Phones Are Changing the Texture of Family Life

Phones Are Changing the Texture of Family Life
Many parents think teens are too absorbed by screens. Teens agree.

Phones have saturated teenage life: Ninety-five percent of Americans ages 13 to 17 have a smartphone or access to one, and nearly half report using the internet “almost constantly.”

But as recent survey data and interviews have suggested, many teens find much of that time to be unsatisfyingly spent. Constant usage shouldn’t be mistaken for constant enjoyment, as any citizen of the internet can attest. A new nationally representative survey about “screen time and device distractions” from the Pew Research Center indicates that it’s not just parents who think teenagers are worryingly inseparable from their phones—many teens themselves do, too. Fifty-four percent of the roughly 750 13-to-17-year-olds surveyed said they spend too much time absorbed in their phones, and 65 percent of parents said the same of their kids' device usage more generally.

Vicky Rideout, who runs a research firm that studies children’s interactions with media and technology, was not surprised by this finding and says it’s hardly specific to teenagers. “They are dealing with and grappling with the same challenges that [adults] are, as far as, they are living in the context of a tech environment that is designed to suck as much of their time onto their devices as possible,” Rideout told me.

Labeling certain phone habits as generation-specific makes sense in some instances—a 12-year-old is probably going to use social media differently than a 42-year-old—but one feeling that unites many phone owners of different generations is ambivalence. Indeed, 36 percent of the parents in the Pew survey also reported that they themselves were too glued to their phones.

Parents and teens alike felt that phones were encroaching on everyday interactions. Seventy-two percent of parents in the survey said that their teenagers were “sometimes” or “often” distracted by their phones during conversations. More interestingly, though, roughly half of teens felt the same way about their parents. The fact that this dynamic of distraction runs both ways is only just starting to get attention. As Erika Christakis recently wrote in The Atlantic,

A mother telling kids to go out and play, a father saying he needs to concentrate on a chore for the next half hour—these are entirely reasonable responses to the competing demands of adult life. What’s going on today, however, is the rise of unpredictable care, governed by the beeps and enticements of smartphones. We seem to have stumbled into the worst model of parenting imaginable—always present physically, thereby blocking children’s autonomy, yet only fitfully present emotionally.

The way parents interact with technology, then, shapes the way they interact with their kids. It also shapes the way that their kids interact with technology. Rideout thus thinks it’s up to parents to model good behavior: Kids tend to take note if, say, a parent puts their phone away at dinner or charges it in another room while they sleep. Witnessing habits like that can help them “realize that they can exercise some more control over their devices,” she says.

The problem, though, is that individual effort can only be so effective when going up against technologies that have been optimized to command their owners’ attention. But tech companies have started to respond to their customers’ concerns—hence their recent rollout of tools that can track and limit usage. Google and Amazon provide parents with software that lets them restrict their kids’ access to certain apps or activities and establish limits on device usage; Apple is following suit with software that will be released publicly this fall. (Third-party developers have for years recognized the power in providing users with this sort of control.) This puts tech companies in a strange position—on the one hand, trying to make the most engaging products possible, but on the other, recognizing that an increasing number of their customers would prefer to be substantially less engaged.

When I asked Rideout about the promise of these new tools, she said she expected that giving parents more visibility and control would be “nothing but helpful.” But she also said that reining in phone use is not up to just companies, or just teens, or just parents: “I think it's got to be all three.” Companies are starting to show their willingness; teens and parents, given how phones have altered the texture of family life, seem eager to change their ways as well.

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