It is hard to believe how much a smart phone has changed my life and how reliant on it I have grown over the last five years. It is my window into my calendar, my email, the news, the weather, driving directions, as well as staying in touch with colleagues, family, and friends. As an adult I have found the need to place limits on my own phone habits, however, such as no phone time during dinner, when I am visiting with friends or family, or when going to bed at night. These limits help me seek balance in my life and model healthy use for my kids. For many students middle school is the time when they get their first cell phones. For some students their first phone is a smart phone, which gives them unfettered access to the worldwide web and all the wonderful and terrible things it holds. Like me, students quickly come to depend upon the devices, which can preoccupy their attention. Students are less able than adults, however, to impose self-monitoring limits on their usage. The social pressure that is created by phones and unlimited access and overuse can add to stress, anxiety and interference with sleep. It is important for parents to know how their children are using cell phones and have clear rules and limits around them.
Why is it so hard for students to put down a cell phone? I have seen students sitting in groups after school, all completely engrossed in their phones, not talking to or making eye contact with their peers around them. While they are physically present, they are choosing not to connect with their friends and that feels worrisome. In her article entitled "Teens Sleeping with Cell Phones: A Clear and Present Danger," Dr. Suzanne Phillips explains, "Neuro-imaging has shown that back and forth texting floods the pleasure centers of the brain, the same area that lights up when using heroin. The emotional disruption of a real or perceived negative response, however, necessitates more texting to repair the mood, to fix the feelings of rejection, blame and disconnection." Given the impact on the brain's pleasure-center, it is easy to see how addictive the texting exchange can become and can even trump in-person interactions.
During a consultation with Dr. Mark Kline of Human Resources Center this past week, our school counselors and administrators discussed other issues created when teens have 24/7 access to cell phones. We explored the phenomena of cell phones exacerbating an over-stimulating middle school environment. The social demands of friendship at this age are overwhelming and concurrently romantic interests begin to preoccupy the minds of many students. A couple of periods spent observing the lunchroom and any adult would see this reality first hand. With the advent of unlimited cell phone access (outside of school hours), there is often no down time from the social pressure. Peers expect texts to be answered in real time and Instagram postings to be commented upon. Dr. Phillips notes, "At an age when self-esteem hinges on peer acceptance, being caught in the demands of always being available is difficult. Many teens report stories of friends getting insulted, angry or upset if a text message or phone call is not responded to immediately." That is an incredible amount of pressure for students to bear. It can lead to heightened anxiety and interrupted sleep.
When Mr. Benzie or I receive reports of students' worrisome online behavior, more often than not we find that the time stamp of mean or inappropriate posting was made via cell phone in the wee hours of the night - even on school nights. The ever-present cell phone is preventing much needed sleep and allowing students to make impulsive decisions that have significant consequences. Once it is posted, it never truly can disappear. Limiting access to the cell phones can prevent reckless decisions and texts and literally keep students out of trouble. Additionally, nighttime is often a time when teens feel most vulnerable. A sad, lonely child may express unhappiness through a text that can cause a friend to worry about his or her safety. We'd rather have a student who is truly in pain wake up a parent to get help rather than reach out to an unequipped friend who is then left with incredible worry. The sleep deprivation leaves all parties anxious and exhausted.
Believe it or not, teens frequently experience relief when parents impose limits on cell phone time. Dr. Gail Gross explains in her blog post entitled, "Teens and Technology: Managing Cell Phone Usage," that "studies show that kids actually like having times set by parents because it also gives them a socially acceptable 'out' from having to be tethered to their phones for their friends 24/7." A break from the phone is critical. Dr. Suzanne Phillips notes, "Research has found that major cross sections of the brain become surprisingly active during downtime. Private time without stimulation allows the brain to synthesize information, make connections between ideas and foster development of a personal self." If we want students to grow and learn in healthy ways, then they need a break from cell phones. They also need uninterrupted sleep time, to recharge, which a buzzing cell phone just doesn't allow.
I do not bring my phone to my bedroom, but leave it charging in my office, knowing that in the event of a real emergency I will get a call on my landline. If I, as an adult, need that physical distance to prevent interruption to my sleep, teens need it too. If you are going to provide your child with a cell phone, just like we asked you to create a Chromebook family contract to govern use, we encourage you to set up explicit rules around cell phone use. Don't be afraid to impose limits, rules, and monitoring expectations. In doing so you will give your kids the gift of down time from social pressures and a good night's sleep. Don't expect a "thank you," but know that you are doing your child an important service.
Links to Resources for Parents:
2015 Best Cell Phone Parental Control Software Review
2015 Best Parental Software Review
Dr. Suzanne Phillips, "Teens Sleeping with Cell Phones: A Clear and Present Danger"
Dr. Gail Gross, "Teens and Technology: Managing Cell Phone Usage"