“We called the police because she wrecked her room and hit her mom… all because we took her phone,” Kelly’s father explained. He said that when the police arrived that evening, Kelly was distraught and told an officer that she wanted to kill herself. So an ambulance was called, and the 15-year-old was strapped to a gurney, taken to a psychiatric hospital, and monitored for safety before being released. Days after being hospitalized, Kelly was brought to my office by her parents who wanted to get help for their troubled girl.
Kelly’s parents spoke first. They said that their daughter’s hospitalization was the culmination of a yearlong downward spiral spurred by her phone obsession. Kelly had been refusing to spend time with her family or focus on school. Instead, she favored living her life on social media. A previously happy girl and strong student, Kelly had grown angry, sullen, and was now bringing home report cards with sinking grades. Kelly’s parents had tried many times in prior months to set limits on their daughter’s phone use, but she had become increasingly defiant and deceitful, even sneaking on her phone at all hours of the night.
When Kelly’s latest report card revealed a number of failing grades, her parents felt compelled to act. They told Kelly early in the afternoon on the day the police were called that she would need to turn in her phone by 9 p.m. But when the time came, Kelly refused, and a pushing match ensued between her and her parents, concluding in the violent tantrum that led the girl to be hospitalized.
131 Conversations That... Check Amazon for Pricing. I asked Kelly, who was sitting in a corner, to help me understand her perspective on that evening. She didn’t respond and instead glared at her parents. But then, surprising everyone in the room, she cried, “They took my f***ing phone!” Attempting to engage Kelly in conversation, I asked her what she liked about her phone and social media. “They make me happy,” she replied.
The Undoing of Families
As Kelly and her family continued their appointments with me in the coming months, two concerns dominated our meetings. The first was that Kelly’s unhealthy attachment to her phone continued, causing almost constant tension at home. The second concern emerged during my meetings with Kelly’s parents alone. Even though they were loving and involved parents, Kelly’s mom couldn’t help feeling that they’d failed their daughter and must have done something terribly wrong that led to her problems.
My practice as a child and adolescent psychologist is filled with families like Kelly’s. These parents say their kids’ extreme overuse of phones, video games, and social media is the most difficult parenting issue they face — and, in many cases, is tearing the family apart. Preteen and teen girls refuse to get off their phones, even though it’s remarkably clear that the devices are making them miserable. I also see far too many boys whose gaming obsessions lead them to forgo interest in school, extracurricular activities, and anything else productive. Some of these boys, as they reach their later teens, use their large bodies to terrorize parents who attempt to set gaming limits. A common thread running through many of these cases is parent guilt, as so many are certain they did something to put their kids on a destructive path.
What none of these parents understand is that their children’s and teens’ destructive obsession with technology is the predictable consequence of a virtually unrecognized merger between the tech industry and psychology. This alliance pairs the consumer tech industry’s immense wealth with the most sophisticated psychological research, making it possible to develop social media, video games, and phones with drug-like power to seduce young users.
These parents have no idea that lurking behind their kids’ screens and phones are a multitude of psychologists, neuroscientists, and social science experts who use their knowledge of psychological vulnerabilities to devise products that capture kids’ attention for the sake of industry profit. What these parents and most of the world have yet to grasp is that psychology — a discipline that we associate with healing — is now being used as a weapon against children.