Published on March 12th, 2020 | by Judy Sobeloff1
Disconnect: Trying to Keep My Teenagers Smartphone-Free
For the last several years my husband, Dave*, and I have had furtive, tryst-like conversations on the topic of smartphones, huddling together in our basement laundry room beneath the one bare bulb. There, in the most private, soundproof nook of our house, under a network of exposed pipes and dangling wires, we sift through the latest installments of an escalating peril. We don’t see any way out, but we keep trying to find one.
I feel a little like the mythological Cassandra, whose punishment from the gods was to speak about things no one wanted to hear, or maybe I feel more like Chicken Little. The situation feels like it’s us against the culture, and since we love our kids and they, reasonably, want to be well-ensconced in the culture, our resistance to something we see as damaging is becoming harder and harder.
Our daughter, Hannah, lobbied for a smartphone since well before sixth grade, the first year she was “the only one” who didn’t have one. As we approached every significant transition point Dave and I would think that surely now we would need to give in—when she turned thirteen; when she had her Bat Mitzvah, which meant she was officially recognized as an adult, old enough at least in the eyes of God, if not her parents, to get a phone; when she switched for eighth grade from her small charter school to our town’s big middle school. But then we would somehow manage to make our way through without producing a phone, our relationship with Hannah miraculously still intact.
Dave, who has taught physics at the same university for almost two decades, said the majority of students coming fresh out of high school “are on their phones essentially all the time. The average incoming student never opens the textbook anymore—it just isn’t done. Their abilities have gone through the floor. Many of them seem to lack the ability to reason and learn—they can’t extract any kind of meaning from a paragraph if it’s at all challenging.”
He said the problem was clearly new. “The top students remain just as good, but the bulk of the students, the ones who would have gotten some skills before—that’s gone. This is extremely painful to me.”
We weren’t trying to say smartphones = bad, isolation = good, hey you kids with your loud music and short skirts, get off my lawn. But long before the proliferation of articles suggesting links between a) skyrocketing rates of depression and anxiety among teens and b) skyrocketing rates of smartphone and social media use among teens, we were concerned about the instant access all the time, the limitless portability, the eradication of boredom and the need to think for oneself, the phone-induced quality of being there but not being there, and the inability to get away. The way these little machines seem to bulldoze every little thing in their path to make way for themselves, the way they command, in effect, “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.”
When Hannah started high school we got her a pre-paid, off-brand, not-smart phone of sorts so she could text and call, sold on her argument that she would need it to find her friends at lunchtime for going off-campus—but though it looked like a perfectly acceptable specimen of a phone to us, it turned out to be mostly non-functional and too embarrassing to use in public anyway, and so she was essentially still phoneless.
“Just call your friends,” I suggested helpfully many times. “Email them. Have them over! Do things together in person!”
But doing things together live and in person and taking more initiative was not what Hannah wanted to do. “No one calls or emails anymore,” she said. “All they do is Snapchat and Instagram. That’s the main way people are friends. If I didn’t have good social skills and wasn’t able to joke about not having a phone, I’d have no friends. You don’t understand at all, Mom. If you did you would get me an iPhone.”
Sadly, I thought I did understand: the deprivation sucked. And we, the deprivers, sucked too. Which is part of what we were concerned about: not only the incessant contact from the phone; the loss of the ability to discover one’s own thoughts first before being deluged by external input; how this unfettered communication provides the illusion of connection without much of the substance; but also how our trying to prevent this from happening to the only high schooler we had jurisdiction over meant separating her from her peers, which made Hannah justifiably angry and irritable at us and thus risked her disconnecting from us as well. Hannah was sure we didn’t understand; otherwise, we would never do this to her.
We needed to figure out a way to make fighting back against this seem sexy or palatable, Dave and I decided during one of our laundry room confabs. “We need an organization with other families in it,” Dave said. “It’s almost worth pretending one exists and faking it. She could tell her friends, ‘My parents are part of this crazy no-phone cult. And can you believe it? They started it!’” We cracked up at this, down in our lair beside the decaying sheetrock and the one small cobweb-covered window. At least we were laughing.
We needed a name, like Families Against Phones—only not that—we decided, though we couldn’t think of a single other family with teenagers who might join us. All of our parent friends who felt the same way a few years back no longer even seemed to remember having had these concerns.
“It’s getting to be like Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” Dave said, “where we can’t talk to the friends who’ve already gone over to the dark side.” But maybe, perhaps hiding out in their own basements, there were other holdouts? Based on a non-random sample of every parent I knew, I’ll go out on a limb here and say I think not.
We were well aware of how futile resistance was, how easy it would be to do the socially accepted thing and Just Say Yes to the new world, yet Dave and I, who had not-smart phones ourselves, continued to strategize and hang on. And then we caved and got Hannah an older-model iPhone without a data plan the summer before her sophomore year—somehow I was lulled into believing she’d be willing to give it up after using it to take photos on a trip to Canada. So then Hannah had the barely functional not-smart phone for texting and calling, and the dataless smartphone for everything else. She pointed out that this was annoying and inconvenient, which—sorry, sweetie—was what we wanted. A tenuous truce, for however long it could last. The few teachers I talked with over the years applauded our efforts but nonetheless had students use smartphones for assignments in class. Even without data, Hannah used hers all day long.
And then last summer we stood on the threshold of phone-dom with Hannah’s younger brother, Sam, an incoming ninth grader, the only high school student we knew of without a smartphone, or any kind of phone. In other words: one fallen, one still standing. As hyperbolic and alarmist as that sounds. Hannah, a caring older sister, was begging us to let Sam have a smartphone and at least Snapchat, which she said was especially important for boys, so he’d get off to a good start and fit in at high school. He seemed to be saving his strength, letting her fight his battles, assuming that since she got a phone in high school he’d get one, too. He barely said a word on the subject himself, popping up only once like a ground squirrel at the beginning of the summer to say, “Hey, I’m starting high school, then I get to have a phone,” looking around quickly before emitting an ultrasonic ground-squirrel squeal and ducking back underground.
I was holding on to the remaining days before school started, still trying to figure out what we could get away with not letting him have, how much longer we could go the route dictated by our hearts and minds rather than by the culture at large. How much longer he could be a kid following his own interests rather than one tethered to others’ incoming signals and instructions. Finally, shortly before school started, not seeing what tenable choice we had, we got him the lowest-end smartphone we could find.
Hannah and I had talked briefly about—and for my part, tried to avoid talking about—smartphones many times. When I finally sat down with her on the big beanbag chair in our living room and listened to what she saw as the benefits, I started to understand that smartphones, in making the internet and social media ever-present, have contributed to young people caring about social issues—or rather, not caring about social issues in the discriminatory ways many older people do—and I saw her as informed and articulate and part of her time.
She agreed, in her words, that “the world is insane and we’re exposed to way more of it,” but she also saw that “so much is way better with social media and the internet. So many movements, like Black Lives Matter, wouldn’t have happened without the internet. I think people care more about things that are happening because of the internet, and they know more, so there’s more anxiety. That’s not just teenagers—that’s everyone.
“I watched this video,” she continued, “and this guy was saying, ‘When I was a kid we didn’t have all these transgenders.’ Well, yeah, you did—you just didn’t know. There’s so much more acceptance now, and that’s all because of social media, because stuff reaches so many more people.”
She also noted that despite all the research showing increased rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide among teens, “no one is saying, ‘Don’t let your kids have a smartphone.’” Which is a big part of what has made resisting—and now navigating—this situation so hard. All anyone in the public eye says is to set limits, but we haven’t found any viable way how.
Even after we got Hannah a smartphone, we still tried to stave off social media, the final frontier—until the following summer, when she simply started using Snapchat and Instagram on her own. When I found out, I heard a chorus of voices in my head—“she’s a great kid, all her friends are using this, there’s not really anything reasonable you can do”—and we didn’t make her stop. And when we got Sam a phone and he started using Instagram without asking us a few months later, we didn’t make him stop, either.
I want to pause the story here. Back when we were still pondering whether it was okay to conduct a painful social experiment, however well-intentioned, on our own kids or whether our reluctance to give our kids smartphones was more akin to trying to prevent them from participating in an unplanned social experiment. Back when we were still searching for some way forward we hadn’t thought of yet, when we felt we had taken the road of no phone—or low phone—as far as we reasonably could. Before our kids made pretty much every life decision for themselves, before we as parents reached the limits of what we could or could not any longer do. Before we struggled with not how we should intervene but with the realization that we could intervene less and less, and thus with the realization that all we could hope to continue to have is our relationship with them.
But no one gets to pause their story.
Earlier this year I finally listened to the chorus of voices saying “but she’s a great kid” and “you can just give it a try” and let myself be persuaded to get Hannah a data plan. And then I flew across the country for what unexpectedly turned out to be an extended stay immersed in a family health crisis, helping out my own mom. When I finally returned home, Hannah’s junior year was almost over and she seemed to be on her phone as much as any other teenager, i.e., way too much for me, despite many conversations in which she agreed to use her phone less.
Sometimes I miss her younger self. I get that a certain amount of nostalgic longing may be an inherent part of being a parent, but I can’t help thinking that the phone—beneficial in many ways though it is—is leaching some part of Hannah from herself and from all of us. Part of me wishes we had decided to withstand the battles that would have come with not allowing her to have a data plan, or at least that we’d gotten her a less user-friendly phone, the way we did for her younger brother—but I don’t see any relationship-preserving or modern-world-inhabiting way we could have done that.
Much like keeping track of our kids’ heights with pencil marks on a wall in our kitchen, I’ve updated this essay at every stage of what I now see as our kids’ inexorable approach to being entwined with smartphones. Back when Hannah was in seventh grade, she said, “You’re doing like the worst thing to me, by trying to protect me from my life!” She was smiling and friendly when she said it, which I didn’t take for granted—and sadly for us, she was probably right. What we want to protect—and realize is increasingly no longer ours to protect—is our kids’ lives.
Now, with Hannah a senior and Sam a sophomore, they both have smartphones with data, though at least the service is sometimes unreliable. They have the whole world right there, all the time. Hannah has had her driver’s license for almost two years, and Sam will get his soon. The world beckons, and we’re starting to envision them driving away.
*Names have been changed by the author.