Parenting is a Journey
An Adventure of Discovery Not Only of our Children But of Ourselves as Well
Why Kids Can’t Put Their Phones Down (and what to do about it)
By Ben Campopiano
Walk around a school in 2017 and you’ll notice the exact same thing that you notice at your home or in your car - kids on phones. Now, there’s nothing wrong with cell phones - they help in emergencies, support our studies, shorten our time in traffic, help us choose the best new restaurant in town, and keep us connected to our friends and family - but the way they are currently being used by kids can quickly become problematic.
Research shows that we all get natural boosts when we anticipate a reward or response. This has been true since the beginning of time, but the difference now is that we can continually manipulate our lives so that we are constantly anticipating a response or reward. Send a text, await a response, feel anxious. Search Google, await a result, get curious. Post a picture, await a response, get excited. All we need to do in order to feel better is to trigger something that will allow us to anticipate a response. And that’s pretty easy to do when the device at your fingerprints gives you thousands of ways to get your fix.
In today’s smartphone and social media world, kids can literally get this natural chemical boost every minute of the day by utilizing the tools on their phone. The problem with this? Well, brain activity research shows that our natural reaction to reward is actually less stimulating than the anticipation prior to the reward. So, it’s the posting of the pic or the sending of the text that actually gets kids going. Since they literally feel better when they are anticipating something, they constantly seek and search and post and text so that they are always anticipating. And if they are in a state of anticipation, they are getting that natural boost that will keep them coming back for more.
Yet when the comments flood in on Facebook, the likes come in on Instagram, or the emails arrive in their inbox, they aren’t fully satisfied. They’re appeased, but they’re not satisfied. So to get their fix, the process starts anew, and our kids get back to doing something that provides anticipation.
We’re all seeing the same thing - kids just seemingly can’t put the phone down. It feels like they literally cannot let them go. Battles ensue because this addiction causes the kids to lose focus or ignore the conversations, questions, or activities that they should be engaged with. Teachers get frustrated. Parents get frustrated. Kids get frustrated. All because kids can’t let go.
The ironic thing is that the same problems occur in our staff meetings at school, our conference rooms at corporations, and at dinner with our spouses. Adults are often just as bad with their phones as kids are. Just like kids, we get a natural boost anticipating the results of a search, a response from a text thread, or a reaction to a post on Facebook. That said, there is a difference.
Adults use their phones and social media more appropriately than kids. For example, kids text more often while driving a car than adults do, per capita, according to research. Adults also tend to do a better job than kids at keeping their phones away in important situations. So, although adults are as attached to their phones as kids are, they are much more likely to know when not to use them. The point is that kids aren’t just attached to their phones because of the natural boost the anticipation causes, but also because they aren’t mature enough to understand the bigger picture. So, that’s where adults need to step in.
We need to help our children to cut the loop that leads them to constantly chase reactions online. We need to teach them to turn off their notifications, silence their messages, put their phones in the other room, or even shut the things down. In classrooms we don’t need to ban technology, but we do need to have expectations about appropriate usage. And when those expectations aren’t met, we need to explain the issue and have a conversation about appropriate usage and why it matters.
All of us are addicted to some degree to social media, texts, and Google because of the natural chemical boost that we receive when we anticipate a response. This addiction isn’t going to kill us, and it’s not the most important challenge we face with our children. But it is important. And every day that I walk into my school and see every single kid staring at a phone, I’m reminded that this issue isn’t going away without our help. Set up some guidelines, model appropriate usage, and stick to it - our kids need help putting their phones down.