Are we raising digital monsters? Absolutely. And everyone from parents to Facebook and society as a whole is to blame.
So instead of playing the blame game, I think the most constructive way forward is to take every opportunity we — not just parents — have to put the phone down. In the bedroom. While driving. During meals and conversations. And, perhaps most important, when kids are watching.
"My kids have said something about [me being on my phone]," said Catherine Wood Larsen, a local mother of two teens whom I initially interviewed last week for my story on kids and devices. "I'm just like everybody else. I will sit at a red light and look at my phone. But when there are other people's kids in the car, my phone is totally put away."
Like most of us, she's passively aware of the smartphone behavior she's modeling to her kids. Still, it takes an outside social pressure — or stigma, in this case — to actively do something about it.
Aside from modeling to younger generations a kind of life that isn't dictated by devices, the simplest reason to go device-less is this: We are happier when we're disconnected.
There is research that demonstrates that most everything you do on a screen is correlated with unhappiness, Jean Twenge told me when I first asked her whether we're raising digital monsters. Twenge, a San Diego State professor of psychology and the author of iGen, also noted the exact opposite to be true. Most everything you do off of a screen is correlated with happiness.
Think about that the next time you default to your phone to kill time. You may not feel compelled to change your behavior just yet, but just being aware of these kinds of tendencies can effect gradual change.
I speak from personal experience. A technophile for as long as I can remember, I've been a proud early adopter of new technologies, gadgets, social networks, and everything in between. Marry that with a need to be in the know for my job and you get a sometimes shallow existence often defined by being first to spot the next big thing, and a pressure to get digital approval in the form of followers, likes, and retweets.
It's a mentally exhausting way to live. That's why I've made a conscious effort in the last couple of years to pull back, particularly from social media. It hasn't been easy, not when I've conditioned myself to find validation from digital sources. And not when everyone else has decided to play by the same social validation rules.
Can you blame us?
Apparently, many of the activities we engage in online — but social media in particular — incorporate the same biological reward pathways as the best activities that off-line life has to offer, Twenge told me, citing the book Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked, by Adam Alter. Think sex or food. Our brains, when tuned in to social media, can make us just feel good.
So, I've backed away from the social-media rat race. But, I still need to sort out how and when it's appropriate to introduce my 7-year-old stepson to these services. Facebook, showing its hand a little too obviously, would say now. The company's recently released Messenger Kids app targets the under-13 crowd. We will be avoiding it. Yet the stepson already wants an Instagram account and can't seem to get enough of playing with Snapchat's face filters when allowed.
That's where things get extra tricky.
"I just finished a massive research study on how social media is affecting our youth's interpretation of beauty and self-esteem," said Brian Solis, a principal analyst with the technology research firm Altimeter Group. "It's forcing young children to understand their place in the world (relative to their peers) and their net worth."
Talk about setting them up for a life of disappointment.
Plus, if I'm being honest, the phone habit has been harder to kick than the social-media one. I'm as guilty as anyone who has ever pulled out her phone to avoid awkward elevator exchanges or to fill dead time.
Look, I'm not advocating a complete smartphone or social-media blackout. No one, not even Twenge, is. At this point, there is no going back.