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Why Teens Can't Stop Checking Their Phones

Updated: Nov 3, 2020

Have you ever noticed that no one looks up while crossing the street anymore? In fact, most of us are too busy responding to text messages or scrolling through social media to pay attention to our surroundings. It defies all logic. Why do we risk our safety to check if someone liked our latest Instagram post or Facebook update? Can't it wait for later, say, maybe when we're not near oncoming traffic or even sitting at a stop light?

It's a fact of modern-day life: we can't live without our devices. A recent Gallup poll revealed that on average, adults checks their smartphone hourly, if not every few minutes. That number is even higher among teens. Our attachment to smart phones is so strong that 63 percent of people actually sleep with their phone right next to them. But this isn't anything new, screen time and technology addiction had worried parents long before the pandemic. And now that online schooling is on the uptick, anxiety levels and concerns about the negative effects of screen time are more pervasive than ever.

"It’s not just about limiting screen time; it’s about teaching kids to develop good habits in real life as well as managing their screen time." Cynthia Crosby

But "It’s not just about limiting screen time; it’s about teaching kids to develop good habits in real life as well as managing their screen time." says Cynthia Crosby "It is a compulsive behavior that works similarly to substance addiction in the brain." Apps and social media feeds are not only designed to stimulate a dopamine response, but their constant promise of further reward promotes the desire to not miss out on something that may have been posted while we were "busy".

For instance, you look at the first entry, and then the next, then swipe with your finger or thumb to see what comes next, and then next, and before you know it 15-20 minutes has gone by. You just became part of a dopamine seeking-reward loop.

Recently, studies have shown that you don’t even have to CLICK or SCROLL in order to experience that dopamine release, just the anticipation can cause that desire as well. Now, throw in the fact that most of us already experience the muscle memory of the scrolling or swiping without any thought to what we're doing and that can further complicate things. What do I mean? Remember the study of Pavlov’s

dogs? We too create a conditioned response of reward just by picking up our phone, swiping, or even the sound of a notification.

Whatever the notification, it signifies that something is going to happen which sets off our dopamine system. So when there is a sound (auditory cue) or a visual cue that the notification has arrived, that cue enhances the addictive effect. "It's not the reward itself that keeps the dopamine loop going; it's the anticipation of the reward." Robert Sapolsky (He talks about this anticipation/dopamine connection in his research.)

When you take into account that teens already struggle with the concept of delayed gratification and self-control, and what you find is that as hard as it is for us as parents to not give in to these conditioned responses (dings, buzzes, and app notifications) it’s even MORE difficult for our kids. This is because the executive function portion of their brain isn’t fully firing.

When we observe this or we are the recipient of a half-hearted, not-really-listening conversation, we engage in a battle of the wills. Out of a desire to stem the impulse control over their phone usage, we find ourselves in the midst of yet another battle. (Check out our blog here on avoiding this confrontations by simply changing our tone.)

How Can I Spot If It's A Problem For Me or My Teen?

1. What do you/your teen do if your phone is not in the same room as you?

For most people something like this is not really that big of a deal. They might leave their phone in the bedroom to charge while they eat dinner or have the phone laying around as they go about their evening.

However, there are some people who might fly into a bit of a panic if they look around and do not see their phone right nearby where they could access it easily if they need to use it.

2. You/your teen is reluctant to go on vacation because wifi/service may be spotty

This can be a pretty dicey question for many people and might really help determine if you need to have your phone around you too much. The whole idea of going on vacation is to be able to get away from everything that is part of your normal routine.

3. Where is your phone right now?

While most people may have their phone within easy reach during the day (on their desk, in their purse, in their pocket and the like), it is not every person who knows where their phone is at all times or uses it often enough so that it may be in their hands for most of the day.

If you never have to think where it is, it is around you too much.

4. Where is your phone while you sleep?

For most, they will place their phone on their nightstand or whatever location it needs to be in so that it can easily charge overnight and be ready for the next day.

However, those that may have an addiction problem might be tempted to actually have the phone in bed with them, meaning they were using the phone right up until the time they fell asleep or they have a need to have the phone near them at all times, even if there is no need for you to really have the phone next to you on your pillow while you sleep.

Do you have a hard time going to sleep because you have to check your phone as soon as it makes a noise?

5. What would you do if you had to go somewhere and couldn't have your cell phone?

While this may not happen to most people very often, there may be occasions where there are places where you cannot bring your phone or, at the very least, are not allowed to turn it on for use while you are at a particular location.

You would have to be able to come to a decision as to whether it is a place you want to go or not, and those that might have an addiction might actually think twice about going if they knew they could not bring their phone with them.

Another great question is: can I use the bathroom without being on my phone?

This can even apply to the dinner table. In the Elliott home, we try to avoid cell phone use at all costs. We try to keep dinner as a time of focusing on family and making that time meaningful. People, dinner is only 20-25 minutes long! This may be the pet peeve of every parent out there today and many make rules against it, but there are just as many adults that eat their meals today with their faces buried in their smartphones.

It can seem very rude and detached to the others that may be eating with you, but if you keep doing it anyway you may have an addiction problem.

Break The Cycle

(courtesy of

At the end of the day, we’re all just trying to cope with these ongoing circumstances, and sometimes screens are an easy way to fill the gap in friendships, schooling, and family relationships. Give your kid some slack, give yourself some slack, and live out of an abundance of grace and understanding for your family.If you want to spend less time on your phone and more time living your life, here are some tips to try.

1. First, reflect on your own screen time and habits. By reflecting on ourselves, we can identify our problems with screen time and connect with our kids over struggles we may have in common. This can help us put in perspective what our kids are facing as “digital natives” who grew up in a world full of technology. We can ask ourselves “What do we prioritize on a daily basis?” and “Do our habits reflect our values?” and think of ways that we can better bridge the gap between our ideals and our actions.

2. Identify how you’re using screens. It can feel pretty hypocritical to our kids when they see us using our phones, laptops, etc. unfettered. So if you do use a device in front of your teen, try to specify what you’re actually using it for: checking the weather, looking up a recipe, responding to a work email, anything. And if you are just using it for fun for a few minutes, that’s ok! We just encourage you to practice the same limitations on those activities that you’re asking of your teen, that way you can keep each other accountable, and both parties feel respected.

3. Create a safe space for differing perspectives. Having an open conversation where our kids can express their own thoughts and opinions can generate a healthier way of dealing with issues (especially when these issues directly affect them). When our kids feel like their perspective is respected and valued, they’ll be more receptive of our reasonings as their parents. So, create a space that allows for both you and your teen’s voices to be heard and find a healthy balance together.

4. Ask the reason behind their device usage. Understanding why teens spend time on their devices paves the way to understanding what’s healthy about their screen time and what isn’t. If they’re spending hours upon hours playing Fortnite because they’re bored, there’s likely a better way to navigate their boredom. But if playing Fortnite is one of their favorite ways to connect with their friends, we might approach the situation differently. You may ask your teen, “Are there any other ways you can hang out with your friends?” or ask yourself, “How can my teen connect with friends in a more dynamic way without completely taking away this important activity?” 

5. Devise a plan as a household. As you think about your family’s screen time use, devise a plan and list of activities that don’t involve your devices. Think of ways you can become closer as a family, and more intentional about your daily routine. Here are some tips when thinking about your family’s plan: 

  • Have regular mental health check-ins and look for signs of depression in your teen on a normal basis. Though it has its benefits, technology can also be the gateway to isolation, depression, loneliness, and several other mental illnesses that can get harder to conquer the longer you’re in them. By checking in with our teens, we can identify what they’re struggling with and help guide them out of it.

  • Observe the Sabbath once a week as a family and use it as a time to disconnect from your devices and instead focus on family time, personal reflection, or hobbies you haven’t picked up in a while. Challenge yourself and your kids to reflect on life away from technology, and learn how to be less dependent on devices. Use it as a time to rest in God’s presence and give thanks for what He’s given you as a family and as individuals. And if you want to take it a step further, start a tradition of device-free time one day a week, one weekend a month, and one week a year!

  • Section off areas of the house as screen-free zones. Whether it’s the living room, bedrooms, or the kitchen table, make sure that there are places within reach to escape from screens.

  • Make a list of everyone’s values in the family, and evaluate how your activities reflect these values. This is a chance for everyone to work together, make compromises, and find ways to keep each other accountable to the family plan! 

6. Remember, it’s okay to fail. There will be moments when you or your teen don’t perfectly practice healthy screen time, and that’s okay! We live in a time of constantly changing trends and technology that are easy to get caught up in. When you feel like you or your teen’s technology use is becoming a problem, take some time to reset to your plan. Or, if you find the plan isn’t working, try to isolate the problem, and look for new strategies that work best for you and your family! 

Overall, it’s our kids’ mental health, development, and connection to others that matters most when analyzing screen time. Too often we mistake our teens’ good behavior for their well-being. We see their good grades and sports accomplishments and think, “My kid is doing great!” But when we take the time to listen and have genuine conversations, we may realize that they’re not doing as great as we thought. When we have these conversations about healthy screen time, we can make sure we’re doing what’s best for them. 


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