugs, and rock and roll our parents used to fret over. Today’s average kid stumbles across pornography at age eleven. A recent Wall Street Journal exposé of TikTok accounts of 13- to 15-year-olds is horrifying: Feeds are dominated by endless videos of violent sexual bondage, glorification of drug use and drunk driving, and how-to-videos of eating disorders and self-harm.
Smartphones have parental controls, of course, but tech-savvy kids often find workarounds. “Experts” advise limiting screen time, but the genius programmers in Silicon Valley designed these platforms to be highly addictive. Teenagers quickly turn into Screenagers. Parents trying to enforce limits have been set up for constant battle. The developing adolescent brain does not seem to have sufficient impulse control to overcome the lure of these devices. Once you allow your teen to possess a personal device, the device will possess your teen.
So if you don’t want to raise a cyborg, it seems wise to avoid buying a pocket-supercomputer jacked with algorithms designed to hook your kid. Creating and feeding a Screenager Beast, then battling the unsatiated appetite for more screen time, is a bad parental strategy.
The alternative approach is to keep the smartphone genie in the bottle. Stick with a family desktop computer for homework and email. Teens can learn digital literacy on a computer planted in your family room, which protects curious young minds from wandering down dangerous rabbit holes that are more alluring on a personal device. Purchase a mobile phone that is not a smartphone. Alternative products such as the Light Phone and Gabb Wireless have talking, texting, camera, GPS capability, and even sport the face-saving look of a sleek iPhone, but without social media. Old-fashioned flip-phones work too, but only if your teen is confident enough to embrace a retro look. One of our older teens voluntarily tried a flip phone for a while and found his peers reacted with a touch of awe and even envy that he could survive and even thrive.
The toughest part of the just-say-no approach is that no one wants their teenager to feel left out. That is hard, but not impossible, to overcome. Parents can conspire with other parents in their kids’ social circle to be united in saying no. The website “Wait Until 8th” has good ideas on how to do this. Parental collusion and solidarity help stiffen moms’ and dads’ spines, and lessen the demand if your child is not the “only one without an iPhone!” Help your kids build an in-person social life by making your house the party house. Invest in a ping-pong table, a fire pit, pizza, even sugary soft drinks. Our family is currently on teenager number four, and they’ve all managed robust social lives without an iPhone.
Eventually, kids need to learn how to use technology responsibly — and better to teach them while still under your roof. After some trial and error, we decided senior year is the sweet spot for our kids — so our older teens shifted to smartphones and have chosen to have a light footprint on social media. But they had a chance to grow up without being manipulated by Silicon Valley algorithms, without being corrupted by YouTubers and TikTok-ers, and without their brains being rewired and attention spans short-circuited.
So don’t wait for the politicians and tech giants to come up with well-intentioned solutions. You may not be a genius, but you can outsmart the artificial intelligence designed to keep your kids hooked on screens. Children are being robbed of the innocence of childhood, simple joys, and authentic formation in friendship and love. Give your kids the gift of saying no. Ours are grateful we did.
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