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Smartphones Provide Fuel for Helicopter Parents

Smartphones Provide Fuel for Helicopter Parents

Want independent kids? Disconnect their phones.


Sarah pulled up to her last stop on a rushed Monday morning. It was her day to drive the carpool. Devon opened the door and collapsed into his seat. After fastening his seatbelt, he stared into his smartphone without stopping to greet her or his friends. Compared to the carpools and bus rides of her youth, this trip to school was eerily quiet. The teens faces were angled down, attentive only to their screens. Sarah turned off the morning news and attempted to draw them into conversation with each other. “How was your weekend, Devon? Did you do anything fun?”

“No.” Both of his thumbs were clicking away on his device. He didn’t look up.

She turned into the car line to drop them off. Eighth graders poured out of cars, stuffing their electronics into their pockets and bags for the day.

“Oh no! I forgot my lunch!” Devon showed real emotion for the first time that morning.

Sarah reached into her purse. “Here, you can buy something,” she handed him a five-dollar bill.

“No, I’ll just text Beth. She’ll bring it.”

“Beth?” Sarah asked. “You’re going to text your Mom to bring your lunch?”

“Yeah. She brought me my math notebook last week, she can drop my lunch by today.” Devon hit send and walked into the building.

Sarah knew that Beth worked at a busy law firm, and would have to skip her own lunch in order to drive across town to pick up something and deliver it to the school for Devon. Saving time with a carpool made no sense if she had to drive to and from school at lunchtime. Maybe all of this technology isn’t such a great idea.

Sarah and Beth’s story isn’t rare in the United States today. Parents hand their children these problem solving devices as soon as they can remember their phone number, and sometimes even before. More than 95% of teens in the United States report that they have access to a smartphone. And the number one reason parents give for buying their children a smartphone is convenience.

“I need to get in touch with my kids during the day.”

“We no longer have to fuss with logistics and schedules.”

“I can be there for my kids 24/7.”

Being available to our children as parents sounds important, and even necessary in this day and age, until we realize that learning through their own mistakes is a vital step in every child’s development. Devon routinely forgets things that he needs for a successful day at school, and he has learned, with the help of his smartphone, that the solution to his problem is Beth – his Mom. The art of taking responsibility, planning ahead, and thinking through their day are critical steps that all children and teens need to take as they progress into becoming adults. When the natural consequences of their actions are removed, children cease to mature, and remain tethered to a parent through their phones.

Very few things in life have the potential to over-protect our kids quite like a smartphone. A smartphone phone can strip your child of learning opportunities like the example above to develop independent thinking and problem-solving skills.  The phone can also fuel a parent’s tendency to shelter and protect children more than what is healthy and age appropriate. The very thing parents purchase with the hope of making their children more independent ends up having the opposite effect.

At ScreenStrong, we are often told that withholding screens, including smartphones and limiting their use is a form of helicopter parenting. Children without smartphones are protected from the reach of predators and predatory marketing that can be easily accessed on any devices. But, children without smartphones also have to figure out for themselves what to do when they get a failing grade on a pop quiz, or forget their homework on the kitchen table at home.  ScreenStrong parents are the opposite of helicopter parents — allowing consequences to teach their children.

But many of us do know from experience that giving our kids smartphones can cause our kids to become overdependent on us, as if they are connected to us by a digital umbilical cord that ends at the blue backlit keys of a device. We can tell you from experience that giving a kid a smartphone to increase their independence will only give you a promotion to “momager,” or “dadager,” in a teens reality show played out in twenty second clips on TikTok.

Kids with smartphones rely on parents to micromanage their lives. 

We know that teens text a lot. But a recent survey showed that 66% of texts during the school day come from parents. Learning to solve their own problems in a safe environment is developmentally appropriate for teens. Problems like a missing notebook, a forgotten lunch, or a failing grade can be solved by a teen with a little ingenuity.  Teens also must experience the consequences of their actions in order to prevent the same mistake from occurring over and over again. In Devon’s case, his mother was experiencing the consequences of Devon’s forgetfulness, having to leave work, trek home to pick up his lunch, then to school and then back to work, probably missing her own lunch break. And what Devon learns is that he has his own personal assistant readily available to address his many needs.

Kids with smartphones rely on parents to manage their relationships.

One high school principal said that they had to allow teens to have their phones out during lunch because parents had to get in touch with their children after long morning. Problems occurred in school before the smartphone, and the same problems will continue to occur.  The difference is, that most children had their problems solved and forgotten before they got off of the bus. Equipped with a smartphone and parents in their pockets, children don’t need to dig deep to find solutions to school day dilemmas. They simply need to send a text and wait for the answer. One dad shared that he texted his eleventh-grade daughter an average of five times when she was on a date. He stated that she had a tendency to grow anxious on dates and needed the encouragement. While having a parent to contact in case of emergency is a necessity, leaning on a parent too much can inhibit maturity, and result in an adult who is lacking in self-confidence and real-world experience.

If smartphones and other devices are so destructive to kids, why are so many people buying them and using them? The answer is simple. As our lives become busier, we tend to rely on these technology tools to make our lives easier. And as parents, it is helpful to know that our child made it home safely from the bus stop, or that our child had a nice day at school or did well on that quiz in second period. Before we know it, the convenience of having a device to keep tabs on our kids has robbed them of the ability to gain real life experiences. Every kid needs to have a bad day in order to learn how to cope. Children need to learn how to navigate relationships with peers, teachers and bosses without the guidance of a parent.

It may seem cruel to plugged in parents to allow a child to suffer needlessly through these experiences, but these difficult experiences are what allow children to grow and mature. All parents have similar goals. They want their children to grow up to be safe, happy and healthy — but smartphones rob our children of their safety, by exposing them to in appropriate content, predators and other dangerous situations. Smartphones steal our children’s happiness by disconnecting them from real, face to face friendships. And smartphones rob our children of their health by disrupting their sleep cycles and causing anxiety and depression.

In many cases, parents also need practice in allowing their children to disconnect from them for short periods of time in safe environments. This is a natural part of the maturing process, and something that is challenging for some parents to become comfortable with.  If giving up the constant connection to our children feels challenging to us, it may not be because our children can’t handle life without us, but the other way around. And if this is the case, perhaps, the helicopter is hovering over our own head.

If you’re having trouble disconnecting yourself or your child, ScreenStrong can help. Find out more about the ScreenStrong Challenge here. Dive into our stats and research here. Listen to our ScreenStrong Podcast here.