SALT LAKE CITY — A new study shows it's teens — not parents — who more often admit they spend too much time on their cellphones and are taking steps to curb their tech use.
A Pew Research Center report released Aug. 22 found that 54 percent of 13- to 17-year-olds believe they're too often on their phones, while just 36 percent of parents say they use their phones too much.
Of those teens, more than half say they've tried to cut back on phone use and lessen their social media dependence.
Adelaide Mitchell, 14, dramatically curbed her phone use about a year ago after she realized that social media "wasn't good for me."
"Once I was on my phone, I could not get off," said the Carlsbad, California, teenager.
She'd scroll through Instagram and find herself getting jealous when she saw posts of friends doing cool things without her. An overall good student, she found herself focusing less on homework, because she was spending so much time on her phone.
So she started by avoiding her phone one day a week, usually on weekends, and would study, read or go for a run. Eventually, she was leaving social media alone for weeks at a time and has seen her grades improve and her mind clear.
"Even when you're not on it, you're always thinking about it, it's in your head," she says of social media. "It's so nice to get away from it."
The report, "How Teens and Parents Navigate Screen Time and Device Distractions" is the latest in Pew's yearlong series on teens and technology and highlights the fact that "teens and parents both struggle" with issues of balance and tech-tinged relationships, said Monica Anderson, a senior researcher at Pew and the project's lead researcher. "It's not just teens."
In fact, when asked how cellphones impacted their ability to concentrate and focus, 15 percent of parents say they're often distracted by their phone at work — only 8 percent of teens said they're distracted by their phones at school.
Anne Morse, 41, who recently moved from Utah to Knoxville, Tennessee, says she doesn't use social media, but finds herself checking e-mail on her phone every 20 minutes.
"I don't know why," she says with a laugh. "I probably get one important e-mail a week."
Yet despite feeling slightly "tethered," Morse recognizes the benefits of phones. As someone with a "horrible sense of direction," a map always at the ready has become invaluable, and having moved multiple times, a sense of connection has been helpful for their 12-year-old son, Sam.
Actually calling his friends is totally not cool, she says, but a smartphone allows him to "play a game with someone in North Carolina and California at the same time, and all (his) friends are together for those brief moments," she said.
According to the survey, only 26 percent of teens feel they spend too much time playing video games, although 58 percent of teens reported they've tried at some point to cut back.
For Adelaide in Carlsbad, the first few days without her phone left her feeling anxious that she was missing out on activities with friends or seeing their cool posts.
While there are numerous reasons for increasing teenage anxiety today, many experts believe technology may be amplifying underlying concerns.
When Pew asked teens to pick from five different emotions they might feel if they didn't have their phones, 42 percent of teens chose anxious — 49 percent of girls and 35 percent of boys.
One-quarter of teens agreed with feeling lonely, while 17 percent each said they would feel happy and relieved.
Adelaide's phoneless anxiety lasted a few days, but eventually calmed down and now she says she feels more "free," without being committed or attached to her phone and social media all the time. When she does use her phone, she'll watch inspirational YouTube videos that remind her to get off her phone, and work hard to accomplish her goals.
And because she doesn't text back quickly, friends are more prone to come talk with her in person. She's inspired another friend to uninstall Snapchat, and has prompted positive changes in her family.
About a month ago, the Mitchells held a family meeting, and the older four teens who have a phone or share one, agreed to dock their phones at a communal charging station at night, to keep them out of bedrooms.
They also talked about making sure they're spending time outside, having family activities and "not allowing phones to get in the way of those things," said Brittani Eyre Mitchell, Adelaide's mom.
"We're all kind of susceptible to overuse of phones," Brittani Mitchell said, but noted things have been better since the family chat.
Everyone can get sucked into phone overuse, but when technology continually comes between spouses or between parents and children, experts say this "technoference" can cause emotional distress and depression in adults, as well as behavioral problems in young children.
In one observational study of caregivers and children at restaurants, researchers found that of 55 caregivers, 40 used their devices during the meal.
Kids responded to this lack of attention by entertaining themselves or becoming more rowdy to get parental attention. Parents who were "highly absorbed" in their devices often responded more harshly to their children, researchers found.
At the close of the report, researchers proposed future questions, including studying the long-term effects of frequent exposure to a caregiver's "present absence" — being physically there, but mentally absorbed in technology.
Brandon T. McDaniel, an assistant professor of human development and family science at Illinois State University, has studied technoference for years and appreciates Pew's survey data, which clearly show that one in two teens experience technoference with their parents because of their parents' tech use — not the teen's.
That's not to say the kids are never distracted — 72 percent of parents reported difficulty in chatting with their teen because of a phone, according to the Pew data.
"What I think is great about the survey is … the symmetry," said Alexandra Samuel, an independent tech researcher and author of "Work Smarter with Social Media." "There’s so much parental hand-wringing about kids' tech use and insufficient amount of self-reflection."
Part of the problem for parents is that in the past, they could give their children visual clues about what they were doing — opening a map, reading a book, leafing through the phone book, said McDaniel.
"But now, it's all on your phone," he says. "All they see is the back of your phone."
Brittani Mitchell knows her kids see plenty of that, so she makes a point to explain to them what she's doing when she picks it up: checking movie times, looking up when the library closes or when the next swimming lessons start, searching for a recipe for dinner — all things that benefit her kids.
A parent who is using the phone for a dedicated purpose and then putting it down is very different than someone who's constantly interrupting family time by "returning to the phone for notifications," says Megan Moreno, academic division chief of general pediatrics and adolescent medicine division, and vice chair of digital health in the department of pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin.
Moreno counsels parents to consider not just the amount of time they're spending on their phone, but "just how much does it invade the time you have with your kids?"
Talk it through
As principal investigator of the Social Media and Adolescent Health Research Team in the Department of Pediatrics of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Moreno has been talking to parents about this issue for nearly a decade, and says they're still "overwhelmed and somewhat bewildered trying to navigate the tech themselves and trying to figure out how to navigate on behalf of their kids."
Yet, she's also seen a growing awareness of the pros and cons of teens' tech usage and the ability to have insightful conversations about it.
"Worrying about whether they're good or bad ... doesn't matter, they're not going away," she says of social media and phones. "We need to focus more on our own behaviors and self-regulation."
And if a teen's internet use has gotten out of hand, Moreno recommends the Problematic and Risky Internet Use Screening Scale, a checklist to know if a teen's behavior merits professional intervention. (Parents could also use the tool personally as a chance for self-reflection.)
The recent Pew report would also make a great dinner-table conversation starter, said Samuel.2 comments on this story
Parents could ask their teens questions like, "How do you feel when you're not on your device?" "How do you feel about the time I spend on my phone?" "Does your phone make it hard to concentrate in class? "What if we tried some experiments about setting different kinds of time limits, or even leaving your phone at home?"
"Nothing is more useful or important than just having regular conversations with your kids about technology," Samuel said. "(Model) the idea of reflecting on your tech use, and (make) time to talk about it as a family."