“I'll take your hand when thunder roars
And I'll hold you close, I'll stay the course
I promise you from up above
That we'll take what comes, take what comes, love.”
-Imagine Dragons, Walking the Wire
We bought my daughter a smartphone when we moved to a large metropolitan area a couple years ago. She was participating in a massive year-round swimming program where we knew no one. Her dad and I decided it would be best for her to have a phone to communicate with us.
Over the years, we’ve implemented all the recommended parental restrictions, safe-search settings, and online safety guidelines. We’ve had on-going talks about cyber dangers like online bullying, predators, pornography, sexting, and what to do in each situation. But despite these protections, I’ve felt an unexplainable uneasiness about teens and smartphone consumption. I’ve continued to read extensively on the subject, finding an increasing number of articles on teen suicide as they relate to online bullying and social media use.
But recently, the uneasiness I’ve been feeling came to an all-time high and spurred me into action – a preventative action I’d not taken before.
In one heartbreaking week, I was contacted by two friends from previous places our family has lived. Each family has a daughter in the same grade as mine. These vibrant young ladies with whom my daughter played Legos and shared towels during swim meets are now harming themselves, hating themselves, the light dimming from their spirits right in front of their parents’ eyes.
Right after learning of their struggles, I read a sobering article on Time.com about an outgoing young lady named Nina who shocked everyone with an attempted suicide. The particular details of her story gave me great pause:
“After her attempted suicide and during her stay at a rehabilitation facility, Nina and her therapist identified body image insecurity as the foundation of her woe. ‘I was spending a lot of time stalking models on Instagram, and I worried a lot about how I looked,’ says Nina, who is now 17. She’d stay up late in her bedroom, looking at social media on her phone, and poor sleep—coupled with an eating disorder—gradually snowballed until suicide felt like her only option. ‘I didn’t totally want to be gone,’ she says. ‘I just wanted help and didn’t know how else to get it.’
Nina’s mom, Christine Langton, has a degree in public health and works at a children’s hospital. Despite her professional background, she says she was ‘completely caught off guard’ by her daughter’s suicide attempt. ‘Nina was funny, athletic, smart, personable . . . depression was just not on my radar,’ she says.
In hindsight, Langton says she wishes she had done more to moderate her daughter’s smartphone use. ‘It didn’t occur to me not to let her have the phone in her room at night,’ she says. ‘I just wasn’t thinking about the impact of the phone on her self-esteem or self-image until after everything happened.’”
Nina sounded a lot like my highly driven, very lovable, athletically-gifted brown-eyed girl.
And for the first time in years, I knew exactly what I needed to do about the uneasiness I’d been feeling about her smartphone consumption.
I walked straight out of my bedroom and into my fourteen-year-old daughter’s room. I felt my heart racing at the importance of the conversation we were about to have. I found her stretched out on her bed, homework splayed across the bed. She was scrolling Instagram, as teens often do.
I sat down and told her about the two mothers who’d reached out to me for help. My daughter’s face fell as I told her about her former playmate who discovered her looks had been rated on Instagram. The painful comments she read about herself caused her to harm herself until she bled. She expressed hating herself so much that she no longer wanted to live.
I then read aloud the eye-opening statistics from a study by Jean Twenge, author of iGen, found in the same article as Nina’s story:
“Using data collected between 2010 and 2015 from more than 500,000 adolescents nationwide, study found kids who spent three hours or more a day on smartphones or other electronic devices were 34% more likely to suffer at least one suicide-related outcome—including feeling hopeless or seriously considering suicide—than kids who used devices two hours a day or less. Among kids who used electronic devices five or more hours a day, 48% had at least one suicide-related outcome.”
“I am worried,” I told my daughter truthfully. “And it my job to protect you,” I added.
My daughter assured me she had good friends, a sensible head on her shoulders, and would come to me if anything was wrong.
At that point, it would have been easy and convenient to end the conversation, have faith everything would be ok, and walk out of the room. At that point, I could have decided to take back the phone her father and I let her borrow so she wouldn’t be exposed to damaging influences. Instead, I chose to enlighten her with information that will benefit her for the rest of her life, especially a prosperous, happy life.
This is what I said to my daughter in letter form. It is my hope that others will say these words to those they love. If our teens can learn to tether themselves, there is hope. Their lives are too valuable to let drift … their lives are too valuable to let fade away.
Tether Yourself: An Awareness Strategy to Keep You from Drifting from Your Best Life
Dear one, it is natural to go through difficult periods where you don’t feel like yourself … when you question your worth … when your purpose is not clear. During those times, I want to use this information to give yourself an unfiltered view of your beautiful worth and your extraordinary potential.
First, you need to know what is happening to your brain while on your device. Social media is known for creating algorithms to capture and manipulate our consumption. The goal is to achieve the highest amount of engagement possible. There is even a term for this in Silicon Valley: Brain Hacking. It is having a negative impact on our mental health – especially susceptible are teenagers. Here’s why:
The teen brain isn’t done forming and the part of the brain that manages impulse control, empathy, judgment, and the ability to plan ahead are not fully developed. This means you’re more likely to see disturbing online content or have troubling encounters; it means you’re more likely to become distracted from the important tasks at hand; it means you’re more likely to become addicted to your device than adults. When you are addicted, you will experience distraction, fatigue, or irritability when you’re not on your phone. Teens who excessively use their phone are more prone to disrupted sleep, restlessness, stress and fatigue.(source)
So let’s think about this in terms of your life:
Each time the phone notifies you, you stop what you are doing—whether it’s homework or a job you have to do. What might take you one hour to do, will take you several, and it won’t be completed as well. The inability to focus will reflect in your grades and impact the job opportunities you have as you grow. Spending quality time with friends and family will be impacted by the need to check the phone, making you believe what is most important is on your phone when it is really the person in front of you.
Each time you scroll, you are being influenced by what you see on the screen. Your thoughts and beliefs about what your body should look like or what your life should look like are being shaped. The hidden influence of the internet can create a poor self-image, unrealistic comparisons, and harmful judgements – and you won’t even know it is happening.
But here’s how you take back control:
Awareness … you see, awareness changes everything. Awareness is your weapon against the hidden influences and damaging behaviors. While you are online, your mind, your thoughts, your core values are drifting to wherever tech companies want you to go. The remedy is to limit the time you spend drifting in the online world and tether yourself to real life.
To real people, real conversations, and real scenery.
To furry animals, interesting books, good music, the great outdoors.
To spatulas, hammers, cameras, paintbrushes, and yoga mats.
When your worth is in question … when you feel lost and alone … when you feel sad and can’t explain why, tether yourself to real life. Tether yourself to real people. Tether yourself to real love. And I will help you set limits because I know teens feel pressure to be available 24/7. But you need and deserve time to be alone with your thoughts, doing things you enjoy, without constant pressure and interruptions from the outside world.
As you practice these self-regulation skills that will benefit you for life, I vow to do the same. I am here to set an example of a well-rounded life and to help you navigate this challenging territory. You can always hold on to me.
I love you,
Once the talk ended, I had a few suggestions that would help her create a healthy relationship with technology. Much to my surprise, there was no pushback from my daughter when I suggested we order a proper alarm clock rather than use her phone as her alarm clock. There was no pushback when we talked about limiting phone use to a little time after school and then a little after nightly swim team practice. There was no pushback when I asked her to start charging her phone in a separate area of the house until morning and letting her friends know not to expect text responses after 9pm.
Almost instantly, I saw a difference. I noticed she was more present in main areas of the house, accepting our invitations to participate in games, cooking, and conversation. Her disposition was cheerful, more relaxed and fun-loving. She began taking walks outside with her music, often inviting me to go along. She was getting homework and household chores completed more efficiently.
I wondered if this motivation to limit phone usage would wear off, but it’s stayed consistent.
In fact, six weeks after our talk, there was a rare snowstorm in our area. As big, fluffy flakes began to accumulate on the ground, my daughter’s best friend came over and they built a snowman, a fort, and played outside for hours. After making a pizza and watching a movie, they went back out to play some more. In a rare moment of sisterly love, my older daughter invited her little sister and her friends to a snowy mound. On the count of three, she directed them to all throw snow up into the air.
I watched the joyful sight in awe, my eyes filling with tears.
The date, December 8, was not lost on me. It was my father-in-law's birthday. Ben would have been 68. He always did go BIG on birthdays and celebrations.
I shook my head in disbelief at this record-breaking snowfall in the south and the way in which my teenager was taking it all in.
I knew Ben had something to do with the joyful sight before my eyes.
I knew he had something to do with the urgency in which I talked to my daughter two months ago.
I knew he had something to do with the two words that continually ground me in the current moment and provide a life-enhancing goal for the New Year: Tether yourself.
Whenever I sat with my father-in-law on those final days, I’d always reached for his hand. He’d always squeeze it tightly.
Tether yourself in love, his action seemed to say.
And now I say it to her, my beautiful brown-eyed girl.
Tether yourself, I say.
So you don’t drift away too soon
So you don’t forget your worth
So you don’t miss the moments that make life worth living
And now I say it to you, my friends.
Tether yourself in love.
It’s what we must do for ourselves.
It’s what we must do for our children.
It’s what we must do for each other.
The thought of picking up a device that will negatively influence our thoughts, our choices, our actions, and our future happiness is quite sobering.
Awareness is everything.
When we release what controls us, we are free to choose what matters most.
I choose what matters most.
My daughter’s life depends on it.
It’s too valuable to let drift away.
This viral article is now part of a national bestselling book I wrote that offers illuminating and straightforward strategies to help you guide the young people you love through today’s biggest challenges, so they can discover the deep, life-giving connections they are longing for. In LIVE LOVE NOW, I address the top stressors teens face today: technology, academic pressure, parental expectations, lack of purpose, isolation, and loneliness.
Whether you’re a parent, educator, older sibling, coach, or leader of young people in any capacity, LIVE LOVE NOW will give you the know-how to guide the next generation of resilient, compassionate, and capable adults. Thank you for your support of my life's work. My family & I are immensely grateful.
We just got our daughter a phone this year so we could be in touch when she has away games for sports or if practice gets cancelled. She is 13. We quickly realized that it (and the iPod) needed to be somewhere other than in her room at night. We tried plugging it in on the same floor, out in a public area, but it was still too tempting for her. Now the devices go on their chargers in the basement.
Rachel Stafford says
Thank you for sharing that, Laura. This is very helpful. We can learn so much from each other.
Kristin Braun says
HFM, I love your articles so much and I often push them to my family group. This one strikes such an important cord as we approach the holidays with lots of time at home. In our class, Forming Families, we will tackle Discipline in January, so these throughts really line up with where we are as a community. So I wanted to thank you for that.
I also wanted to ask you if you are familiar with Devorah Heitner’s book “Screenwise” or her online community Raising Digital Natives. She has done quite a bit of work in this area and has a lot to offer.
Sending you lots of solidarity in this mission of creating better children worldwide. Thank you for fighting the good fight. So many of us are working shoulder to shoulder without even realizing it. Know that we’re out here with you.
Rachel Stafford says
Hi Kristin, thank you for the important work you are doing! I love to know you are in the world strengthening families. I will definitely look for that book! I am always trying to soak up as much wisdom as I can from those who are leading the way. Love to you, friend.
Thanks so much, Kristin, for sharing other resources to help us! I too will be checking this book and Author out 🙂
Priscilla Bettis says
My heart is sad for Nina and the other two girls you mentioned. I pray they all find healing. I am thankful not to have grown up during the smart phone era because I think I would have been vulnerable. The photo of the girls playing in the snow, oh how fun! And the cat looks absolutely content in your daughter’s arms. You have the sweetest photos on your blog.
Rachel Stafford says
You are so lovely, Priscilla. Thank you for being a light in my life.
This was truly a gift to me today! I’ve witnessed some recent changes in my teen daughter, and have felt that she’s been adrift and struggling for the last few weeks now. We’ve visited, but I haven’t seen a resolution yet, and I’ve continued to seek for the answers I needed. It turns out that I deeply needed this, and today. Your beautiful letter is exactly what I need to reach out to her and connect with her.
I feel so strongly that your light and love just reaches out to me when I need it! Thank you for sharing such personal stories and for giving me tools to experience success as I raise my amazing and beautiful children. Much love today!
Rachel Stafford says
This has truly touched my heart, Valena. I am thankful my words feel like hope to you, and I pray that they are words that will bring hope and connection to your daughter as well.
Your experience is very common. Teenagers can be incredibly attached to social media.
Working on limiting screen time can be a huge positive step.
I have expertise about the solutions to many of the issues that come about as the result tech overuse. I would be willing to talk more privately about your situation to see if I can help.
Laura Costea says
I love this… love the way you pursued the subject instead of avoiding something difficult… love the idea of having a conversation and even writing a letter instead of making more one-sided rules.., these hard times are exactly what our children need us for. I pray I can be a strong mom, too, today and for many days to come. Thank you as always for your encouragement Rachel!!
Kim P says
I know this might be hard for you to answer but maybe someone in the community might: Do you think you would handle this differently if you had boys? I think they’re just different and I struggle a bit. My son, also 14, spends way less time than the average teen on his device and while I’m thankful I also worry about his social life – it really is how kids stay in touch. For myself, I had to set up the Do Not Disturb on my phone as I was surely becoming addicted as well.
I recently read “Queen Bees and Wannabes”. The author has some insights to offer about how teenage (and younger) girls use their phones, and how boundary-setting can protect them. One friend of mine makes her children leave their phones to charge in the kitchen each night. Years ago, I attended a (very frightening) talk given by a former police officer who works for an organisation protecting children and young people on-line. Her advice was never to allow a child to use the internet in their bedroom. It’s hard when they need it for homework, but she said it’s like hitting the jackpot for an on-line predator if they see an online child’s bedroom in the background.
Just yesterday, my daughter was crying because she doesn’t like the way she looks. I can’t imagine what an Instagram rating would do to her.
I loved the photos you posted. So full of joy and love.
I’m so very grateful for this post, as it will be one of the foundations for “The Talk” when we decide to get a phone for our son (so far I’ve been keeping this text on stand-by for that purpose: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/janell-burley-hofmann/iphone-contract-from-your-mom_b_2372493.html).
It is also very timely as there are more and more appeals to wake up to the damaging effects of social media. This is just one of the recent ones: https://nypost.com/2017/12/11/former-facebook-exec-social-media-is-ripping-apart-society/
Peer pressure of any kind is challenging, but I’ve been particularly vigilant to any signs of technology abuse in my son’s environment and we talk about it all the time. Whether it’s his peers mentioning about subjects I find alarming (btw. if it is school-related I am notifying the teachers immediately regardless of which child is affected, mine or someone else’s), or adults putting high value on on-line likes, or simply noticing parents relying on technology too much to pacify children, our only strategy is talking, awareness and our own closeness. It’s often difficult to talk about many of those subjects without sounding judgmental, but that’s the price I’m paying in order to protect my child as long as possible from the misuse of concept that’s like a snowball crushing young souls and undeveloped minds. We often say that internet is like road traffic and you can’t get the driving license unless you’re of certain age and you’ve passed the tests that prove you’re aware of the responsibility you’re undertaking; internet use is unfortunately not regulated that way but the effects of misuse and accidents can be just as devastating.
Talk, talk. talk.Tether, tether, tether. Thank you.
Rachel Stafford says
What a valuable extension to my post. Thank you for sharing all of this. I will check out these articles right now. Thank you!!! With knowledge & vigilance, there is hope.
Excellent article! My kids are addicted. Partly our fault. I hate devices but it’s part of our lives now. I am having the worst problem with my son spending so much time on the iPad and Xbox and now social media. Everyday I yell at him to get off. Each time I’ve tried boundaries they’ve failed. Doesn’t help that my husband isn’t seeing the problem so I have to be the bad guy. The worst is when I confiscated his Instagram account and before that his online gaming, he fell out of the boys groups at school. He wasn’t up with their news or in with their jokes or happenings and slowly he was outcast. I said “good riddance! If they can’t be friends outside of this stuff then they aren’t very good friends”. But the reality was he was outcast and de-friended. It hurt him so much to be left out and no longer in his friends group. He cried often and once even wanted to jump out the window. So what can I do apart from ask for counseling help at school, which was brief? As soon as I let him go back on those things and social media and texting with his friends, he was back in the group and all happy days again at school and home. This has been going on since he was 10yrs old & he’s now 12. I’m so desperate now I’ve signed him up for so many sports next year to get him away from the devices it will probably affect his school work but I’d prefer that then the dark road we are heading down. I can see how bad it is affecting him yet I feel powerless even though I’m the parent. A couple of weeks ago I gave him back his Instagram account after a 12 month ban. He’s happy as and has made several new friends and been invited to a play date and a park meet up already. I’m thinking of finding some kind of technology doctor or child psychologist to help me figure this out.
It seems your son has a legitimate problem.
I work with families to motivate kids to branch out by facilitating a tech fast.
If you’re thinking of going to a doctor, I would encourage you to do that, as tech addiction is serious. If you want to talk privately, I’d be happy to do that.
I have the same issue as other mothers making comments: how do I limit social media and technology (which I instinctively feel I should just ban) without hurting my kids’ social lives? I know that sounds meaningless and trite, but for a military family, our kids are already the new kids, the kids without a whole childhood of community and friends to fall back on. When I shut down social media and refuse to get smart phones, my kids are literally left out, just sitting alone on the bus, not invited for play dates, shunned. Kids (and many adults) don’t know how to socialize and connect without social media, and I’m not sure how to help my kids do this in a way that is healthy when most of society is moving deeper into addiction rather than away from it. My kids have been openly mocked for not having an iPhone, an Xbox or other ‘fun, normal’ stuff that preteens regularly have. While it sounds small in comparison to the larger issues we as adults deal with, it’s no small matter for our kids to be left out in this way or to be shunned. And now I’m just rambling. 🙂 A conversation and strong boundaries are a start. Thanks for opening up such a relevant, difficult issue. Amy
Social media is not a replacement for face to face social interaction. I wouldn’t worry you are hurting their social lives. If anything, you will vastly improve it if you follow through.
My area of expertise is helping parents to improve kids behavior by facilitating a 4-week tech fast.
I think your instincts are right on this one.
Joyce Cohen says
My now 26 year-old Has taken over as the voice of reason in our family, reminding the adults that when we are all together, devices disappear. In college, his 7 roommates had a basket in their common room…the rule was, it you enter the room to hang out, the phone went into the basket. Help your kids with this and then they can help you!
MAYRA Rodriguez says
Thank you for this HandsFreeMama! I agree with it a 100% and remind me that keeping an open communication with my sons about their tablet use keep their lives healthy. As a family we agreed that we, as parents, have complete access to their texts, history, etc. My youngest uses my google account so I can monitor his history and my oldest uses my husband’s. They are 13 and 15 and they don’t have Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat. They just use it for music, internet, Netflix and Google Classroom. Healthy limit, are that…healthy and they live a more sane live enjoying time with the family and friends. My youngest is the more driven to spend hours on the internet, but we had to cut the hours….and now he’s again a happy and loving kid!
Parents need to feel compelled and motivated to make real changes for their families. I hope this important discussion continues and parents realize that their kids aren’t missing anything by being on social media. It’s the kids on social media who see and read about everything they’re missing! The pressure and stress are just too much for our kids. Why would any parent think that social media is good and beneficial for their child, especially after reading your words? I’m hoping parents will “wake up” and delay the devices, phones and social media for as long as possible. Let our kids be kids, just for a little bit longer! Another great resource and support for families wondering how to manage devices is Families Managing Media. (www.familiesmanagingmedia.com).
This was the additional information I needed on social media and technology that I was searching for…. not just for my children but for myself. As a single mom, who is a computing professional, working from home — I have the ability to understand all the controls and new technology but I struggled with how do I let my child understand. Plus for myself I have struggled with staying tethered unless it was my kids. I have to find things in addition to my children that keep me tethered. Thank you so much.
Rachel Stafford says
Thank you, Traci. I am grateful to know this provided some clarity as you navigate this difficult topic as a single mom. With much love & admiration to you, RMS.
Benjamin Wong says
Can you elaborate on the reason of giving your daughter a smartphone in the first place? Or was this it?
“We bought my daughter a smartphone when we moved to a large metropolitan area three years ago. She was participating in a massive year-round swimming program where we knew no one. Her dad and I decided it would be best for her to have a phone to communicate with us.”
Brooke O Romney says
We had a similar experience with my son last year. Truly, life changing and though there was push back right away, after a few weeks he was so grateful. A little tip for parents, OurPact is an incredible app that allows you to set these schedules and control their phone from your phone. It is incredibly helpful for everyone, but especially working parents who can’t be around all the time. Great article!
I LOVE this article and the message to “tether yourself.” WOW.
It is a mistake to believe that smartphones and social media have brought on a “new” phenomenon. The only difference is that teens are now receiving the constant barrage of images and messaging from the phone in the palm of their hand instead of in magazines and print materials.
I remember being in middle school (100 years ago, ha!), spending hours alone and with my friends pouring over the latest teen magazines, posters of models strewn all over most boys’ walls, the images in the rebel boys’ playboy magazines they smuggled from their fathers’ stash and brought to school. We obsessed over the models’ perfect hair, makeup, thighs that didn’t touch, slender arms, tiny waists, perky breasts, bright eyes, button noses, flawless complexions…the list goes on.
We never heard the message “tether yourself.”
At a minimum, the girls I knew compared themselves and “wished they looked like that.” Most of us, however, saw it as a blatant signal that we did not measure up, that we were flawed, ugly, not good enough. We also heard constant comments from boys and even adults–both men and woman–on how “hot” and “beautiful” those girls were.
To add fuel to the fire, we witnessed our mothers and their friends complaining about their own looks, trying new diets, makeup trends, slimming clothes, talking about how beautiful “so-and-so” is and going to great length to look like them. Because: it was critically important to be “beautiful.”
We heard both men and women analyze every physical feature of women, rating them on scales of 1-10, either critiquing their features mercilessly or making them an object of desire, or both. Ironically, women were usually much more brutal about this than men, which sent an even deeper message: that as girls we must attack and tear down other women who are “objects of desire.”
We never heard the message “tether yourself.”
I remember standing in front of the mirror, examining my features with a magnifying glass and despairing at the stark contrast between what I saw in the magazines compared to the reflection peering back at me. I was filled with despair and loathed– no, *hated*– the body I was born with and would have done anything to be different. I would have done anything to be “beautiful.”
All of this took a heavy toll. Most of my friends were on a constant diet. Many of them, including me, were bulimic or anorexic. All of us spent our money on various products, pills, or articles of clothing that would “alter” our looks, and copious amounts of time in front of a mirror doing everything possible to look “right.”
I never heard the message “tether yourself.”
But I have heard it now, and it has struck a chord deep, deep, deep inside me.
It is more than smartphones. Much, much more. It is a conversation we need to start having in all aspects of our lives.
From now on I will stop looking in the mirror and seeing “ugly” or “beauty,” depending on how much I weigh, what my makeup looks like, how much time, money, or effort I spent trying to be “beautiful.”
From now on I will stop doing the same to other women.
From now on, I will “tether myself in love,” because as Rachel said:
It’s what we must do for ourselves.
It’s what we must do for our children.
It’s what we must do for each other.
This is pretty much the best thing I’ve ever read about this subject. My 14-year-old gets very angry when I try to limit her phone time, and she’s not even on social media! She unfortunately also uses her phone to write lengthy stories (yes, using her thumbs). She is severely screen addicted and it’s led to me using a monitoring app, which she also resents. Summer is the worst…. if I don’t intervene she’ll stay in her dark room on her phone the entire day. If I restrict her usage, she gets very withdrawn and angry. If I don’t restrict, she withdraws and shows other signs like irritability. I struggle to deal with all this and lay awake wondering how.
Warren Baldwin says
I write and teach about these issues as well. You have covered some things I never thought of. Some very good proactive work by you, and a very powerful article.
[…] “And for the first time in three years, I knew exactly what I needed to do about the uneasiness I’d been feeling about her smartphone consumption. I walked straight out of my bedroom and into my fourteen-year-old daughter’s room. I felt my heart racing at the importance of the conversation we were about to have. I found her stretched out on her bed, homework splayed across the bed. She was scrolling Instagram, as teens often do.” Rachel writes (1). […]
[…] Tether Yourself: The Enlightening Talk Parents Aren’t Having Can Keep Teens from a Damaging Drift […]
[…] -Rachel Macy Stafford, on Hands Free Mama, https://www.handsfreemama.com/2017/12/15/tether-yourself-the-enlightening-talk-parents-arent-having-… […]