Thank you for your articles, we enjoy reading them every Shabbos. My questions revolve around my teenage son. As a single mother, I do my best to keep the family together. Over the past year or so, there is one threat to our stability, and it’s his iPhone. I know you’re written on this topic in the past, but I can’t help wondering if I’m doing something wrong. He spends every waking moment looking at, checking, or even touching the phone. It’s like a security blanket for him, and I’m terrified. Do you think it’s possible for me to have him cut back his dependency without him getting upset at me? Private – Flatbush.
This is a topic that’s being discussed in so many forums, and there is no definitive answer to it. You brought up many great points, and I’d like to take a moment to focus on four of them.
Stability. A phone does threaten the stability of many families, and it’s not only because of the kids. It’s funny how we’re so quick to ask our children to put away their phones, but when we get an e-mail or text, we jump. I recently saw a video of a person who played the sound of a phone vibrating in a crowded train and watched as all the adults simultaneously grabbed their phones. While it’s certainly an issue with the kids, the adults are just as bad, if not worse. Granted, we conduct some of our work on cellphones, but to a child, their game is just as important as our e-mails.
Waking Moment. This is so important. As attached as we are to our phones during the day, using phones at night can be catastrophic. I say “we”, not “they”, because, again, it’s not only an issue with children. A great rule is “no phones in any bedrooms.” There are many reasons for this. The information overload is harmful, the blue light can cause issues, and our brains are getting zero downtime. A great idea is to set up a centralized charging station in the house - if you trust that your kids won’t take their phones in the middle of the night. Alternatively, you can have them charge in your bedroom. As an added bonus, your teenagers will get out of bed faster in the morning, to get to their phones.
Security Blanket. What is a security blanket? It’s an object (usually a blanket or doll of some sort) that gives a child comfort. As children mature, they tend to reduce the amount of time spent with this object. Whereas a two-year-old child might hold onto his blanket all day, when he’s three it might only be for napping or bedtime. The issue here, is that older children are developing an odd dependency on their phones. I witnessed a Bar Mitzvah-age boy suffering actual withdrawal symptoms during a three-day Yom Tov. He was irritable, nervous and kept telling the people around him that he couldn’t wait for Yom Tov to end. The words he told me were, “I need to feel my phone in my pocket. Until Yom Tov is over, I’m keeping a bar of chocolate instead, since it feels kind of the same.” While he might have been a bit over the top, many kids these days have become overly-dependent on their phones.
We can combat this by insisting that they leave their devices elsewhere when involved in any family-related activities. Suppertime? Phones go away. Going bowling as a family? No phones. Just remember, that if you pull your phone out, it will seem hypocritical to your child. This is also a great time to begin the “No phones while driving” rules. Personally, I think that WAZE took us backwards. It’s apparently okay for people to drive with their phone out, because they’re following directions. I almost got run over by a person at a crosswalk on Central Avenue, because she was checking Waze. She apologized, swore she would put her phone down, and promptly picked it up as she drove away.
Cut Back. This is tough. As we just mentioned, reducing dependence on any devices is difficult. The best method is usually distraction. Water sports are great, since most phones aren’t waterproof, but anything outdoors is fantastic. Music lessons, karate, or anything that keeps them moving will work. The goal is to provide other options. You don’t want to keep saying, “Put your phone away”, since you’re actually having the reverse effect. You’re basically saying, “You always use your phone and it’s a part of you.” It would be better to ignore it (yes, even though it’s annoying). You should be very strict about him looking at you and making eye contact when you’re communicating. Just don’t mention the phone. It’s not about the phone, it’s about common decency. When you’re having a conversation, you maintain eye contact. If he keeps looking at his phone, you can walk away and say, “We’ll continue this conversation when you are able to be a part of it.”
The last point I would like to discuss, is him getting upset at you. He’s a teenager. He’s going to get upset at you quite often, and that’s completely normal. Just make sure that when he’s upset at you, you don’t get upset back. Give him his space. Don’t act all calm and relaxed while he’s upset too, as that can also be irritating. Let him know that you care about him and walk away. While it’s not fun having your son upset at you, it’s going to happen. Just make sure to choose your battles.
Have a Good Shabbos and an easy fast.
Rabbi Yitzie Ross is a Rebbe and has been working with parents and kids for many years. You can read more about him in the "about" section.