Smartphones Aren’t Cigarettes: Why Banning Devices Never Works

Smartphones Aren't Cigarettes: Why Banning Devices Never Works

On the surface, it’s easy to understand the parental desire to ban devices. Witnessing our children whittle their lives away on the internet evokes a natural instinct to save them from these mindless, time-sucking screens. Every parent has felt the urge to grab all of the phones, tablets and laptops in the house, and lock them away indefinitely. To unplug the entire internet. To save your children from themselves.

But smartphone aren’t cigarettes. Employing a “ban” reduces their devices into vices, rather than accepting the reality of what technology means to your children, and what it can provide to you: a powerful tool for raising more thoughtful, self-aware kids.

First, let’s acknowledge that parental fears about devices are not unfounded. A growing body of research shows that mobile apps and social media hit the neural reward centers of people’s brains in eerily similar ways to a slot machine does for a gambling addict. Facebook notifications, Instagram “likes,” Netflix autoplay, and Snapchat’s “streak” function represent an intentional effort by app designers to target the user’s willpower, engineering experiences that form habits which are difficult to resist.

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There is also evidence that too much device time can be damaging to childhood development. In her 2015 book Reclaiming Conversation, MIT professor Sherry Turkle makes the case that “always on” connections impair adolescent development and degrade their ability to empathize. Rather than learning to gain strength from solitude, children who spend a lot of time on devices feel a powerful “disconnection anxiety” whenever they are not digitally connected. Turkle provides worrisome anecdotes from middle school teachers whose students avoid eye contact and seemingly cannot read body language as if socialized into an Asperger’s spectrum, and cites a study that found a 40% decline in empathy amongst college students.

Sounds scary, right? If raising children without empathy terrifies you, consider the fact that banning cell phones or shutting off the internet may actually be akin to severing all of your child’s personal and emotional connections. For many young people, their social lives are deeply intertwined with technology — in ways that are hard for parents to understand. One survey of young adults showed that 46 percent of them would prefer a broken bone to a broken phone; and many who came around to choosing a broken phone did so after agonizing over the decision.

This isn’t because children are crazy, it’s because they are driven by the human desire to belong. Young people find their place within society by being part of a community and exploring their role within it. For many members of the next generation, their online community is just as important as offline interactions.

In every generation, parents have feared the moral corruption of their children by a new and unfamiliar technology—whether it was the printing press, radio or television. We can see today how futile their resistance to change was. Technology isn’t going anywhere.

If you respect the fact that your children’s devices are an essential part of their lives, you can finally shift the dynamic in your household from a power struggle to a real conversation. Turning off the internet temporarily pauses the supply, but does nothing to temper their demand.

Begin a series of conversations with your children, and listen more than you talk. Let them know that you will no longer be confiscating their devices. This isn’t about your ability to control, it’s about empowering them to build healthier technology habits. Ask them:

  • What do they think about the time they spend on the internet? Do they believe it’s always 100% well spent?
  • How many hours would they give themselves each day to do the fun things online, like watch Netflix, play games and use Snapchat?
  • Can they guess how much time they spend online every day?

Solutions like unGlue allow you to track the amount of time each child spends online, and on specific apps or websites. Track their online behavior for a week, and then discuss. How close are they to their original guess?

Your children may be surprised by how much time they spend online; most young people’s brains are still developing executive temporal judgment, meaning they struggle to accurately judge the length of time spent doing an activity. With a clearer understanding of their own behavior, ask them what amount of internet time they would allot themselves. unGlue also allows you to set internet schedules and “fun time” limits (for games and social media); it even allows kids to track remaining minutes or request more time in exchange for chores. They learn the internet has value, as does their time.

Approaching internet usage this way radically transforms the way your children see their own device usage. Banning your kid’s devices, permanently or sporadically, merely strengthens their desire to regain access to this “forbidden fruit” and to sneak around when they should be going to bed or doing homework. Creating awareness of their own behavior and setting boundaries together, allows your children to feel in control of their own access while forming better technology habits for the future.

The screen time app that empowers your kids. Download unGlue for FREE