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The Flip Side

Parents Can Help Teens Unplug by Modeling Digital Boundaries

From the Gutenberg printing press to television, innovations in media have always sparked dramatic changes in society. Yet no previous media has pervaded daily life as quickly as the smartphone. This technology was first released in 2000. By 2017, according to the Pew Research Center, 77 percent of Americans had smartphones. Coinciding with the rise in popularity of this device is a significant increase in the amount of time people spend online—and concern about how these trends may affect interpersonal relationships. A 2016 poll by Common Sense Media found that 66 percent of parents believe their teens spend too much time on mobile devices. The same poll also found that many parents also struggle to control their own digital engagement.

Digital devices are hard to put down because behavioral research informs their design, as well as the social media, games, and other programs that we use them to access. It’s an impressive trick: These devices offer the allure of connecting to a broader world, even as they dilute the connection we have to our immediate surroundings. Checking phones during face-to-face conversations, for example, lowers the quality of those interactions, according to Sherry Turkle, author of Reclaiming Conversation and director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self. “Conversation is the most human and humanizing thing we do,” Turkle says. “It’s where empathy is born, where intimacy is born.” Just the presence of a cell phone on a lunch table signals that those gathered are not wholly invested in the present moment. As a result, Turkle says, people discuss less important topics, in which they wouldn’t mind being interrupted.

The cumulative impact of what seem like small choices can grow. Technology use becomes a problem when it starts to interfere with the functions of everyday life. Many are advocating for the American Psychiatric Association to include Internet Addiction Disorder in the next Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Symptoms would include depression, dishonesty, disruption of sleeping and eating schedules, avoidance of responsibilities, carpal tunnel syndrome, and headaches.

Educators, social workers, and medical professionals are already seeing how overreliance on digital connections exacerbates other challenges teens face. Anxiety disorders among young adults have increased in recent years, and most of anxious students with whom I work also have technology addictions. The digital world is a convenient place to disappear when young people struggle to solidify other connections. The therapeutic programs and schools with which I work have developed strategies to help young people build an intentional and balanced relationship with technology.

Every modern family would benefit from framing the boundaries of technology use. It is important to consciously choose how we use these tools, rather than to automatically respond to their persistent beckoning. Experts often recommend mini-holidays from technology and setting daily boundaries about where and when devices can be used at home. Parents being able to disengage are vital to modeling this behavior for their children. By prioritizing the importance of personal relationships, we can take advantage of the benefits that modern technologies offer, while minimizing the drawbacks.

Jeremy McGeorge specializes in serving families whose children need therapeutic services as part of their educational plan. He is also Bertram's point person on sustainable education. He can be reached at