Five years ago, Kevin Shindel read an article that cited alarming statistics about the number of teens who wake up at night to send or respond to text messages. (One 2010 study reported that they were averaging 34 texts or emails after bedtime.) As a teacher, Shindel was intrigued by the data, so he asked his students how many of them engaged in this type of late-night texting. “I couldn’t believe how many hands shot up,” Shindel says, adding that more than half of the students acknowledged they did. The response inspired him to launch the “digital downtime” project in April 2012 at Montgomery Blair High School.

The goal of the weeklong digital detox, Shindel says, is to push students to reflect on why they’re so attached to screens of all types. That’s why he asks them to log their daily technology usage before getting started. When they write contracts committing to a digital-free week, many carve out exceptions, some of which are eye-openers for him. A few girls, for instance, reserve the right to pull out their phones and fake a conversation, a tactic that helps them ward off unwanted advances from strangers, he says. 

Shindel insists he’s not a sky-is-falling kind of guy, but he has deep reservations about round-the-clock digital connectedness and overload. “You can walk down the halls and look into any classroom and the kids will have three or four screens operating,” says Shindel, who has been teaching at Blair for 15 years. “They’ll have their Chromebooks out. They’re looking at videos on each other’s screens. They’re looking at the SmartBoards. And they have their phones out. It’s a lot.”

But the one screen that students have the most trouble abandoning during digital downtime is the one on their phones. Last year, one female student who participated in the project simply could not give up her phone for more than five or six hours at a time. She felt bad about it, but not enough to change her ways, says Shindel, who describes the student as “a happy, social kid.” Shindel did not penalize her for breaking the contract. The grading is based on each person’s ability to reflect on the experience. This student felt that her phone use was well within the norm for her peer group, Shindel says, and it served as a lifeline to her friends. “I think these kids rely so heavily on their friends for validation,” he says, “that they just don’t want to miss out on anything.”

There’s a phrase for that: Fear of Missing Out, or FOMO. It’s a phenomenon that took off when the rise of social networking and smartphones enabled us to see what everybody else is doing all the time and to wish that we were also doing it. In 2013, Oxford Dictionaries Online added the phrase, defining it as “anxiety that an exciting or interesting event may currently be happening elsewhere, often aroused by posts seen on a social media website.”

Adam Pletter, a child psychologist in Bethesda, says it’s not the “fear of” part of the equation but rather the “missing out” part that’s tough for teens these days. “It’s almost a constant and never-ending chronic level of missing out,” says Pletter, who runs a workshop about parenting and technology called iParent 101. “It’s an onslaught of one upset after another, and when you put many of these upsets together, that leads to a level of trauma. I use the word trauma because it feels traumatic to kids I see in my practice who are prone to feeling left out or bullied.” 


Think of all the social media platforms teens access on their phones, and the hundreds of people they’re connected to, Pletter says. They may scroll through one feed and see photos of preschool buddies together at the mall. Then they’ll spot selfies of a few camp buddies hanging out, and then more photos of more friends at a sleepover. And they’ll be viewing all this in a matter of minutes. They can even watch events unfold in real time because Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook have live features. Even if they took part in one event, it’s never good enough. “With teens, there’s no ‘I’m satisfied. I have met my quota for the day, and I’m going to sleep now,’ ” Pletter says. “They always need more and more.” 

Doug Fagen, director of the Reservoir Psychology Group at The Lab School of Washington in Northwest D.C., says it’s not just about missing out on an event. It’s also about missing out on what other people are saying about them. “A lot of social media content is commenting on something somebody else did or said, or a picture. It’s about: How do other people see me? Am I good enough?” Fagen says. “Before, you could go to school and put on the mask of who you want to be, then come home and take it off. Today, technology means you’re always presenting yourself to a group.” Teens are constantly curating that presentation, snapping selfies, tracking how many followers they have, and comparing the feedback they get to what their friends receive.

That barrage of input from a large audience can push teens to hang on too tightly to what others say, distract them from schoolwork and even lead them to hurt themselves if there’s bullying involved. Not every teen is susceptible to the damaging fallout, Fagen says. But many of them are fixated on becoming the person others most want to be around on social media. “It’s a high-anxiety game,” Fagen says. “We’re taking a really shiny red sports car, giving the keys to a 13-year-old and saying: ‘Just drive the speed limit.’ ”


Many mental health experts say the amount of self-control being asked of teens these days is unreasonable, especially given that their prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain that controls impulses, emotions, decision-making and other factors that affect judgment—is not fully developed. This makes it difficult for them to manage social media and other apps, which tend to coax users into bingeing by rewarding them with “likes” and feedback that induce a dopamine high, releasing feel-good neurotransmitters in the brain that keep them coming back. The New York Times recently reported that scientists are even exploring whether teens are replacing drugs with smartphones. Researchers are intrigued that teen drug use has dropped during the same stretch of time that teen adoption of smartphones and tablets has surged. They want to know if teens are using drugs less because they’re constantly stimulated and entertained by their computers and phones, which may fill the same thrill-seeking impulses and cravings for independence, the article says.

Many of these issues come up in Shindel’s class, and he says he’s received overwhelmingly positive feedback from his students and their parents, many of whom marveled that their teens could unplug for an entire week. During the past school year, one family even unplugged together, and the mother wrote an essay on her thoughts about the experience.  
But on occasion, parents push back a bit, Shindel says. They’re worried that if their kids are disconnected, they won’t be able to keep tabs on their children by texting or calling them or monitoring their whereabouts via the phone’s location-tracking tools, he says. He wonders, though, if there isn’t more to it. Students often tell him that once they unplug, they start noticing their parents’ phone habits. “Many end up thinking their parents are as bad as they are, if not worse,” Shindel says. “Maybe parents just don’t want the spotlight shining on them.”