Teens and Texting

Beware! My goodness – how those innocent looking little machines can take over one's life! This is a plea for parents to think very, very carefully before getting their teenager a cell phone. As for those parents contemplating getting one for any child younger than 14….well, I just think that such a move is a major mistake.

My sons are 16 and 18 and both have had their cell phones for less than a year. My eldest has a plan whereby he only uses his phone to text and cannot call out – he can only receive calls. He uses it to text – but only from time to time as he arranges to meet up with friends. This seems an entirely sensible and healthy relationship to a cell phone. He plays no games on it, watches no movies – has no "apps" to do a million things to keep him distracted from real life. For him in the living situation he has,  his cell is a necessity as he has no land line. And he uses it like a necessity, like a useful modern tool. He does not live his life with it plastered to his ear or frantically gripped between his hands, feverishly texting.

My younger son got a cell phone at 16. At first he also only used it to set up meetings with friends and to get calls from his father and I. But then….a girlfriend appeared and suddenly texting became a major part of his life. Now he was in a totally different realm of communication and expectations. One evening he later counted that his girlfriend and he had texted each other over 80 times. Conversations with him would be interrupted by the phone's insistent buzz; he'd be sitting quietly reading and suddenly he'd get a text – which, due to the nature of the beast, HAS to be answered right then and there. One night I went into his room late to get something and there he was asleep – with his cell phone on and next to his head on his pillow!

The next morning I of course challenged him – he knows about the health risks of cell phones – he has already experienced how ill he feels at night if he leaves his WiFi connection on so he respects the ill effects of electricity. But…."she" was going through a hard time and might need him. In the middle of the night? I asked. Yes, was the mournful reply. Tough, I said. Cell phones on pillows get confiscated – and that's that, even if you are 16 and paid for the thing yourself. This is about health and there's no two ways about it. He agreed.

We had a long discussion and I urge you to consider some of these points with regard to your children and teens (and all feedback to this blog article is heartily welcome!). What does it mean to be always on call for someone? Where is the space to reflect and to have time apart? What does it do to one's powers of concentration and to one's inner peace if one constantly allows oneself to be interrupted by outside distractions such as a call or a text? Is communication by text the right way to share deep feelings and personal information? What is the difference between talking to someone face to face – or even hearing their voice on the phone – and via a text? Does it truly help someone who is experiencing the difficulties of life to be able to constantly be in contact with someone else – could this not distract that person from looking inward for the strength and wisdom to sort out her problems?

We actually have had many such conversations – and with my support Gabriel's own inner sensibleness has asserted itself and he has curbed his cell phone use. And, even when he is not able to do this, he is able to think about what he is doing and to become increasingly aware of the unhealthiness of cell phone-dependence. For both of my sons, nothing makes them sit up and take notice more than the realization that something is a hindrance on their inner freedom and autonomy – and they both see clearly through the illusion of independence that technology such as cell phones provide (and obviously there are situation where cell phones are useful as with my eldest son. I am not a Luddite!).

But it is not easy – addictive behaviors are notoriously hard to overthrow – as every smoker, over eater, gambler, shopaholic and so on knows. Cell phone dependency is just another in a long list of addictive "pleasures" or "conveniences" that we can unthinkingly overwhelm our children with. And as hard as it is for an adult to resist the lure of cell phone culture, think how much harder it is for a teenager who has not yet fully incarnated into his "I" sense (in anthroposophy we understand that the "I" does not fully incarnate into the individuality until the age of 21).

My sons are not as totally swamped by teen culture as some youngsters are – not by a long shot. They know nothing of the cliques and peer pressure and media-cult dominated life that many teenagers here in America suffer under. And so when I am horrified by the inroads cell phone use has made in my 16 year old's life, I can't help but gasp when I consider what is "normal" for most teens – and children younger than that – in this country. Gabriel's experience is mild compared to most. I won't catalogue all the excesses of cell phone use in children and teens. But I will ask the question – are parents giving serious consideration to the effect that cell phone use has on children and teens as they move into the most socially vulnerable time of their lives? Are people really thinking about the effect on how children meet one another, soul to soul? Are they thinking about the effect of cell phones on concentration, on inner quiet, on the ability to not merely react but to consider and reflect?

Please parents – think carefully before you let your child have a cell phone. It is actually possible to say "no" to such things. Maybe by 16 or 17 a teen should have a cell phone so he or she can use it and a parent can support them as they find a healthy relationship to its use. But before? Beware.

Posted on January 17, 2010 in Family Life and Parenting, Older Children, Technology

  • Jamie says:

    Excellent food for thought, I hope parents take it to heart. I feel the only reason a teen might need a cell phone is when they start engaging in regular activities where they are away from their parent(s), so the parents can stay in touch. My oldest is about to be 8, and I am horrified by how many of her peers have their own cell phones. I cannot for the life of me understand why a child needs their own phone-and the countless problems that can (will) arise from such “freedom” at a tender age. I think cell phones, like so many other “things” regarded as necessary in our culture, should also be thought of in the context of age having it’s privileges. If younger children are being given cell phones and expensive gadgets at 7, 8, or 9 years old, what then will they be wanting (and receiving) when they’re 15, 16, or older? It can seem like a rather benign issue at face value, but the points you brought up regarding your son and his constant “on call” availability to his girlfriend really illustrate the depth of “collateral damage” that can come from such an innocent looking device.

  • christine says:

    Well said. I hope many parents take these thoughts and work within their families to find balance.

  • Sandy Gunder says:

    My husband and I joint teach a class at our local church and had attendees who were sitting with heads down, texting frantically – not to someone outside, but to each other! Of course, their participation in the class was nil.
    At the end of one lesson, Ian (who’s a nurse) asked if any of the students had diabetes, heart disease, were on dialysis, were using a medication pump, or receiving a blood transfusion via their mobile phones. Naturally the asnwer was ‘no’ so he reminded them of the reason that they were in God’s house and there to learn about him. He then requested that, as their phones were not vital to their existence that they turn them off when they attend our class.
    There were some very disgruntled expressions and a few left the class, however, participation has improved.

  • Karen says:

    Beware is right! The book Hold on to Your Kids speaks very convincingly about how attachment is erroded through peer orientation and the cell phone is one of the main tools of this phenomenon.
    Having been a HS teacher, I have seen far too many children get overly involved in the exciting world of dating and they simply aren’t ready for that level of intensity or intimacy. However, the phones, computers and texting heighten their tendency to dive into these intense relationships.
    Thanks for all of your interesting and helpful work. Your Chicago seminar looks magnificent, my kids are too young for me to be away from them but it does look wonderful!

  • Jennifer Thompson says:

    Could not agree more, nor come close to articulating so clearly what should be obvious. I so appreciate your articles and your sane voice reaching across cyberspace to support those of us struggling to offer our children a wholesome environment to unfold and evolve in. Thanks for bucking the system and challenging the lemmings.
    Jen Thompson

  • Stephanie says:

    I share your concerns about cell phone use. I have had to determine for myself what is reasonable in regard to my cell phone. We do not have a land line so we have cell phones. I have had to learn to turn it off or ignore the ring that is interrupting my life so often. At times friends are annoyed that I don’t always answer. I miss the days when I did not have to be available at all waking hours because my phone stayed at home. For teens this struggle must be even more difficult.

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