SALT LAKE CITY — Eight in 10 parents say their teenagers have their own phones, with 70 percent saying the phone is a smartphone, according to a new study by the Deseret News and BYU. Just 28 percent of parents say their 5- to 11-year-old children have phones. The results suggest that middle school may be the "sweet spot" when parents allow their kids to have mobile technology.
Tech for kids often comes with rules, and the survey found a majority of parents impose at least some restrictions on their children's phone use. However, 49 percent say they impose no rules for their own phone use. In fact, 70 percent of adults reported spending "just the right amount of time on their phone," and 92 percent said their phone has a positive or neutral effect on their relationships.
Yet, the survey found that 43 percent of heavy tech users (5-8 hours on a phone per day) reported experiencing relationship troubles, compared with 28 percent among those who spend only an hour on their phones each day.
These and other findings from the 2017 American Family Survey, conducted among 3,000 Americans by YouGov for the Deseret News and The Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University, reveal the complicated nature of technology and its impact on families and relationships — and the fact that some families aren't even aware of the depth of those impacts.
"We've gone through a lot of different media changes and generally been OK through the generations," says Brandon T. McDaniel, an assistant professor in human development and family science at Illinois State University. "But I do ... worry about the ways in which this is going to affect young children as they watch their parents be distracted by these devices and not really (pay) complete attention to them at times in which they need it."
Kids and phones
Experts and parents say it makes sense that age 12 begins a phase of phone ownership because that's the beginning of middle school where kids find themselves in extracurricular activities, school sports and spending more time with friends.
For parents, a phone becomes a safety and communication aid, while kids see it as a socialization tool, says Dr. Bonnie Halpern-Felsher, a professor of pediatrics at Stanford University School of Medicine.
Adelynn Galbraith, who turns 14 on Nov. 17, is often teased by her friends for being the only one in her group without her own phone. Well, she has a phone, but the hand-me-down iPhone 5 is little more than a glorified iPod because without a data plan, she can only call or text if she's around Wi-Fi.
She says she likes talking face to face better than texting anyway because it "shows my friends I'm interested in what they're talking about," but she's still excited to get a phone in a few days (14 is their family's age for phone ownership).
She's not holding out for any particular model — whatever phone she gets will be a step up — but she knows it will come with rules. Every Tuesday and Thursday are media-free nights in the Galbraith's Orem home, where internet surfing is off-limits, though calling is OK. And each night, phones are turned in to mom and dad's room, where they stay until morning.
The kids grumble a bit, says mom Rachel Galbraith, but they're good kids and generally toe the line. Yet, with Adelynn's older sister, Kamryn, "talking" to friends is through Instagram and Snapchat, so the "line is getting a little blurrier where the 'no media' is for her," Galbraith says.
Fifty percent of parents in the American Family Survey reported they imposed nightly phone restrictions for their 5- to 11-year-olds, though only 38 percent of parents set evening rules for their 12- to 17-year-olds, and only 3 percent of parents did so for kids older than 18.
How much is too much?
Before setting rules, experts say it's important to know how much daily time is actually being spent on a phone.
The American Family Survey data showed that most adults self-reported phone use at just over two hours a day — and that's a common guess, says James A. Roberts, a professor of marketing at Baylor University.
However, the guess is low. In Roberts' research, he's found many adults are on their phones 4-5 hours a day.
"We just get lost in our ... smartphones and social media," he says. "That's the way they're designed."
Often, it starts with deliberately looking something up, then we get distracted by an ad or click on a link in the article we're reading, and soon 45 minutes has passed, says Roberts. While that's not excessive, we could have used that time to exercise, spend time with family or just read a book.
"There’s an opportunity cost, and I think people are starting to realize that," he said.
To quantify that exact cost, app designer Kevin Holesh created the app "Moment," that reports to iOS phone users the exact number of times they pick up their phones and how much time they spend using each app.
Though he guessed 50 minutes, Holesh's app use revealed he spent nearly 100 minutes a day on his phone scrolling through Twitter or Instagram or checking work email at all hours. He's since cut back to an hour a day and even goes completely off the grid once a week.
"It's been amazing for me to completely disconnect (for) a day," Holesh said. "It just helps me reset what I think about and think a little deeper about things instead of keeping up with the day."
Nearly 4.5 million people have downloaded Moment for free and 240,000 have gone premium.
After using Moment, Andy Levine said his kids, 14 and 11, were shocked to discover that occasionally their media use was as high as six hours a day — far more than the few hours they estimated.
"For my kids, what I'm trying to teach them is if you have an unlimited supply of something, you're probably going to misuse it," says Levine, an executive in Atlanta. "If you give yourself some good limits ... (you can) make the best use of your time doing it."
Based on Holesh's data, the average 50-year-old user spends around 3.5 hours on his or her phone per day, and the average 18-year-old about four.
Yet, his data also shows 15- to 25-year-olds are more receptive to change than older users. In fact, 18-year-olds using the app generally get their phone usage below that of a 50-year-old quicker than older users, then stay there longer.
Holesh muses that perhaps it's because young adults have always lived with technology, so they're more able and willing to see the downsides of it, while those who've spent decades without constant connection are still impressed by its abilities.
American Family Survey data show the older generations are definitely connected, with 63 percent of seniors owning a smartphone, and 29 percent with a regular cellphone. Only 8 percent reported not having either.
Of all ages, 83 percent use their phone to call their spouses or partners several times a week or more, while 56 percent of cell users say they check in with their kids several times a week or more. Yet, having a phone doesn't always ensure healthy or happy communication.
Johnny Vincent, 34, remembers one evening when he and his then-fiancee went to Applebee's but didn't talk more than 10 minutes the whole night.
"It was awkward," he said, with his date constantly pulling out her phone to respond to Facebook alerts or post pictures of where they were or what they were eating.
"I remember back when there wasn’t all this social media, and people actually communicated and a date was a date," says the cement truck driver from Clearfield. "I felt like I had to text her to talk with her."
Over their yearslong relationship, Vincent said his now ex-fiancee never saw her social media use as a problem. He even had to ask her to put away her phone while they were attending his grandfather's funeral.
Eventually, it became too much and he ended the relationship, saying he wanted a relationship with her and not a relationship with her "and all of Facebook."
"To me, Facebook is just drama, and it's getting worse," says Vincent, who also says he hates his phone and only uses social media to keep in touch with out-of-state family.
The American Family Survey reveals that while adults aren't concerned about the impact of their phones on relationships, there is still a correlation between phone use and relationship health.
Forty-six percent of respondents said cellphones produced very or somewhat positive effects in their family relationships, while only 8 percent said the impact was negative.
Yet of frequent social media users, 43 percent reported relationship trouble, compared with 20 percent who say they never Snapchat, Instagram or Facebook.
Researchers have even developed new phrases to describe this discomfort and frustration: "phubbing" and "technoference."
Getting phubbed — phone snubbed — leads to lower relationship satisfaction in romantic couples because "nobody likes to play second fiddle to anyone else — especially the romantic partner's phone," says Roberts.
Even being phubbed by strangers stings because it means they would "rather spend time on their phone than acknowledge that we exist," he said.
Once we're phubbed, we combat our fear of exclusion by turning to social media for connection and inclusion, which doesn't offer the depth of "response we need or crave or desire as human beings," he said.
Yet in a vicious cycle, individuals keep turning to the internet, exacerbating technoference or the problem of technology interfering in our relationships.
A 2015 study from BYU, of which McDaniel was a co-author, found that women who reported "more technoference in their relationship also reported more conflict over technology use, lower relationship satisfaction, more depressive symptoms and lower life satisfaction."
While that's definitely worrisome in adult relationships, McDaniel said he's more concerned about how technoference is impacting kids.
When an adult gets phubbed, they can more easily brush it off and chalk it up to living in a constantly connected world, but children don't have those emotional and cognitive skills yet.
Children form secure attachments through sensitive caregivers, meaning adults who are aware of the needs of the child and the cues the child is giving, interpret those cues correctly and respond appropriately and promptly, McDaniel says — all factors hampered by having a phone in hand.
Some argue that parents have always had distractions, and that's true, but they were never in their pockets 24/7, nor engineered to be addictive, McDaniel says, emphasizing he's not trying to make parents feel guilty, just to become aware.
"What I want everyone to realize is, it's happening to everyone," he said. "We all need to think about and start trying to change in some small ways, and be really mindful of the time we spend with our families."
Parents should feel free to set boundaries for cellphones and keep talking to their kids about their phone use, especially as they get older, says Halpern-Felsher. Talk about online safety, how that slightly embarrassing Instagram picture will be around forever and the ramifications of excessive social media use.
And remember that no matter the conversation frequency or topic, kids are better observers than listeners.
"The literature about cellphone use at the dinner table (says) the people using it are parents, the kids are putting it away," says Halpern-Felsher. "Parents need to be ... better role models if we're going to set those limits."