She is sitting across from me in my office, and her mother is sitting to her right. Seconds earlier, in a casual way, I had posed the question. As I waited for an answer, I mentally rehearsed what I knew I was going to hear. Not blessed with ESP or any special perceptive powers, I found myself with little doubt at to what the response would be. Without a hint of dissonance or embarrassment, she replies:
“Well, I need it for the alarm.”
Over the years, I’ve spoken to countless parents and children about the risks of keeping a smart phone on next to them in bed. We’ve discussed how the phone can disrupt sleep, both with respect to messages coming through as well as unconscious expectations that one might be coming soon. We’ve talked about how the blue light from the phones can disrupt their circadian rhythm and how the temptation of the phone can lead to later nights and earlier mornings than desired. And at some point, we’ve also discussed how online illicit activity is most likely late at night, alone in the room when no one else is awake.
From these realities and other concerns, a clear guideline has emerged for all kids who have mobile devices: The devices should be removed from the room prior to bedtime, and charged somewhere in a public place until morning. If teens or parents are concerned about the potential for a late night emergency, then parents can reserve the right to keep a phone where they can hear it. Few habits are fraught with more risks than a teen nestled next to his or her phone. And yet recent surveys indicate that approximately 85 percent of teens in the US sleep with their phone on in close proximity.
Yet what is even more striking than the percent of those who are not heeding nighttime recommendations is the rationalization that youth (and even their parents) repeatedly make in justifying this decision. Although a few readily admit that they simply don’t want to miss late night communications, or need it in case of an emergency, so many teens claim that it is the need for an alarm that demands their phone stay nearby. When I joke with them that I have successfully managed to use a $10 alarm for about 20 years, the response typically sounds like this:
“Well, I had an alarm clock at one point, but for some reason it doesn’t work.”
The alarm clock industry has clearly not experienced a technological regression so it’s clear that the reason being given is a cop-out. The real issue runs much deeper. If we were talking about freshmen college students, this might be a legitimate case to make (although not without its own concerns). But when we’re talking about a 14-year-old, high school freshman, it’s clear that the “alarm excuse” is a cover for what can best be termed as FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). Because when the discussion continues, many teens eventually acknowledge that they are reluctant to let go of the one device that assures they will not be left out. And frankly, who can blame them?
Unless parents clearly set a standard that any nighttime communication can wait until the morning, and that all emergencies will be handled through the “central office,” youth who are smack dab in the middle of the “identity formation” period of their lives are constantly barraged with thoughts that center on just where they fit in (or don’t). Yet unlike the teens of decades ago, who had to tie up the only phone line in the house to keep this anxiety percolating, youth of today have been handed devices that promise to always keep them in the loop. Forget the landline—youth of today are focused on the lifeline that they believe their mobile devices have become.
In our sanest moments, we as parents must ask ourselves whether any part of this habit makes sense. Although the societal trends can easily put us to sleep on this matter, the reality is that there isn’t a single good reason that our teens, living in our homes, need a phone within reach at night. They are already the most sleep deprived cohort on the planet, and the more sleep deprived people are, the more anxious they are likely to become. The last thing we need today are more anxious teens, but we sure do need more rested ones.
So, with Christmas just around the corner, I have the perfect last minute gift idea for all of you parents looking for something sleek and functional for your special adolescent — a brand new, state of the art, alarm clock. And don’t just go for the $10 variety; make sure this one has all the newest features (minus the gaming or online options) and a warranty that guarantees it won’t fail after a week.
Your teen will thank you (well, maybe some day).
The trick to parenting independent teens requires more than just rules