We talk about the mental health concerns of too much device use quite often, as so much research has been done in this area. A quick Google search can lead you down a rabbit hole of overwhelming information that points to the dangers of too much device time. However, I want to take a look at the other side of the research. What happens when you have a child or teen who has been attached to their device and then it is removed? Let’s take this scenario as an example. Your teen has been on their phone consistently. They are using it to remain in constant contact with their friends. They are watching videos, either through YouTube or TikTok, regularly. Then they make some missteps, either because of the device or other behaviors, and your consequence is to remove the device immediately and for an extended period of time. I want to caution you to be watchful of your child’s behavior after removing the device.
This is where we must be careful as parents. I am guilty of becoming angry with my teens for bad behavior, and immediately taking the phone. It does feel like the fastest way to get their attention in today’s device-driven world. Your child’s device is not simply a “phone” to them. It is truly their connection to their friends. To the outside world. Couple this with the constant addictive dopamine hits they receive throughout the day while on their devices, and you may be faced with several shocking responses once you remove the device. What they feel when it is removed is immediate panic for two reasons. The object they are “addicted” to has just been ripped away, and they immediately feel the panic of losing touch with their friends. Why is all of this so important? How does it affect their mental health?
I have had numerous families consult with me about how to manage the “fall out” after removing devices. Parents are terrified their child will do something rash in a moment of panic. I have had teens threaten to commit suicide, and I have heard from parents of a child who did attempt suicide. There are numerous accounts of children falling into a deep depression after their phone was removed. On one occasion I had a grandmother tell me that her granddaughter threatened immediate suicide if the phone was not returned. She contacted the police and the teen was admitted for a week at the local hospital on suicide watch and released with an extensive mental health care plan.
So what can we do? If our children are addicted to devices, but the appropriate response is to remove the device after bad behavior, how do we protect them from the extreme emotions they may experience? There are a few things I recommend to help your child, and you, if you find yourself in this situation.
First, do not remove the phone during an emotionally charged moment when you are angry with your child. This is HARD to do. Sitting your child down after emotions have settled and discussing why you are removing the device will help to diffuse some of the scary feelings they may experience. Ask them if they understand why they are losing the privilege of having a device. Ask what they feel should happen to regain time on the device. Allowing them to see a window where they can earn the right to return to using the phone will encourage them to not only exercise appropriate behavior with the phone but will also take away the feeling of “it will be gone forever”.
Secondly, watch for signs of depression. Take any threats of harming themselves as real. Many times youth will act out during the height of their emotions…and not consider the long-term consequences. The emotions simply feel like more they can handle. Talk to them about what they are feeling. And why they are feeling scared, upset, lonely, mad, etc. Walking them through the emotions that are attached to their device can help lead you into deeper conversations about how to avoid this type of dependence once the device is returned. Finally, although you may be angry with your child, showing them empathy and compassion for how they feel can help diffuse a volatile situation as well as help strengthen your digital relationship with your child.
Bottom line, is it sometimes an appropriate consequence to remove a device? Yes. Absolutely. The reality is we would probably ALL benefit from device removal from time to time…and we would certainly benefit from LESS time spent navigating social media. Just be aware that the removal will be met with pushback. After that pushback, do not be surprised when your child returns to the loving, happy, age-appropriate behaviors you have missed. This is the overwhelming consensus that I get from parents after devices have been removed for a period of time. They “get their child back”. And that, well that speaks volumes.