Sunday, April 21, 2024

Can We Unplug our Kids?


A new book is out, The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness, by the N.Y.U. professor Jonathan Haidt. Both The New York Times and The New Yorker have reviewed it recently, here and here respectively. The book decries the effect of social media and constant smartphone use—citing their role in widespread anxiety, depression, and other mental-health disorders—among Gen Z. As the Times sums it up, “Mr. Haidt lays out an ambitious set of interventions in his new book, which include: no smartphones before high school, no social media before age 16 and no phones in schools.” With regard to these goals, the New Yorker writer declares, “All of these strike me as not just reasonable but irrefutably necessary. What is less clear is whether there is enough collective and institutional will to accomplish them.”

But what if society cannot make these adaptations? Is the next generation doomed, or can parents reverse this digital tide and create appropriate boundaries for their children? Can iconoclastic families go it alone and not get swept up in this modern miasma? The answer, I can tell you from experience, is yes. That’s what this post is about.

How parents are complicit

As is typical, the New Yorker review wasn’t so much a review of the book but an examination of its overall topic: the mental health crisis faced by Gen Z, and the role of the Internet, social media, and smartphones in it. The New Yorker writer cited the role parents play in this quagmire:

By the time that smartphones and social media were becoming omnipresent, in the late two-thousands and early twenty-tens, children were also spending less and less time engaged in unstructured, largely unsupervised play with their peers. This deprivation owed to their parents’ concerns for their safety—a fretfulness known as “safetyism”—and to a competitive, college-fixated mind-set that prioritized adult-led, résumé-building, and “enrichment” activities. Unaccompanied kids doing normal kid things like walking home from school or visiting a playground became conspicuous, strange, perhaps even the subject of a 911 call or a C.P.S. investigation.

It’s disconcerting to see how helicopter parenting and Internet technologies have dovetailed such that parents cannot resist not only allowing but expecting their kids to have smartphones. It’s a true codependence. Kids are willing to surrender their autonomy by letting their parents track them; in return, kids get unfettered access to a virtual realm that distracts them from the real world, to say the least. Meanwhile, parents (perhaps succumbing to FOMO) set poor examples by being glued to their own smartphones as well … maybe not engrossed in Instagram and Snapchat, but in their doom-filled “feeds,” which is probably worse.

Well, not me. You may find this annoying, but I shall now explain how I’ve not only eschewed all this, but successfully opted my kids out of it for their entire childhoods. If you still have young children, perhaps you can find some inspiration here.

My Internet & phone policy

Almost eleven years ago, arguably before the Gen Z mental-health crisis was widely acknowledged, I blogged about my concern that smartphones, with their steady stream of engrossing social traffic and bite-sized entertainment content, were teaching our kids impatience. I proposed three ways parents could combat this: 1) set the right example; 2) work deliberately to teach patience; and 3) don’t let your teens have cellphones or social media accounts. I wrote that post when my older daughter was twelve; I hope a few readers at that time chuckled at my pledge and assumed I’d fall short of actually enforcing it. Here’s how it actually went.

As I explained in a later post, I think every family should have an Internet acceptable use policy, just like corporations do, and here is the one my wife and I laid out from Day One:

  • No social media as long as you’re under our roof
  • No video gaming (the exception being, briefly, an arithmetic game assigned for school)
  • Limits on video entertainment
  • No Internet after 9:00 p.m.
  • No cellphone until high school
  • No smartphone until college

This wasn’t just aspirational; we stuck to our guns. On our home WiFi network, I blocked all social media for all users, other than allowing LinkedIn for myself. (I use it as a digital Rolodex.) I blocked all video gaming as well (the only wrinkle being that my firewall erroneously blocked which isn’t video gaming but for outdoor products like Frisbees; I had to whitelist that one).  Until they were in middle school, my daughters had to log their Internet time on paper, noting when they were online and for what purpose. The idea wasn’t to give me reason to cut them off, per se, but rather to get them thinking about their use vs. letting it be as automatic as a smoker lighting up.

To make video less appealing, I throttled the bandwidth down to 250 kbps, which is a trickle by modern standards—it turned YouTube (etc.) into a pointillist slide show. This wasn’t quite effective enough, so I monitored the usage and blocked specific sites as needed, including gostream, watchcartoonsonline, 123movies, gogomovies, and dailymotion. (I did eventually increase the bandwidth allocation during the COVID-19 pandemic, to support video conferencing.)

I configured my WiFi network to shut off my daughters’ Internet at 9:00 p.m., to start with. My daughters were on separate networks, so later on I changed the older one’s cutoff to 10:00 p.m. When they reached high school and used the Internet for a majority of their class assignments, I allowed them to request an extension on an ad hoc basis if they had a paper to write or something. Eventually, I moved out the shutoff time to 11. So I guess maybe I caved a little on that one.

Meanwhile, as strict as my cellphone policy may seem to you, I really did apply it. I’m not going to lie: my older daughter was not a fan of this aspect of my parenting. She often entreated me to relent. On one occasion, I asked her, “Why is it that you even want a phone? How would that benefit you?” She replied, “Well, it could lead to greater freedom. I could go to more places by myself, and you and Mom wouldn’t have to worry.”  I told her that our merely knowing where she is won’t keep her out of trouble, and added, “Besides, if your parents can reach you whenever they want, that’s not really freedom at all.  Freedom is having enough trust that we don’t need to know where you are.”

Against her protests, I held firm and didn’t get her a cellphone until high school, and even then it was a cheesy feature phone I bought on the cheap from Amazon. I was curious to see how much texting she’d end up doing, and it turned out to be almost none: she basically scrapped the phone entirely. Part of the reason is that it embarrassed her by ringing randomly when she was in class. The ringer volume wasn’t actually adjustable, as far as we could ever figure out, and she struggled to silence it while her classmates laughed. The situation worsened as she struggled to find, in the phone settings, where to turn off the ringer. This phone was so weirdly designed that as you pressed its buttons it would read out the name of each function, as though the user were blind. Some words were pronounced with a British accent; others were in this very annoying, braying female American voice. Our entire family enjoyed mimicking how the phone would sternly yell out, “SETTINGS.” This phone was a complete dud. I only ever received one text from it: “This Is A Message For Dad. Maybe You Can Reply!”

Perhaps with her sister’s experience in mind, my younger daughter never did show any interest in a cellphone. So all through high school, she had nothing.

The result

So how did this work out? Were my unsupervised daughters abducted and sold into slavery? Did they get lost somewhere, for lack of GPS, and never turn up? Did they become total pariahs, scorned by their peers for not being tech-savvy? Or have they made up for lost time and become utterly enslaved by the technology, having not been inoculated against it during their formative years?

The results were a bit mixed. Only one of my daughters was abducted. Kidding! In seriousness, my younger daughter totally embraced the non-digital life. In fact, I have a very fond memory of something I overheard (from the next room) when she had a bunch of friends over for dinner. They were gathered around the table and my daughter said, “Dammit, P—, put away your phone now!”

My older daughter, other than being embarrassed by her feature phone as described above, didn’t tend to complain unless she happened to overhear me describing my family’s draconian policies to another parent. My smug anti-tech priggishness was as annoying to her then as this blog post surely is to you now. But she made do throughout high school without social media, gaming, or a phone, and when she got a smartphone the summer before leaving for college (so we could have some visibility into her nascent habits), she appreciated the utility without getting totally dragged into the virtual-first life. She’s never glued to her phone, at least in her mom’s and my presence. As far as I know, the only social media she’s on is Instagram, and she says she only posts occasionally. (I’ll take her word for it.)

I will say that I do a lot of texting with my older daughter these days—far more than I’d ever expected. But I still don’t think I’m setting a bad example; for one thing, she knows not to expect an immediate response, and I don’t either. Also, the majority of our texts fall into just a few categories: photos of my cat from me to her; the daily exchange of our Wordle scores & snapshots; the occasional snapshot from a bike ride, hike, etc. That’s really about it. The social media culture of broadcasting a curated version of yourself and hoping for a lot of likes does not enter the equation.

As for my younger daughter, she’s now in college, and she still doesn’t have a smartphone. My wife exhorted her to accept one (we’d even pay the bill), but got nowhere. Our daughter eventually agreed to accept a prepaid feature phone (albeit a decent one that doesn’t yell “SETTINGS”). For roughly 90% of her two years at college, the phone has been lost. (I think she’s on her third one … good thing they’re cheap!) For the remaining 10% of the time, the phone has mostly been powered off. If we propose a phone call over the weekend, and our daughter remembers, she’ll turn it on and call us. I periodically ask her if her offline approach has caused any social friction. She maintains that it hasn’t and doesn’t. During her freshman year, in the dorms, she said, “It’s great—the only way people can reach me is to come knock on my door, so I never have to make plans—I just get whisked away.”

The bonus effect

The Internet/phone policy my wife and I devised was based on a few principles: a) nobody should be glued to a screen; b) virtual life should not take priority over real life; c) nobody should be on a social dopamine drip, craving constant affirmation from a wide but shallow network of quasi-friends; and d) we should all avoid the shrinking of our attention span that is afforded and ultimately created by these technologies. My wife and I have been very satisfied with the outcome as we look at our adult daughters’ online behavior.

We perhaps took for granted how important it also was to eschew the safetyism described earlier in this post: the impulse for parents to monitor their children’s whereabouts and activities through their phones, almost like a digital leash. That safetyism washes both ways, I think: the offspring learn not only to expect but to accept and even welcome their parents’ supervision and assistance. Of course kids can text (etc.) their friends for support, but these friends are a shared resource among a wider group, whereas parents are fully invested in their children and ready to bend over backwards. I’ve talked to several parents who were kind of surprised at how closely their kids kept in touch during college, via texting etc. … even to the point where these parents became a bit concerned about the kids’ lack of autonomy.

I think it’s worse when a parent isn’t worried about a lack of autonomy. A few weeks ago my wife and I enjoyed a getaway with a few other couples at a glorious guest house near the ocean. We were out on this back deck taking in the first really sunny day of spring, nibbling fancy snacks and enjoying a rambling conversation, except for one guest, a friend of a friend. She was on her phone the entire time, which I originally took for shyness (she know only one person there) but which turned out to be a crisis her son was having that she was trying to mitigate. If it had been a real crisis, of course she should have gone off to a private place and phoned him. But it was just the unfolding drama of the kid believing he’d just flunked a college Statistics midterm. To the kid and his mom this was an absolute disaster that threatened to unravel his entire future. Every twenty minutes we’d get an unsolicited update from the mom. “He needs this class to graduate!” she cried out at one point. I replied, “Maybe he should change his major to Drama.” I realized in saying this that I was burning to the ground any chance of ever getting to know this person better, not just for myself but for all those who burst out laughing. But I don’t regret it.

And that’s an effect of this no-phone policy that I hadn’t expected or consicously intended: that it would make my kids more autonomous and resilient. My wife and I haven’t become these de facto fixers who are just a quick digital poke away. Curious as to how true this assessment truly is, I fact-checked myself by going through all my texts and emails from my daughters, to compile the instances of them reaching out for help. Here’s what I came up with:

Daughter A:

  • A request to order her a sketchbook (before I’d given her my Amazon login)
  • A photo of some well-cleaned road rash (doesn’t appear I replied), either to ask how she did or just to flex
  • A solicitation for money (before we worked out a standard practice of 80% reimbursement for necessities, payable several times a year upon request)
  • An email on March 10, 2020 telling my wife and me to suspend our plan to visit over spring break: “There is a very real possibility that there won’t be classes next quarter due to the coronavirus.” (I thought she was crazy … this was about a week before the pandemic asserted its grip on everyone’s lives.)
  • A request to review an English paper
  • An invitation to an awards ceremony, the day before graduation, for exceptional academic performance
  • A request to review a cover letter for a job application

Daughter B:

  • The following requests sent via text: “I’d like another pillow and something to microwave tea in”; “Tell freya I said hi”; “whats the water to rice ratio again”; “Could you give me tha grandmas phone number?”
  • An email request for some books needed for a class that aren’t available at the bookstore
  • A request for my “Southwestern corn goo” recipe
  • A request for money (i.e., to settle up, as described above)
  • This text: “yo could you send me the link/give me the name to your party megamix and other music collections you’ve made?  I’m looking to expand my list”
  • An email asking how to send a camera in for repairs

This isn’t to say my wife and I are totally immune to the impulse toward safetyism. In my case, sometimes I text my younger daughter and when I don’t get a reply (i.e., most of the time), I think, “Dang, I hope she didn’t lose her phone again.” For my wife’s part, she does worry, being a mom after all. She’ll say of our younger daughter, “I haven’t heard from her in like a week and a half. I hope nothing’s happened.” I’m always very supportive, reminding her that in the vast majority of cases, when a college kid doesn’t respond to her parents it’s because she’s been abducted, either by human traffickers or space aliens. I also reminder my wife that this daughter was on the wrestling team: “I pity the fool who messes with her—she’ll go full Hunger Games on they ass.”


If you have young children or teenagers, you don’t need to wait for Jonathan Haidt’s proposed utopia to become reality, such that all of society embraces limits on digital culture. If you have the chutzpah to decry this modern tend toward safetyism, and you have the rapport and authority with your kids to impose limits of your own, you don’t have to wait around and hope that society corrects. You can carve out a family culture, starting right now, that doesn’t put your kids at the mercy of for-profit technocrats. Yes, you’ll have to give up the irresistible prospect of remotely babysitting your teenagers, but after all, you came out okay … right?

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