Kathy Aitken of Rockville says she did not have the luxury of being able to constantly monitor her four daughters’ phone use as they grew up, even if she’d wanted to. Her daughters—ages 16, 18, 20 and 22—each got their own phones when they turned 13.
Aitken was working part time when her oldest daughter, Ruth, got hers. It was an old-style flip phone with cumbersome texting features. Aitken was home in the afternoons to keep a watchful eye on Ruth and keep her on task with homework.
But as the girls got older, Aitken worked full time to help pay college tuition. “They’d get home before I did,” says Aitken, a physical therapist. “It’s possible they were on the phone every minute until my car pulled into the driveway.” And the phones got more sophisticated, making it harder to pry them away. The devices became a go-to source of entertainment for her girls. No longer did they reach for a book when they woke up on weekend mornings, she says.
Aitken sometimes longs for simpler times, when the typical family had one landline and the kids fought over it, as she and her siblings did when they were teens. None of them could spend hours on the phone. And when they did use it, at least they heard a voice on the other end. Unlike with texting, you could pick up on social cues, such as a long pause, a sigh, or a change in tone. Aitken says the interactions on texts and social media lack an intimacy that she thinks is important to developing social ties.
Her daughter Abby, 16, says she understands why her mother gets frustrated with the smartphones. Abby concedes that perhaps she spends too much time on her phone, mostly using Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter—maybe for an hour after school, she says. The junior at Montgomery Blair talks of the benefits of using the apps—she has a place to express herself—but she recognizes the downsides, too. “It can be toxic because no one is expressing any vulnerability, so you’re constantly consuming distorted pictures of other people’s lives,” Abby says. “That can make you feel unproductive and boring.” The good-time vibes of most of the social media posts “kind of give me this weird feeling that somehow these people, these strangers, are better than me in some way,” she says. But even knowing the tendency for distortion does not make you immune from feeling down when you’re sitting home alone on a weekend scrolling through all the happy posts, she says.
And it certainly doesn’t help you focus on your work once the school day begins, says Abby, who keeps her phone with her at school. Some teachers are more flexible about allowing phone use during class time than others. They’ll have students pull out their phones to look up something assignment-related. But they really have no way of knowing what you’re actually doing on that screen, Abby says. “Personally, I don’t use my phone when teachers are talking or teaching, because if I do, I won’t be able to process the information they’re providing,” she says. “But sometimes, if we work in groups or I’m finished with a worksheet or activity, I’ll pull the phone out.” Abby suspects that switching from her schoolwork to her phone and back disrupts her ability to focus. “I can’t be 100 percent sure,” she says, “but I think that’s what’s happening.”