I am sitting in my office across from her. Her mother is sitting to my right. Seconds earlier, in a casual way, I had posed the question. As I waited for an answer, I found myself mentally rehearsing what I just knew I was going to hear. Not blessed with ESP or any special perceptive powers, I found myself with little doubt at just what the response would be. Without an heir of dissonance or embarrassment, she replies,
“Well, I need it for the alarm.”
Over the years, I have spoken to countless parents and youth about the risks of keeping a phone on next to them in bed. We have discussed how the phone can disrupt sleep, both in regards to messages coming through and unconscious expectations that one might be coming soon. We have talked about how the blue light from the phones can disrupt their circadian rhythm and how the temptation of the phone can lead to later nights and earlier mornings than desired. And at some point, topics have even been broached regarding how online illicit activity is most likely late at night, alone in the room with no one else awake.
From these and other concerns, a clear guideline has emerged for all youth who have mobile devices. These devices should be removed from the room prior to bedtime, and charged somewhere in a public place until morning. If teens or parents are concerned about the potential for a late night emergency, then parents can reserve the right to keep a phone where they can hear it. Few habits are fraught with more risks than a teen nestled next to his or her phone. And yet recent surveys indicate that approximately 85% of teens in the US sleep with their phone on in close proximity.
Yet what is even more striking than the percent of those who are not heeding nighttime recommendations is the rationalization that youth (and even their parents) repeatedly make in justifying this decision. Although a few readily admit that they simply don’t want to miss late night communications, or need it in case of an emergency, so many teens claim that it is the need for an alarm that demands their phone stay nearby. When I joke with them that I have successfully managed to use a ten dollar alarm clock for about 20 years, the response typically sounds like this:
“Well, I had an alarm at one point, but for some reason it doesn’t work.”
Doubtful that the alarm clock industry is going through a technological regression, what is clear is that the reason given is a cop-out for issues that run much deeper. If we were talking about freshmen college students, this might be a legitimate case to make (although not without its own concerns). But when we are talking about a 14-year-old, high school freshman, it is clear that the “alarm excuse” is a cover for what can best be termed as FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). For when the discussion continues, many teens do eventually acknowledge that they are reluctant to let go of the one device that assures they will not be left out. And frankly, whose to blame them? Unless parents clearly set a standard that any nighttime communication can wait until the morning, and that all emergencies will be handled through the “central office”, youth who are smack dab in the middle of the “identity formation” period of their lives are constantly barraged with thoughts that center on just where they fit in (or don’t). Yet unlike the teens of decades ago, who had to tie up the only phone line in the house to keep this anxiety percolating, youth of today have been handed devices that promise to always keep them in the loop. Forget the landline—youth of today are focused on the lifeline that they believe their mobile devices have become.
In our sanest moments, we as parents must ask ourselves whether any part of this habit makes sense? Although the societal trends can easily put us to sleep on this matter, the reality is that there is not a single good reason that our youth, living in our homes, need a phone within reach at night. Teens are already the most sleep deprived cohort on the planet, and the more sleep deprived people are, the more anxious they are likely to become. The last thing we need today are more anxious teens; safe to say, one of the biggest things we need are more well-rested ones.
So, the next time your teen’s birthday rolls around, I have the perfect gift idea for all you parents who are looking for something sleek and functional for your special someone. It is a brand new, state of the art, alarm clock. And don’t just go for the ten dollar variety. Make sure that this one has all the newest features (minus the gaming or online options) and a warranty that guarantees it won’t fail after a week.
Your teen will thank you (well, maybe someday).