“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.
Update: December 2019:
Perhaps you have seen the article going viral that details the experience of a 37-year-old woman who portrayed herself as an 11-year-old girl on social media. The direct messages and photos she received from predators within minutes of creating the account and over a 7-day period are horrifying and upsetting. I watched as friend after friend shared the article on social media and urged other parents to read it. After doing so, I took what I believe is the most important NEXT step: I talked to my daughters.
This morning, I began with my 13 year old and after that, I went to my 16 year old. With sweaty hands and unrehearsed words, I told them about this woman’s experience, the explicit messages and photos she received, and how fearful parents were reacting. And then I listened. After sharing their thoughts, I asked things like: Have you received any direct messages from people you don’t know in real life on your private IG account? Has something like what happened to this woman ever happened to you or your friends? Is there ever a time when you feel unsafe online? What do you think scared parents should do? A common theme I heard from both daughters was that kids are not reminded often enough that there are adults who portray themselves as teens online—and not to accept requests & messages unless they know the person in real life.
This morning’s talks lasted much longer than I expected, and I received far more information than I ever imagined. And I believe it is because technology is an on-going conversation in our house. We talk about it like we talk drugs and alcohol, puberty, body safety and consent, bullying, and other critical topics. I go into these conversations not as the controlling, know-it-all enforcer, but as the guide, companion, and partner who is navigating a tricky and ever-changing territory WITH my kids. I never want them to feel like they must navigate the online world in secret or without a sensible adult—so this is why we have the hard conversations, and we will keep on having them.
I’ve spent the past year writing a book 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. Pre-order available now. Book release in April. Thank you for your support of my life's work. My family & I are immensely grateful.