Electronic Umbilical Cords

The working title for this post was The Other Problem with Cellphones, but that wasn’t very eye-catching. Still, virtually every parent of a child 12 years and older can name several problems with these handy devices:

  • Cellphones readily distract young people from important activities such as homework, chores, exercise, reading, dinner table conversation, sleep, etc.
  • They provide opportunities to “socialize” that do not promote development of age-appropriate social skills and allow for socially inappropriate behaviors.
  • They can be used as weapons by bullies.
  • Cellphones can cause a great deal of financial disharmony between parents and children.

Yes, these are definitely problems with cellphones. Yet, none of these concerns me the way that the other problem with cellphones does. This other problem is perfectly summed up by a child client with School Phobia, an anxiety disorder which manifests as significant anxiety about school and attempts to avoid school due to worry:

I know I’ll be fine at school; my mom lets me sneak a cellphone into school in my backpack; I can call her any time I want. Nora, age 7

Here’s the message Mom’s actions are sending: You are safe at school because you are connected to me at all times by your cellphone.

Here’s the message Nora needs to hear: You are safe at school because it is a safe place and because there are a lot of adults there who can help you if you need them.

Less than two months after the tragic Sandy Hook school shootings, it may seem strange for me to refer to school as a “safe place.” The horrible reality of those shootings does not change the fact that schools are places of physical and emotional safety for the vast majority of students. And for those who experience bullying or physical harassment at school, ready access to a parent via cellphone is not a good solution.

An essential part of growing up is separating from one’s parents enough to allow a strong individual identity to emerge. For many children, school provides the first real opportunity to move about “in the world” on their own and to be their own selves. This is why teachers of young students often discourage parents from carrying their children’s backpacks into school for them. This is why many teachers encourage parents to take a mostly hands-off approach to homework (see Perfect Homework and The Homework Tree) and why child psychologists encourage a similar hands-off approach to peer struggles (Don’t Go Back to Middle School). If parents are always “helicoptering,” something they can do extensively due to the ubiquitous nature of cellphones, then children do not learn to think and act independently. This might not be a big deal while children are young, but it becomes a bigger and bigger problem as children get older. Many of the tough situations adolescents find themselves in – parties where alcohol is being served and relationships where there is sexual pressure, for example – require them to be able to make good decisions in the moment and to feel confident about making decisions on their own. “I’m sorry, but I need to call and check with my mom before I let you unbutton my shirt” or “I should check with my dad before I accept that beer from you” will not work in the world of teens. It is essential that young people have the opportunity to practice thinking for themselves and acting on their own when they are younger and the issues are less critical.

Before cellphones, parents and children had no expectation that they should or could be tethered to each other at all times. Couples kissed their children goodbye, told the babysitter where they were going, and enjoyed a lovely kid-free evening out. Moms put their children on the school bus early in the morning and next heard from them as the children disembarked in the afternoon.  Dads dropped their kids off at soccer practice or ballet class and returned later to pick them up. Likewise, kids hopped on their bikes and rode to neighbors’ houses to hang out for hours on end. They went to the mall or the miniature golf course or the skating rink with groups of friends and enjoyed parent-free time. Time apart was a pleasure, not a stressor.

Parents trusted babysitters, bus drivers, teachers, coaches, and other parents to act as surrogate caretakers. And, because parents trusted these individuals, children felt safe in their care.

Far too often, I hear from parents of young adults that they talk to their children, who are living “independently” at college, several times a day. A DAY! These parents know about every test and paper and all the due dates. They call to remind a child to study or to check on her grade. I have even worked with parents who act as alarm clocks, calling a child every day, sometimes more than once, to make sure he is up for class.

This hovering behavior on the part of parents is not promoting separation or independence. It is not saying “You are safe in the world” or “I know you can take care of yourself and make good decisions on your own.”

The good news is that parents today can promote separation and independence even with the existence of cellphones. First of all, parents should not be sending cellphones with children where the devices are not permitted such as school, field trips, and summer camp. Second, they should not tell their children that they are always available. The message should be “The babysitter knows how to reach us” rather than “Call if you need us.” Third, parents should avoid making unnecessary calls to their children during separations. This one is hard for parents who themselves have anxiety during time away from their children, but it is very important from a modeling standpoint and because it signals parents’ confidence in their children’s well-being during the separation. Fourth, parents should be clear about  what warrants a call and what doesn’t. For example, forgetting to take your violin to school is not a reason to call your mother at work. Feeling a little nervous in a new situation is not cause to call Dad from a field trip. Finally, parents need to be willing to turn their cellphones off or leave them at home and to allow their children to go out into the world without theirs.

Cellphones are wonderful objects of convenience, and I sometimes marvel at how we all survived without them. With convenience, however, come many negatives, some of which can interfere with social-emotional development.  As parents, we must be careful to mitigate the risks inherent in these modern conveniences so that they do not become electronic umbilical cords.

[Names and potentially identifying information have been changed.]

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About Dr. Sayers

I am a child psychologist and mother of two. This blog is about the lessons we, as parents, can learn about parenting from the things that child clients have told me over my 20 years in private practice. I continue to work with children and families at Southampton Psychiatric Associates (www.southamptonpsychiatric.com) which serves Bucks, eastern Montgomery, and northeast Philadelphia counties in Pennsylvania. In addition, I train psychology graduate students and psychiatry residents at Temple University.
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4 Responses to Electronic Umbilical Cords

  1. I couldn’t agree more! Cell phones are obviously convenient but I hate that it has led to this expectation that you should always be available to everyone at all times. It always bothered me that my sister let my niece and nephew call her as much as they want while she is out and they are being babysat – often when they were supposed to spend the night at grandma’s they would call and complain or say they want to go home and she would drop everything to get them and take them home (sometimes having to leave work) which all could have been avoided by following your advice.

  2. Kelly says:

    So of course I had to read this after we talked about it and then I ended up reading all of them and I have come to the conclusion that my children especially my daughter did not inherit anxiety from me. I am an awesome teacher and they are excellent students. They were not born to fear life outside the house I taught them that. All my anxieties all my fears that I developed over the years I handed down to them. They have no reason to fear the dark, people, elevators, actually voicing their needs and so on because they never had bad experiences bc I built a solid wall between them and life due to my experiences. I have two solid friends in this world my ed and my cell phone. My cell has kept me in my anxiety bc I no longer have to voice to anyone so I totally isolated myself from the reality of “real live” people. My children have followed my direction. My daughter rarely leaves my side but when she does I have drilled in her head that its not ok to be apart or without her cell phone. So her cell has become our 24/7 connection. As with me, if she can not find her cell the world totally stops until it is found to the point of hyperventilating bc of the “What ifs” This weekend she is away without me for Nationals for the first time we are apart for more the 24 hrs and she said ” I can’t believe you are leaving me all alone” I said one: You will be with 60 cheerleaders, 30 moms, and 6 coaches so you are far from alone and two: It is ok to be ok without me. You are allowed to have fun and enjoy yourself and be ok with that. It was very much an eye opener of how much I allowed my fears control how my kids deal with everyday life. My rule has always been if I text you I better hear back within minutes. That rule has now changed. I told her to text me when she landed and unless it is an emergency she does not have to text me and I will not text her except to find out how they did. She is with all her friends so I told her to turn her cell off and leave it in the room. She started to panic and I told her she does not have to worry about me I am going to be fine for 4 days and she will be ok being apart from me and her cell phone and that maybe the reason her and her friends are not speaking is bc they don’t voice anything they all sit next to each other and text. I am grateful that I was not medically cleared to fly or drive at this time bc we both need the experience and the reality that we will survive not being together. The world is only as scary as you allow your head to make. I know I have a lot of work to do to really ok with letting go and trusting that my kids will be responsible and make good choices on thier own and that when they don’t they know the world doesn’t stop bc of it. You learn from your mistakes which I have made many. I can say I have 3 amazing kids who are responsible and for the most part do make good choices. I have to be the one to take that step and cut the cord and be ok without my cell phone as my life line to teach my children that although the world can be a dangerous place it is about the choices and steps you are able to take to protect yourself on your own that counts and that a cell is just a tool in that step.

  3. Pingback: Living in contradiction: Helicopter parenting and what it means for educators … – Brookings Institution (blog) | Parenting Whisper

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