Smart Phones, Smarter Parenting

By Father Tyler Tenbarge

Guest commentary

Every now and then, priests notice how something very “human” is very negatively affecting something more “spiritual.”

Why is it that our young people cannot seem to find peace enough to pray well?

A possible answer

I visited a classroom at a Catholic school recently. Somehow, “phone use” came up. I asked the middle school students how many of them were allowed to take their phones, tablets, laptops, etc. into their rooms at night. The vast majority raised their hands.

Interested, I asked “why” they take their screens into their rooms.

  • “It is my alarm clock.”
  • “I need to charge it at night.”
  • “Watching videos helps me to fall asleep.”
  • “My friends are all on their phones at night, and I don’t want to miss anything.”

But could we be missing something else?

The Church teaches us about parenting

“Parents have the first responsibility for the education of their children.” That’s from the Catechism, and we all know that it is true. We bristle at someone else forcing beliefs or opinions on us or on our kids. “Parents have that final authority,” we say, and we defend that right.

However, raising our children is not only a right. It is a responsibility.

Educating children means choosing the books you like and sending them to schools you prefer. Parenting, though, likewise means teaching your children how to grow up well, how to live well.

Parents fulfill the responsibility of educating their children “first by creating a home… well suited for education in the virtues.” That means teaching your children enjoyable things, like the importance of playing and of being goofy, and of “tenderness and service,” as the Catechism reads. But you must also teach them the importance of “self-denial, sound judgment, and self-mastery – the preconditions of all true freedom” (Catechism, 2223).
In other words, if you want your children to have good judgment and a strong character when they are older – and if you want them to be truly free – then you need to focus on issues that might hurt them.

What is the biggest issue facing the majority of our adolescent and teenage children?

Too much smartphone use

Medical and psychological studies on this topic since the summer of 2017 have drawn a direct link between increased anxiety and increased depression with increased smartphone use, and decreased socializing and sleep when more time is spent on smartphones. A 2017 Child Development study that aired July 3 on CBS News specifically showed a direct link between using smartphones “at night” with increased depression and anxiety. In an interview with NPR on Dec. 17, 2017, about her September 2017 article in The Atlantic, San Diego State psychology professor and researcher, Jean M. Twenge suggested kids shouldn’t even “have” a phone until they turn 14 years old.

Don’t settle for research papers and reports from psychologists, though. Among the most common concerns adolescents and teenagers tell me? “I feel depressed,” and “I struggle with anxiety.” I hear it often as a priest. Parents, it is everywhere. You wouldn’t believe how many of your kids diagnose themselves in these ways.

But it is not a difficult fix

Yes, it is incredibly helpful for your children to have a smartphone to text when practice is over. It is helpful for them to touch base with friends about homework and what time the middle school dance or pool party starts. It doesn’t hurt to play games at home on it, either.

However, does your son really need to have his phone as an ‘alarm clock’ that also tempts with endless competitive games to get him worked up (or zoned out) every night, and so very many dark corners of the web at his fingers tips while alone in his room?

Does your daughter really need to scroll from the time she shuts her bedroom door until 11 p.m. (or often much later) comparing dozens of friends’ and celebrity highlight moments to the ordinary yet beautiful whole of her own life, especially as the last thing on her mind before she finally gets to dream?

I have a smartphone. A while back, my screen time averaged one hour and 25 minutes per day. That’s not terribly high, but “self-denial, sound judgment, and self-mastery” are “the preconditions of all true freedom,” right?

So, I turned off all of my notifications. Now, the only spontaneous sound issuing from my phone occurs when someone calls me. Texts, emails, other notifications: these can all wait until I choose to look. It was a slow adjustment (not feeling busy and bugged all day); but after a few days, it was wonderful. I still pick up my phone to check often (~50 times per day, according to my phone). And that is plenty.

I also bought an alarm clock. I leave my phone in the living room nearby. I can hear it ring for an emergency, but it cannot command my attention otherwise.

It is time to renew your home

Do you want your kids to have a greater chance of being happy? Do you want them to have less anxiety-inducing stimulants? Do you want them to sleep better, to grow up well, to be ‘truly free’? Then renew your home.

Purchase a $9 alarm clock for each bedroom.

Charge your phone at outlets that are anywhere (and basically everywhere) else in your home.

Read a book or pray a rosary while lying in bed.

And forget what your friends are doing on their phones at night. Games can wait. So can GIFs. It might give you a quick high now, but you’re more likely to be down in the long run.

Start with a new, simple virtue in your home: no smartphones in anyone’s bedrooms.

Including yours.

Father Tyler Tenbarge serves the Diocese of Evansville as Chaplain and Director of the Father Deydier House of Discernment, and Associate Director of Vocations. He also serves as part-time Parochial Vicar at Corpus Christi Parish in Evansville, St. Matthew Parish in Mount Vernon and St Philip Parish in Posey County.