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Is getting rid of our kids’ smartphones really the answer?

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The real issue is a timeless one -- overcoming our fears and anxieties and dealing with our flaws together.

If you’re like me, you’re sick of the tidal wave of gloom-and-doom articles about smartphone addiction. We know. Nagging didn’t work when we were teenagers and it doesn’t work now. Smartphones have become our great cultural scapegoat, and as long as we continue to focus on them, we will never find our solution. The problem isn’t our smartphones, it’s something inside of us. And it’s affecting our families, relationships, and children.

We’ve all had the uncanny experience of watching our little ones’ eyes glaze over in front of their devices. We’ve felt that nagging sense that something isn’t healthy when they throw a huge fit because the device is taken away. And, at the same time, we’ve had that desperate feeling that we’re out of control and know that we can stick that digital pacifier back in and maybe take a breath. It’s sure effective, but is it the right thing to do?

Renowned psychologist Jean M. Twenge certainly doesn’t think so, and perceptively explains why. The Generation Me author and master of long book titles recently released a new look at the disturbing trend in iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood — and What That Means for the Rest of Us. The book was recently summarized in The Atlantic, focusing on the claim that we’ve completely lost a generation to iPhones.

The caveat to over-protecting our kids

Twenge uses some pretty convincing research to link addictive smartphone use to higher rates of depression and a higher likelihood of suicide. At first reading, the article made me want to huddle my children in their rooms away from all devices. But Twenge found that that was a huge part of the problem.

Our generation is so susceptible to severely overprotecting our children — but that only leads to arrested development and heightened anxiety. Our children are safer physically than they ever have been before. There are fewer teenage pregnancies, less teenage drinking, lower rates of teenage driving fatalities, the list goes on. But all of that seems to be because kids are spending most of their free time frolicking in the world of social media. They spend time with their friends, sure, but digitally. They aren’t getting jobs so they have more time to study and get into a good college (but they’re not really studying more than any generation before them has).

So we’re getting what we want in some ways. There are some great things happening to this generation, and a good deal of it is due to their use of smartphones. But at what cost?

Parents need to set the example

Kids aren’t the only ones addicted to media. We’re pretty bad, too. They get the devices from us. And they’re especially susceptible to the different psychological emotions that drive their family’s home life. Now we begin to dig down to the real problem. What’s motivating us to maintain destructive habits?

“I believe that if you dig down in your gut and ask yourself why you are looking at your phone you will discover that your motivation for constant connection is a combination of pleasure and anxiety,” offers Psychologist Dr. Larry D. Rosen, an expert of sorts in smartphone use, in a 2015 article in Psychology Today.

He added a third motivation: Many of us use our phones as a “social shield.” We all have a bit of society anxiety, but we used to have to face it head on. Now we can avoid it and just coexist with others instead of interacting or entering into conflict or disagreement with them.

Avoiding messy social activity, craving a dopamine hit, or itching for a relief from your FOMO, all these motivations hurt family relationships, numb the romance in dating relationships, and hurt the bond between children and parents.

The fact is, messy social activity is family life. Tempering your need for pleasure is a key ingredient for a loving marriage. Deciding to miss out on some things is what makes romance meaningful. You choose to commit yourself to one person for life, and then the two of you choose to give up your independence and freedom and give them to your children.

How to resist

Marketers and technology and app developers are getting better and better at pulling us in and keeping us in, but we have the power to not give in.

This isn’t just nostalgia for the good old days; it’s an urgent need in a society of isolation that is making it harder and harder for families, and relationships in general, to function. Thousands of years ago, Socrates famously declared that the unexamined life is not worth living. This should become our new goal to overcome a culture careening off the deep end.

So why not begin by asking yourself, “Why am I doing what I’m doing? Why am I sitting my child or myself in front of my screen right now?” You may have a reasonable answer sometimes, but other times you might struggle. That brilliant, simple question is the key to the examined life, but there’s something else we vitally need if we’re really going to achieve some lasting break with our dependency on things like smartphones as easy outs: silence.

We can ask “why,” but there has to be space to discover the answer. Most of us suffer from a deficiency of silence in our lives, though we crave it the way our body craves vitamins and nutrients. This explains that dirty, frustrating feeling following a marathon social media scroll-through session. It’s easy to see why that is: silence is the enemy of the virtual world. “The greatest things are accomplished in silence, not in the clamor and display of superficial eventfulness, but in the deep clarity of inner vision …,” writes Romano Guardini in his work The Lord.

Soon, we begin to see that “smartphone addiction” isn’t really the problem. There’s something bigger there. The real issue is a timeless one — overcoming our fears and anxieties and dealing with our flaws together. And that should give us hope. Generation after generation has found a way to confront its challenges, albeit in messy and imperfect ways. So why can’t ours?  

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