First thing in the morning. On the way to school. As soon as she gets home. Even after you’ve told her lights out. If those are just some of the times your girl is likely to be staring at her phone, you’re not alone in being concerned—in fact, two out of three parents feel their teen spends too much time on mobile devices. But is her phone attachment really cause for concern? Kids today are growing up in a digital world, even more so than previous generations. And just like all the other places we need to help our kids be healthy and strong, we need to support them here, too. We talked to Girl Scouts’ Developmental Psychologist Dr. Andrea Bastiani Archibald to get the scoop.
“According to recent studies, a full 50 percent of teens say they’re addicted to their devices, and they’re probably right in a way,” says Dr. Bastiani Archibald, “but that doesn’t mean that your daughter’s time on her phone isn’t ever worthwhile.” Sure, cell phones can be used for a billion different things these days—including some fairly mindless games, but there are a lot of really interesting and beneficial things your daughter is probably doing on her phone as well. First off, some games are educational or require strategy and thought processes that will help her in other arenas. Plus, the photography and film making capabilities on today’s phones are helping more and more young people explore their creativity in a very empowering, hands-on way. “Kids who in past generations would have never had access to high-quality cameras or video equipment are more likely to have those tools at their fingertips today,” says Dr. Bastiani Archibald, “and that means they have the ability to create their own stories and express themselves in powerful and artistic new ways."
As you probably already know from your own daughter’s habits, though, sending texts is one of the most popular things for teens to do with their phones. It’s estimated that roughly 7 in 10 girls text friends on a daily basis, but that number may be even higher. “The amount of texting might seem extreme or even unnecessary to some parents—maybe when you were growing up, you’d just walk down the block and meet up with your best friend,” says Dr. Bastiani Archibald, “but today’s kids are too often overscheduled. They tend to live farther from their friends or don’t have the ability to see them as often face-to-face.” In fact, just 25 percent of teens get to spend time with their friends in-person outside of school.
Dr. Bastiani Archibald emphasizes that developing and maintaining close friendships through adolescence is important to your daughter’s confidence, social development, and general emotional health. “Even if girls are just trading jokes or talking about what movie they want to see this weekend, these quick texts are helping to strengthen friendships—and studies show that girls with strong friendships are happier, have more confidence, and adapt more easily to new situations. All good things!” And if you’re frustrated with the amount of time your daughter devotes to scrolling on social media, chew on this: a whopping 68 percent of teens who use Instagram, Facebook, or similar platforms say they’ve received support in tough or challenging times through their social network.
But is there a time you should take a stand when it comes to your daughter’s phone use? “Bullying can happen via texting or social media, so if looking at her phone tends to make her upset or anxious, you should talk to her about what’s going on,” says Dr. Bastiani Archibald. She suggests asking your daughter who she’s been chatting with, what she likes about those friends, and also which things about them she might be annoyed or frustrated by. And while she acknowledges that especially with younger children, a spot check of messages or social media is often fully appropriate—because younger kids might not be as aware of how the messages they send are coming across, and they might also not be aware of or know how to handle inappropriate situations—she still emphasizes direct communication in these matters. “The key is to get her to open up to you, rather than regularly spying on her messages or texts,” she says, “which could betray her trust and make her less likely to share important information with you in the future. Asking kids how they treat each other in texts and on social is just as important as asking about how they treat each other in the cafeteria.”
As for the amount of time she spends on her phone, it’s likely your daughter agrees that she could cut back. In fact, more than half of teens fully admit that they spend too much time on mobile devices. But before you start limiting your kid’s screen time, you might want to step back and think about how much time you spend attached to your phone as well. In a recent study, 54 percent of kids said their parents checked their devices too often, and more than one in three said they felt unimportant when their parents were distracted by their phones. So the problem goes both ways.
How to fix? Set aside no-phone times with your family, when all of your phones get put in a drawer, in a basket, or in the other room “Family meal times are an ideal time for this, but you might also want to add in an extra hour or two without screens each night, or decide that none of you will use phones for anything other than GPS on a family car ride,” advises Dr. Bastiani Archibald. Have your kids help decide when it makes most sense for everyone to put down their phones so they take ownership and don't just see it as a punishment. After all, some conversations are better to have in-person than over text or social media, and it’s important that your kids can communicate directly just as well as they can digitally. Have your children help set the ground rules and decide on appropriate times beyond meal times for face-to-face conversation only. “You might feel some anxiety at first, wondering if you’re missing messages, but you’ll get to them soon enough—and the conversations and bonding time you’ll have as a family will end up being worth the sacrifice.”