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The smartphone and its seductive influence on teens

The smartphone and its seductive influence on teens


I remember so well the August summer day my father came home from work with news for me, my sister and my cousin – all three of us pre-teens bored with the long hot summer in Louisiana.

We had just recently gotten cable and my father told us a new channel launched. It played nothing but music videos, he said. It was Aug. 1, 1981. I don’t know if we went outside again that summer. I don’t remember anything after that but videos. MTV had taken over and we were instantly sucked in.

Our generation was heavily influenced by the MTV revolution and it still defines our teen years in cultural iconography. However, MTV pales in comparison to the largest influencer of my daughter’s generation: the smartphone. It, too, has sucked in a generation but in ways that is changing behavior far more than watching hours of music videos ever did. Not to say that we didn’t go overboard on our “screen time” back in the ‘80s, but it did not seem to have the same implications.

The Atlantic published an article “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” by Jean M. Twenge in its September 2017 issue. The article is eye-opening for a parent with a teenager. It is a must read if you haven’t already seen it. It articulates what we’ve all seen happening to our children as their world increasingly is defined by a device that fits into their hands and never seems to leave their hands.

Twenge has researched generational differences for 25 years and has never seen such dramatic changes in generations as with the latest generation – our children’s generation.

“The experiences they have every day are radically different from those of the generation that came of age just a few years before them,” the article explains.

“What happened in 2012 to cause such dramatic shifts in behavior? It was after the Great Recession, which officially lasted from 2007 to 2009 … But it was exactly the moment when the proportion of Americans who owned a smartphone surpassed 50 percent.”

That’s it. I was 11 in 1981 when MTV hit the airwaves. My daughter was 11 when smartphones changed all the waves in ways we are only just now beginning to understand. As I went back to school in September of 1981, I left behind my big tube TV. Sure, I would run home from the bus stop in the afternoons to see if I could catch the new Duran Duran video. But today’s teens and preteens (and children even younger than that) bring their influencer with them everywhere they go – to school, to the ball fields, to the dinner table, to the movie theater, to parties and to bed. They are rarely separated from their smartphones and it is changing the way the entire generation behaves.

“The arrival of the smartphone has radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives, from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health. These changes have affected young people in every corner of the nation and in every type of household. The trends appear among teens poor and rich; of every ethnic background; in cities, suburbs, and small towns,” Twenge writes.

“There is compelling evidence that the devices we’ve placed in young people’s hands are having profound effects on their lives — and making them seriously unhappy.”

That surprised me because I could see many of the things the article outlined as happen in my child’s life. She didn’t hang out with friends as much in the summer, but she did keep up dozens and dozens of Snapchat streaks with friends from Murfreesboro to the Netherlands. She can spend hours on her bed just with her phone. More often than not, I find the phone on her bed next to her when she’s fallen asleep at night. But she is generally a happy kid.

According to the study, “Teens who spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy, and those who spend more time than average on non-screen activities are more likely to be happy. There’s not a single exception. All screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all non-screen activities are linked to more happiness.”

As the parent of a teenager it is often impossible to gage the mood of your teen much less determine what set off this mood. But knowing that social media and the constant one-dimensional interaction substituting for actual interaction with other teens is not great for them makes sense.

When my teen is home for long periods of time, alone in her room, she emerges in a fog. But when she’s at the barn riding her horse all day or at school with friends and (mostly) without her phone, she seems more cheerful. She recently went on a weekend retreat where phones were not allowed. She said they didn’t even tell them what time it was throughout the weekend. She was as happy as I’ve ever seen her when she came home from that retreat. She herself said she was on a high from all the talks, small group interactions and, best of all, she said, the hugs. This exclusive human interaction, talking to peers in person and even physical touch gave her a euphoria she had not felt before.

It made me sad to think that I should have perhaps known this phone in her hands was not doing her any favors. It’s hard, if not impossible, to pry that phone out of their hands. Once they have it, they are hooked. The Atlantic piece gives us parents lots of food for thought.

Video may have killed the radio star, but smartphones are killing something a lot more precious to us all. If you haven’t read The Atlantic piece, take a few minutes to read it. Then find any excuse you can to get some time away from the phone for the entire family.

Barbara Esteves-Moore, writer, editor and business owner

Barbara Esteves-Moore is a journalist, editor and the owner of Two Roads Communications and an editor for Home Page Media. She has been married for 20 years and is the mother of an active, opinionated and very lively 16-year-old.You can reach her at

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