When It Comes to Teen Tech Addiction, Are Parents to Blame?

“What are you doing now?” the woman at the table across from mine asked her tweenaged daughter sitting on the other side of her table.

“I’m texting Devon and Brittany,” she replied without looking up from her phone.

Her visibly nervous mother looked up and caught my eye. “We just got her the phone yesterday,” she felt the need to explain, “I’m not sure it was the right thing to do.”

I pursed my lips and replied, “Well, you’re the generation of parents who are going to figure that out and set the trend for the rest of us.”

Her smile reflected an equal mix of gratitude and helplessness.

“Everyone has a phone,” her daughter chimed in. “I’m the last to get one,” she added without looking up.

“Well, we have to set some rules when your father gets home,” her mother grimaced to the top of her daughter’s head.

This particular mother’s challenge is far from unique. When my son was only 2 months old the nurse in his doctor’s office warned me that by the time he hit third grade he’d be begging for a cell phone. When I balked she scoffed, “Just you wait until you have to deal with the endless whining and begging. Then you’ll see how soon you give in.”

A year later I’m already confronting the whining and begging of “I want” from a toddler’s point of view. The primary requirement of parenting, it would seem, is a strong will suited to saying “No” more often than not. Some no’s are easier than others: If the object of your little love’s desire won’t immediately harm him, why not give him what he wants? His happiness, however fleeting, is much more rewarding than his misery, right?

Fear of being “too strict” is common among parents of tweens and teens confronting tech addiction, too. A new documentary, Screenagers, highlights the challenges parents face in handling teen tech use in the digital age. Filmmaker Dr. Delaney Ruston, who produced the documentary, learned that a teens’ overuse of technology is often a direct result of their parents’ inability to establish boundaries for both their children and themselves. Parents dislike saying no to their children. However, because parents are unable to practice what they preach, children rarely take parents’ discipline seriously.

Discussions on children’s technology use often focus on concepts like addiction, multitasking and a lack of empathy resulting from a screen-imposed disconnect from reality. Screenagers is one of the few resources willing to draw attention to the fact that parental self-discipline plays a key role when it comes to fostering bad habits in children.

Still, an even more important conversation to have is about the relationship between technology and the parent-child bond. Setting a bad example leads to a lack of respect for the parent on the part of the child. But, does fulfilling your child’s wish, even if it’s just to stop the endless nagging, really help your relationship? By putting a phone in her tween’s hands, the mother I met unwittingly put Devon and Brittany in between her and her daughter at a crucial point in her daughter’s social and emotional development.

I’m not sure it was the right thing to do, either.