I PURCHASED A SMARTPHONE for my daughter Natalie when she began participating in a massive year-round swimming program in a city where our family knew no one. Although I felt relieved that she could contact me or her father if practice released early or in case of an emergency, I felt unsettled by the capabilities and risks the device opened up for her. I immediately implemented the recommended online safety guidelines, installed content filtering software, and discussed cyber dangers such as online bullying, predators, pornography, sexting, and what to do in each situation. Still, my uneasiness persisted. I continued to read extensively on the subject and was, for some reason, particularly drawn to articles about teen suicide as they related to social media use.
One night, the uneasiness I’d been feeling reached an all-time high and spurred me to action – preventative action I’d not taken before.
I’d been contacted by two friends from places our family had previously lived whose daughters were in the same grade as Natalie. These vibrant young women with whom she had once played with LEGO and shared towels during swim meets were now harming themselves, hating themselves; the light was dimming from their spirits right in front of their parents’ eyes.
After learning about their struggles, I read a sobering article in Time magazine about an outgoing young woman named Nina Langton, who shocked everyone with an attempted suicide. The particular details of her story gave me great pause:
Despite her professional background in public health, Nina’s mom, Christine Langton, was caught off-guard by her daughter’s suicide attempt. “Nina was funny, athletic, smart, personable,” she said. “Depression was just not on my radar.”
In hindsight, Langton says she wishes she had done more to moderate her daughter’s smartphone use. “It didn’t occur to me not to let her have the phone in her room at night,” she said. “I just wasn’t thinking about the impact of the phone on her self-esteem or self-image until after everything happened.”
Nina sounded a lot like my highly driven, very lovable, athletically gifted brown-eyed girl. With that recognition, I knew exactly what I needed to do about the uneasiness I’d been feeling since we gave Natalie a smartphone.
I went to my daughter’s room and asked her if we could talk. I felt my heart racing at the importance of the conversation we were about to have. Natalie was stretched out on her bed, surrounded by homework and scrolling Instagram.
I sat down and told Natalie about the two mothers who’d reached out to me for help. My daughter’s face fell as I told her about her former teammate, who discovered her looks had been rated on Instagram. I relayed some of the painful comments this young woman had read that had caused her to harm herself. I explained that she’d expressed hating herself so much that she no longer wanted to live.
“I’m worried,” I told Natalie truthfully. “And it’s my job to protect you,” I added.
Natalie assured me she had good friends, a sensible head on her shoulders, and would come to me if anything was wrong.
At that point, it would have been easy to end the conversation, have faith everything would be okay, and walk out of the room. It would have been convenient to reduce the screen limit setting on her phone or to just confiscate it altogether. Instead, I chose to do the hard thing: I chose to be the Encourager she needed me to be, the person who empowers her with the vital information she needs to navigate this media-saturated world.
The anchor was there; I just had to help her lower it safely into the water, so I offered the following:
I know you are a smart, capable, and resourceful young woman, and those are innate qualities you will call upon time and time again in your life. Those instincts will serve as a compass when the wind is behind you, and they will guide you to safety in rough waters. Unfortunately, the part I can’t teach you is how to trust them.
I want you to know it’s natural to go through difficult periods when you don’t feel like yourself, when you question your worth, when your purpose is not clear. During those times of uncertainty and self-doubt, I want you to use your instincts to reset your perspective and reaffirm your beautiful worth and extraordinary potential.
It’s important to understand how others manipulate us when we are online. Social media developers know how to create algorithms to capture and influence our consumption, tap into our insecurities, and ultimately engage further action, such as making a purchase. The goal is to achieve the highest possible amount of engagement in the form of likes, shares, and follows. There is even a term for this in Silicon Valley: brain hacking. Sadly, these tactics have a negative impact on our mental health – and teenagers are especially susceptible. Here’s why.
The teen brain isn’t done forming, and the part of the brain that manages impulse control, empathy, judgment, and the ability to plan ahead, are not fully developed. This means you’re more likely to stumble upon disturbing online content or find yourself in troubling
situations; it means you’re more likely to become distracted from the important tasks at hand; it means you’re more likely to become addicted to your device.
So, let’s think about this in terms of your life.
Each time the phone alerts you to something, you stop what you are doing, whether it’s homework or a job you have to do. What used to take you one hour to do might now take you several hours, and it’s safe to assume the work won’t be completed as well, thanks to the distraction. Constant distraction will lead to an inability to focus, which will reflect in your grades and impact the job opportunities you have as you grow. Spending quality time with friends and family will be impacted by the need to check for updates, making you believe your phone is most important, instead of the people right in front of you.
Every time you aimlessly scroll, you are being influenced by what you see on the screen. Your thoughts and beliefs about what your body or your life should look like are being shaped. The hidden influence of this exposure can create a poor self-image, unrealistic comparisons, and harmful judgments – and it will affect you at a subconscious level, so you won’t even realize it is happening.
But it doesn’t have to happen this way – you have the power to take back control.
You see, awareness changes everything. Awareness is your weapon against the hidden influences and damaging behaviours. While you are online, your mind, your thoughts, your core values are gravitating to wherever tech companies want you to go. The remedy is to limit the time you spend drifting in the online world and anchor yourself in real life – in real people and real conversations, in furry animals, interesting books, good music, and quiet prayer, in cooking, photography, painting, and moving your body.
When your worth is in question, when you feel lost and alone, when you feel sad and can’t explain why, anchor yourself in what centres you, makes you feel safe, and gives you hope.
I am with you.
I love you.
After empowering Natalie with this perspective, I suggested she order an alarm clock for her bedroom rather than use her phone to wake up for school. I was surprised there was no push-back when we talked about limiting phone use to a designated time after school and then a little more time after nightly swim-team practice. She was also receptive when I asked her to start
charging her phone in a separate area of the house until morning.
Almost instantly, I saw a difference. I noticed she was more present in main areas of the house, accepting invitations to play board games and help with the cooking. Her disposition was more cheerful, relaxed, and fun-loving. She began taking walks outside, often inviting me to go along. She was getting homework and household chores completed more efficiently.
It became routine for Natalie to charge her phone in my bathroom at night. Although her facial expression indicated this was something she’d never enjoy doing, her actions indicated she appreciated the reason why. Sometimes she’d plug in her phone, then crawl into my bed and take my hand.
Whenever Natalie did this, I felt a strong sense that her Grandpa Ben, my beloved father-in-law, was looking after us. Our family had gone to see him soon after his cancer diagnosis in 2017, not knowing that would be his final weekend on earth.
We’d spent the whole glorious weekend looking through his keepsake boxes and hearing his favourite life memories. Although Ben was in considerable pain, he continually grabbed my hand and squeezed it tightly.
Tether yourself, his action seemed to say, because, in the end, our human connections, our relationships, our love for one another will be the only things that really matter.
Tether yourself, I say …
So you don’t drift away from what truly matters,
So you don’t forget your worth
So you don’t miss the moments that make life worth living. Tether yourself.
It’s what we must do for ourselves.
It’s what we must do for our children.
It’s what we must do for each other.
I doubt many people would knowingly pick up a device that has been proven to negatively influence our thoughts, our choices, our actions, and our future happiness. Yet people who struggle with digital addiction face this choice every day. The virtual world created by social media and online gaming platforms provides an escape from reality and can have addictive qualities.
But awareness changes everything.
When we release what controls us, we are free to choose what matters most.
Let’s choose what matters most … our lives are far too valuable to let drift away.