Teen Girls And Their Moms Get Candid About Phones And Social Media

Dec 17, 2018
Originally published on December 18, 2018 11:42 am

Yassiry Gonzalez goes to bed early. But often she wakes up around 1 or 2 in the morning. And from then on, sometimes all the way through dawn, the New York City high school student is on her phone — on FaceTime with close friends, or looking through Instagram.

"Sometimes, I'm so tired that I'll just fall asleep in school." She estimates the all-nighters happen once or twice a week. And on the weekends? "There's no sleep. No sleep."

Looking back, 2018 may be the year that a critical mass of people started wondering: Am I spending too much time on my phone?

The World Health Organization officially designated "Internet Gaming Disorder," as a diagnosis similar to gambling addiction. And after Apple shareholders asked the company to address compulsive use of the iPhone, CEO Tim Cook announced new tools to track your use. Cook told NPR's Steve Inskeep in June: "I think there are cases in life where anything good, used to the extreme, becomes not good. I can eat healthy food all day, but if I eat too much it's no longer good anymore."

A recent survey by the Deseret News and Brigham Young University showed that technology overuse was the number one concern of parents of teenagers — more than sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. And teens themselves even admit to being concerned. In a Pew survey in August, over half of teens said they'd tried to cut back on smartphone use and social media.

Recently I sat down with two teen girls and their mothers in New York City to get a snapshot of what it's like to grow up with smartphones right now. Yassiry Gonzalez attends a public school, lives in the Bronx and is an only child. Her mother, Stephanie Gonzalez, is a school crossing guard. Bella Butler, also 16, attends a private school, lives in Brooklyn and has a younger brother. Her mother, Kira von Eichel, is a writer.

The first phone:

Yassiry started carrying a basic phone at age 6 because she was walking back and forth to school. By sixth grade, her mother got her an iPhone. "I was a little bit hesitant," says Gonzalez, "But then again, OK: She's in sixth grade and everybody has an iPhone."

Bella Butler had hers by fifth grade.

Favorite pursuits:

Instagram. Snapchat. Followed reluctantly by Facebook, which Bella calls "unnecessarily complicated" and Yassiry says is just for "statuses, just like updates." Yassiry also has a major Netflix and Hulu habit. She says she's watched 14 seasons of Grey's Anatomy, the hospital drama. In one month.

Late nights:

Both girls say they are often tired and that the phone gets in the way of sleep. Their mothers try to get them to turn the phones off by 9:30 (Yassiry) or 10 p.m. (Bella), but it doesn't always go as planned.

Bella says that sometimes, having the phone yanked away in the middle of a chat actually causes more anxiety:

"I would go to bed feeling anxious. I could definitely feel an increased heartbeat. Knowing that I had, like, left this conversation, that I knew someone was gonna text me where I had to respond to them."

What makes this feeling even worse, she adds, is the Snapchat interface.

"Snapchat is designed to make you addicted to it — like, you see when your chat has delivered. You see when it has been opened. And you can also see when it has stayed opened and somebody has not responded to you. So there's that constant stress. You kind of feel an obligation to respond. It's a visual representation of whether you care."

Bella is onto something. We've reported before on this idea of "persuasive design" — how companies, especially social media companies, use tricks from psychology to keep people clicking. One of the leading ways (as Bella points out), is to use people's friends to compel them to stay hooked in. Tristan Harris of the Center for Humane Technology, advocates ethical design guidelines, including a broader application of curfews for our most tempting tech.

Phones down:

Both girls admit to being on their phones at school, sometimes skirting school rules. In fact the phone is so ubiquitous that it's easier to talk about the times when they're not on it — for Yassiry, it was while working a summer job at a day camp, and for a few days on a cruise. For Bella, she can think of a single night, at an older friend's sophisticated dinner party.

Both describe a similar scene: hanging out in groups, with everyone taking turns telling everyone else to get off their phones and join the conversation.

"People are like, 'guys, come on, get off your phone' — and then they're like, 'I just asked you to get off your phone!' " says Bella.

It can all be annoying, says Yassiry: "If we're like just sitting in the house having a sleepover, everybody will be on the phone — probably not talking to each other, probably tagging each other's stuff."

FOMO and haters :

Both girls are aware that navigating social dynamics online can bring on bad moods. Yassiry has over 1,000 followers on Instagram, but some of them, she says, are mean girls. "Like, 'oh, she dressed like this.' 'Oh she's ugly.' And the stuff they say is unrealistic. Like, it's not factual. So they're haters. And I don't like haters."

Bella, meanwhile, has suffered FOMO, or Fear of Missing Out: the hurt feelings that might happen on a Friday night when she is home for family dinner, but checks her feed to see people posting videos from parties. " It actually will really take down my mood."

Earlier this year a national survey of teens by independent policy consultants Vicky Rideout and Susannah Fox found about 34 percent "often" or "sometimes" felt left out while using social media. And, a survey by the Pew Research Center published in September found that 59 percent of U.S. teens had been bullied or harassed online at some point.

Selfies: It takes a village

Many mothers worry about young girls posting pictures of themselves. Von Eichel tried to have a no-selfies rule, but she says that didn't last long. So she shifted gears: "I had one idea last year that every post that [Bella] makes that is objectionable to me, I should just copy it, [on my own account]," she says.

"Oh God. I thought I would actually die! I already die," Bella groans. "My parents are actually both very active on Instagram and a lot of my friends follow them and it's a little embarrassing."

When Bella posted a bikini shot, her mother didn't have to say anything; Her friends' mothers weighed in.

Yassiry had a similar experience. She quit her Instagram account and started a new one because she was tired of her mother hearing from her older cousins, aunts and great-aunts about the photos she posted — again, bikini pictures.

In general, Yassiry doesn't like having so many family members follow her on social media, using old nicknames. "They're like, 'Oh NeNe I can't wait to see you at the BBQ!' It's like, keep it short and cute. And it's not short or cute. It's long and embarrassing."

But her mother, Stephanie, likes knowing that her extended family is looking out for Yassiry. They may not all live nearby, but if Yassiry is posting pictures or video of herself late at night, Stephanie often hears about it just as if the aunts were watching out a window.

The good and the bad:

Smartphones and social media connect us to other people for better and for worse. Von Eichel likes seeing Bella keep up with their extended family in Germany, and she also uses Instagram to stay in touch with old friends herself.

Yassiry says: "Adults don't know how important the phone is for teenagers. I feel like, when you do have social media and a phone it makes you more friendly. I sit next to some boy in one of my classes. He doesn't have a phone. He won't talk the whole class. It makes you antisocial."

Bella has more mixed feelings about the whole thing: "I don't necessarily enjoy being on it. — Well that's so not true. I enjoy being on it, at the same time, I also know what it's doing to me. I know that it actually causes me a lot of anxiety. But again like, it's really easy. I can sit on a couch, not move my body, hold something in my hand, and do so much. I can exist in another world without doing anything."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.


And now it's time for All Tech Considered.


CHANG: This month as we get ready to say goodbye to 2018, we're taking stock of the year in tech.


Today, we chart the fear that grew over 2018 - the fear of using tech too much. Consider a few dates. January 6, Apple shareholders write a letter demanding that the company address addiction and compulsive use. June 18, the World Health Organization classifies gaming disorder as a mental health condition - not unlike gambling.

CHANG: And November 28, an annual survey by Brigham Young University and the Deseret News showed that parents of teenagers fear tech overuse more than they fear sex or drug use by their teenagers. NPR's Anya Kamenetz has been following all of these developments on her smartphone screen. And she joins us now. Welcome.


CHANG: Should we be worried? Is there a consensus among health experts on how screen time is actually harmful for our health?

KAMENETZ: A consensus, not exactly - so the World Health Organization now does say, yes, video games can be a behavioral addiction not unlike gambling. Here in the United States, the psychiatric profession still lists Internet over use as a, quote, "condition for further study." So they haven't fully jumped on board with that. And the doctors I talked to you, they use the term problematic use, which could be social media or of games or general use of the Internet. And that's defined pragmatically as any use that causes problems in other areas of your life. It could be work or sleep or relationships. Maybe you're lying, or it's causing fights at home. And, you know, these kinds of problems often come hand in hand with other conditions - like depression or anxiety or conditions like ADHD or even being on the autism spectrum.

CHANG: Well, we mentioned that the year began with this shareholder letter to Apple. Can you just update us on what is Apple - and what are other tech companies doing to address this growing concern about tech addiction?

KAMENETZ: Yeah. So Android and Apple both came out with new tools this year to track your use of the phone. And the iPhone now automatically shows you things like how often you pick up your phone. And in June, Apple CEO Tim Cook told NPR...


TIM COOK: I think there are cases in life where anything good used to the extreme becomes not good.

KAMENETZ: Apple of course makes its money primarily from selling devices. So for companies like Facebook or Snapchat that make most of their money essentially directly from the time you spend inside the app, it might be a lot more difficult for them to promote people cutting back.

CHANG: Then with all the growing attention on this, are people actually changing their behavior? I mean, I feel like for me my reliance on devices is only getting worse.

KAMENETZ: I know what you mean. And, you know, I checked in with some families about this. This is Bella Butler who is 16 and lives in Brooklyn. She's talking about her phone.

BELLA BUTLER: I enjoy being on it. At the same time, I also know what it's doing to me. Like, I know that it actually causes me a lot of anxiety.

CHANG: Totally relate to that.

KAMENETZ: Me too. Me too. And so it's anxiety from FOMO - the fear of missing out. Anxiety from feeling like she's scrutinized for every little photo that she posts. And then there's losing sleep because she's Snapchatting with her friends. And so growing up, it does feel different in some ways. And this was a big issue - also the lack of sleep for Yassiry Gonzalez who lives in the Bronx. She's also 16. And she says her mom can't control her phone use.

YASSIRY GONZALEZ: She won't really know that I'm on my phone because I go to sleep early, and then I wake up in the middle of the night.

KAMENETZ: What time would you wake up?

YASSIRY: Like 1, 2 in the morning.

CHANG: She'll wake up at 1 or 2 to use her phone?

KAMENETZ: Yeah. And sometimes she says she stays up the whole rest of the night - especially on the weekends.

CHANG: And her mom has no clue it's to use her phone.

KAMENETZ: It's not so much that she has no clue but just that she doesn't know what she can do about it. I hear these mixed feelings from a lot of the teens I meet actually. The latest Pew Research Center poll shows more than half of all teens have taken a break from their phones at some point.

CHANG: An extended break?

KAMENETZ: Well, it depends. I mean, it can be very, very hard to put it down especially if you need it for school or for keeping up with friends. But at least they're recognizing that there's something they'd like to change - maybe it's a New Year's resolution at some point.

CHANG: That's NPR's Anya Kamenetz. Thanks so much.

KAMENETZ: Thanks, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.