Ask any parent how their kids respond when someone tries to take away their phone or tablet, and they'll tell you: children and teens really, really don't like anyone coming between them and their screens. From all the begging, pleading, and bargaining parents hear, it's easy to conclude that children are truly desperate to stay constantly attached to their devices.
But when researcher Donna Freitas recently surveyed more than 1,000 kids about their tech habits, and interviewed 200 of them in depth to discuss their feeling about their devices and parental attempts to limit access to them, a more nuanced picture emerged.
Science can't promise it won't be a battle to pry that phone out of your kids' hands, but these recent results suggest that, deep down, they actually want you to.
Kids have a love-hate relationship with their phones.
When Freitas sat down to talk to young people about their phones, she heard some pretty crazy stories of raging tech addiction, from the girl who gave her phone a name and talked about it like a friend to the boy who claimed he'd rather leave his brain at home than his precious device. But while kids acknowledged how intimately tied to their phones they are, they also told Freitas of their desperate -- and often unsuccessful -- attempts to get away from them.
"Most students were intentional -- or tried as best as they could to be -- with limiting their usage, taking daylong and even months-long sabbaticals from their devices (or certain social-media platforms). They came up with all sorts of rituals to help in this endeavor," she reports in a long article for UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center.
There were students who intentionally left their chargers at home so their phones would die on them during the day, a girl who mainly went to church to escape her phone, and students who reported they enlisted friends to literally hide their devices from them.
Kids, in other words, are showing unmistakable signs of both screen fatigue (this shows up in a lot of other research as well) and addictive, out-of-control behavior. Which is why parents should step in, despite all the resultant drama, according to Freitas.
Why it's worth it to have the phone fight.
"More than a few interviewees commented on how much they appreciated it when their parents took their smartphones away for a family trip or even during the night at home," she reports, before qualifying: "Well, they eventually appreciated this gesture."
Freitas doesn't stick her head in the sand about the kicking and screaming that meets parents when they try to limit tech use. There will be drama. Big drama. But weather the tantrums, and your kids are likely to feel both happier and more connected to others. They might even thank you one day (maybe).
Young people "were grateful for the break, and many talked of how much they dreaded going back to their phone afterward," Frietas insists.
So next time you're about to despair because of how many hours your kid is staring at screens, take courage in the fact that science gives you an ironclad case for stepping in. Plus, you'll be in good company. The people who invented those devices limited their kids' access to them too.