“There have definitely been a handful of tearful conversations where she really expresses her frustration” about not being allowed to own a smartphone, Herlich says. “Because she’s the only one.”

Emily Cherkin occasionally quakes with anger when she talks about the impact smartphones have had on kids. She spent 12 years as a seventh-grade English teacher in Seattle. When she started out, in 2003, only a few of her students had flip phones and they often seemed embarrassed about them; owning a phone meant you had overprotective parents. By the time she left the classroom, in 2015, the opposite was true.

Cherkin now works as an activist and coach, part of a burgeoning new field of consultants aiming to help parents who are struggling with the impact of their kids’ excessive screen time.

It’s a hard dilemma for anyone to manage gracefully. Smartphones can expose kids to all kinds of toxic stuff online — cyberbullying, porn, bad information, the mind-warping artifice of social media — and yet the devices are so interwoven with modern life that depriving their kids of one doesn’t even seem like an option.

“What really troubles me is that we are giving devices and products and apps that are designed to be addictive to children,” Cherkin says, referring to whistleblower accounts of algorithms devised to maximize user attention. “And then we’re expecting them to self-regulate and getting upset when they do stupid things. Middle school was a safe place, for the most part, for kids to screw up and learn how not to do it again the next time. We’ve just taken away the safety net of messing up without being blasted or shamed across a digital platform.”

For some parents, things have gotten so bad that they don’t call a consultant. They call a doctor.

Smartphone addiction mimics substance-abuse in the way it triggers dopamine responses in the brain, says Bradley Aaron Zicherman, who runs a recovery clinic for adolescents at Stanford Children’s Health.

Zicherman often uses the same techniques, including family therapy sessions and interviews designed to help patients find a motivation to change, in treating both disorders. “It’s maybe even more challenging than some substance abuse issues,” he says, because technology is so ubiquitous. Unlike drug or alcohol abusers, smartphone addicts have to learn to self-regulate their use, not abandon it entirely. And some of his patients have had unfettered access to screens for most their lives. By the time they show up at his clinic, their habits have hardened.

“A lot of cases I get are cases where parents are afraid to limit screen time because it gets to the point where suicidal claims will be made,” he says.

Since setting up the clinic in 2019, Zicherman says he’s been shocked at the number of patient referrals he got for technology-related behavior. “Half of my intakes are parents requesting help,” he says,because they feel like their kid’s screen time is out of control and they don’t know what to do at this point.”

Another problem? Parents aren’t setting much of an example. Some are unwilling to modify their smartphone use. “If you want your child’s behavior to change,” says Zicherman, “you have to change your own behavior.” That’s why he wishes parents would create smartphone rules for the whole family before the devices become a problem.

Some parents feel almost required to have their smartphones within reach.

“I do everything on my phone,” says Cherie Garcia, a single mother of two who owns a kitchen and bathroom design firm outside of Denver. “I live on my phone.”

Garcia says she needs the device so she can be reachable by clients, but feels the negative impact it has on her life and emotions. She wanted to ensure her sons’ brains weren’t shaped by the same forces while they were still developing. She’d read that Silicon Valley executives didn’t give their kids certain devices, and if the people who invented this stuff didn’t trust it then why should she?

It was an unpopular decision in the family. Garcia’s eldest son, Trevor, remembers missing a few get-togethers with friends because he wasn’t on a group chat. Her mother, Trevor’s grandmother, even tried to skirt Garcia’s rules and buy Trevor a smartphone. (“Don’t you dare!” Garcia remembers telling her.)

“It’s like we’re doing this mass experiment on the human brain,” says Lawson, a French tutor.

Her resistance to letting her two youngest kids, 13-year-old Lucien and 12-year-old Sophia, own smartphones has been complicated by the fact that the family is now temporarily living in Abu Dhabi, where her husband works as a professor. They wanted phones to communicate with their American friends back home, Lawson says, and to connect with other teens in their new neighborhood.

When Lawson’s husband upgraded his smartphone, he gave his old one to Lucien. Lawson remained wary and laid out strict rules about when it could be used. When Lawson caught Lucien checking the phone late one night she took action. “She chucked it into the pool,” the son recalls. That was the end of that argument.

As for the Staceys, in Fayetteville, Adriana’s 15-year-old daughter, Annalise, has begun to appreciate her mother’s hard-line stance as her younger brother and sister — 12-year-old twins — have aggressively lobbied for smartphones of their own.

She has seen her friends agonize over drama that took place through text or social media. “And I’m kind of glad I’m not a part of it,” Annalise says. “It’s so much extra stress on my life that I don’t need.”

Last year she got a simple device called a Gabb phone that can call and text. And though she knows she’ll get a smartphone someday, she’s glad she’s had so much time without one. It’s made her more outgoing, she thinks. And more aware of how the phones can change people’s behavior. When she’s hanging out with friends, she says, they’ll sometimes spend hours trying to capture a perfect photo for social media.

“They just want to take pretty pictures so everyone on Instagram can see how happy they are,” she says. “And I find it strange because I’m like, ‘Can’t we just enjoy what we’re doing?’”


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