Getting Kids to Ditch the Cell Phone

by Teresa Paterson, LPC, LCPC, RPT, CCTP

Why would having your kid ditch their cell phone be an important topic to explore? There’s the obvious benefit of getting to spend more quality time with your kiddo. However, what if having limits surrounding their cell phone use could actually improve brain development, communication patterns, and their overall quality of life?

This topic has been on my heart and mind for quite some time.  As a mental health professional, I have seen the impact of the increase in electronic device use over the years, where It is true, our cell phones are a BIG part of our culture. And, if you are like me, it is sometimes difficult to make it through the day without being connected to the digital world, whether it is email, social media, text messaging or even surfing the internet. It is convenient to be able to have the world at one’s fingertips to research, gather information, shop and stay in touch. However, what is the cost of being so connected?  ALL. THE. TIME.

Since the evolution of our data driven world, I have heard multiple concerns from the families I work with related to the lack of social skills development with their kids, reduction of communication skills within the family, and even signs and symptoms of technology addition – not only from the kids, but also from the adults.  And yes, even including the parents who want the change to improve the quality of their relationships. Conversely, there are some positives of the online world, such as support groups, information groups and the ability to keep in touch with loved ones from a distance. So, clearly, having these online connections, and the devices to access them, does have benefits, as well.  I would argue moderation and monitoring helps provide the balance needed to manage optimal development, as well as staying informed and in touch with our digital world.

What the Research is Telling Us

According some valuable research through the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), electronic device use may actually affect kids mental health.  The latest statistics, which were released in 2016, indicate that the number of adolescents who experienced at least one major depressive episode leaped by 60%, which also includes a rapid increase in suicide deaths.  Jean Twenge, a professor at San Diego State University, and the author of iGen, says that adolescents who spent more time on their electronic devices were more likely to report mental health symptoms than those who spent time on non-screen activities.  

If you are like me, you may actually feel out of the loop with how many social media apps keep our kids engaged. And, as a parent or primary caregiver, how many of these apps have you actually researched and learned the ins and outs of the program, including the safety features? Based on the information I have gathered in my work with our community’s teens, there are creative and innovate ways that these apps consistently keep our kids connected, and perhaps “addicted” to their electronic devices.  What this generation is going through right now is a huge experiment with technology, and we clearly do not know what is going to happen with these apps, and certainly do not have enough information to know exactly what is happening within the person, considering brain function and development.

It seems that although devices can improve our productivity and quality of life, per se, it can also have adverse effects on the quality of life for our families, and most importantly, the mental health of our kids and teens, who do actually lack the overall development to navigate the complexity and maturity of the internet world.  

To understand how this may affect a tween/teen’s mental health, it is important to recognize that our brains are constantly changing and developing, especially during this stage or life. It’s also important to point out that cell phone use is not the only contributor to depression in tweens/teens. Others may include, over-scheduling with activities, high expectations with overachievement, conflictual family dynamics, lack of social connections, among many others are also of consideration.

You may be asking yourself why are we just now talking about brain development in this context? This has likely not been any discussion about cell phones and cell phone usage with well child checks, like the screen time discussion has occurred at these appointments. The Academy of Pediatrics previously provided guidance to parents to not permit screen time (including television) for the first two years of life, and limit screen time up to the age of 5.  With an increase of tablet usage at home, as well as the requirement of device usage in the classroom, it has significantly changed the climate of how parents not only view electronic device usage, but it has also undermined how we can monitor children’s neurobiological development.

What we do know through the amazing neurobiology research that currently exists, is that the brain is incredibly plastic, which makes it easily adaptable (or change) in response to activities, environmental cues, interactions, etc.  Some research has already linked lower gray matter volume in the brain’s anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) to media multitasking, such as with texting, using social media and rapidly switching between the apps. This is critical research, as it shows the lower ACC volumes are directly connected to depression and addiction disorders within kiddos.  

The prefrontal cortex is another area of the brain that is important to consider.  This area’s development is critical for focus and interpreting emotions, among other important functions.  However, it does not fully develop until approximately 25-26 years of age. During the tween/teen years, it is important to train the prefrontal cortex to not be easily distracted, so that it can develop optimally.  Now think about how quickly your kiddo may be on their device, multi -asking between the different apps, taking selfies, texting.

Research has also linked the connection of electronic device usage, which includes social media and other phone based activities, with an uptick in feel-good neurochemicals like dopamine, which could drive compulsive device use and promote feelings of distraction, fatigue or irritability when kids are separated from their phones.  

Consider these statistics from HHS:

  • There has been a 60% Increase in teenage depression over the last 6 years  
  • 10 is the average age kids get cellphones.  Correction: when they get smartphones.
  • There is a 48% prevalence of suicide related thoughts or actions among kids who use their electronic device 5+ hours a day

Looking at these statistics, I have to wonder if there is a link to the increase in the symptoms I see daily, as well as the increase in tween/teen depression and anxiety.  Of course, if the norm is overuse of electronic devices, it may be hard to tell until there is a crisis with behaviors or increased isolation and depression with our kids. Setting appropriate limits and expectations around healthy electronic device use, including social media and gaming, can actually help keep your child out of danger of experiencing any of the issues discussed here.  

5 Tips to get your tween/teen to ditch their phone

Here are some quick tips to help you organize your thoughts and family, and help your tween/teen on a trajectory for developing not only social skills and communication skills, but also to help their brain stay on the development path necessary to develop all of the critical areas, including the prefrontal cortex and the ACC.  

  • Keep electronic devices out of your kids’ bedrooms 

Help your child help their brains rest – and get an appropriate amount of sleep.  There is a directly link, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, between excessive before bed screen use and insomnia.  Kids feel better, interact better and perform better in school with rested brains. This also provides the brain optimal time to develop the healthy pathways necessary in the prefrontal cortex without disruption or distraction.

  • Set online firewalls and data cutoffs

Online safety is important.  And, so is limiting the amount of time your child has access to data.  A young person’s brain is wired for exploration, not restraint. Adults need to know the limits to set for their kids to keep their kids away from risk – both development and safety.

  • Create a device contract

This helps to establish expectations, consequences and also the benefits of the privilege of having an electronic device.  This could include no devices at the dinner table (and promote connection), and limit the amount of exposure after school and before bed (optimal brain development).  Then, if there is a violation of the expectation, the contract becomes the rule enforcer and consequence implementer – not the parent. For more information on creating a contract, see this earlier Parenting On Purpose article

  • Parents model healthy electronic device habits

Parents, children mirror you and will do what you do.  If you want your child to exhibit healthy cellphone habits, you need to lead the way.  Also, teach your child social media skills – and help put a stop to online bullying.

  • Consider providing a device that is NOT a smart phone (or a smartphone without a data plan)

Most kids will be able to follow expectations modeled and explained to them.  However, consider a different phone or limiting access to data if your child has difficulty complying with your expectations.  Consider putting the family computer in an open space. They can still explore social media (Facebook, Youtube, Instagram, etc) and you can monitor! 


If you think your child or your family would benefit from a trained professional to guide, balance, and increase positive interactions within your family, please reach out. Our talented and skilled professionals are eager to help you and your family on your journey to wellness.