Q: We held off giving our oldest daughter a smartphone until she was fifteen, the age at which we allowed her older brother to have one. We read your column weekly in our hometown newspaper and know you disapprove but we had no issues with our son and thought, wrongly, that things would go equally well if not better with our daughter. Four months into this and she has become moody and often sullen and we discovered last week that she has started cutting herself. She says she often feels unhappy with herself and feels that "all" the other kids her age have more friends than she does. We know you're going to say that we should take the smartphone away, but we're concerned that may make matters worse. Your thoughts?
A: Recent research has found that teenage girls and boys relate and respond to technology in vastly different ways, meaning that your experience with your son was by no means predictive concerning your daughter. For teenage girls, social media is likely to become a platform upon which they act out emotionally charged personal dramas. In these soap operas the teen world is simplistically bifurcated into villains and victims, winners and losers, lucky and unlucky, popular and unpopular, and so on. Girls who perceive themselves as belonging to the less advantaged group are vulnerable to feelings of social isolation and worthlessness, episodes of depression and self-harming, and suicidal thoughts. Sound familiar?
Boys, on the other hand, are more likely to use smart phones to go on internet adventures. Unfortunately, these voyages of discovery often lead them into pornography and contact with pedophiles. Given that boys tend to be more covert than girls, I would not be at all certain that your son is suffering no untoward effects from being the possessor of a smart phone. The fact is, teens quickly learn how to conceal from adults where they're going and what they're doing on the internet. I'm just sayin'.
As I've often said, there is no good reason — NOT ONE! — for a teen to have a smartphone. Self-employed business people like myself can justify having one. People who do a lot of business-related traveling (again, me) can justify having one. Likewise, folks who have to be constantly in some information "loop" or another. But teenagers? Nope. Not one good reason. You want your teen to be able to communicate with you at a moment's notice? Fine. Give him a cellphone (will talk and text only) and a phone card. Virtually no supervision required!
You might guess I have no sympathy for the "all the kids his age have one" pretext. Let's get real! In plain English, that translates to "I'm a parent who wants my child to like me and I'm afraid, therefore, of denying him anything he wants." Unfortunately for us all, most parents these days seem to suffer from Weak and Ineffectual Misdirected Parenting. Have you figured out the acronym yet?
Putting myself in your place, I would have no problem at all confiscating both smartphones and substituting inexpensive cellphones. Simply tell your daughter you don't think it's a coincidence that her problems began when she got a smartphone in her hands. Tell your son you're tired of worrying what he might be getting into. Don't explain yourselves any further than that. Don't be drawn into negotiations. Don't be afraid to be disliked for a time. They'll come back around eventually.
Besides, what adult in his or her right mind cares whether a teenager likes them or not?
Visit family psychologist John Rosemond's website at johnrosemond.com; readers may send him email at email@example.com; due to the volume of mail, not every question will be answered.