Is My Tween Really in Love With Her Phone?

Don't let a phone steal the personal, family connections in a child's life.

I recently was walking behind a family as we all headed into a restaurant. The older sister, about 13 years old, was heads down, deeply engrossed in her phone while walking. The younger sister called out to her, trying to catch up and get her attention. She was ignored. When she ran up and tried to hold her sister’s hand, the older sister rejected her with that familiar teen brush-off. The older girl turned away from her sister and focused on her phone even more intently, never uttering a word. The younger sister then blurted out, “Ever since you got that phone you act like you are not in our family anymore!”

It was a heartbreaking moment as that child so clearly articulated her feelings — and the truth. Teens love their phones, sometimes to the exclusion of everything else in their lives, including little sisters.

If you have a tween or teen with a phone, you are well aware of the “relationship” they have with it. They love them. Literally. On MRI brain studies, the same area of the brain lights up when they think about an actual loved one and when they think about their phone. Their brains can’t tell the difference.

We all get a healthy dose of dopamine with face-to-face interactions or a hug from Mom. Teens get the same dopamine rush when they receive a buzz for a “like” on their post.  Because of this wonderful feeling, they crave more. This is why many teens check their phones more than 100 times a day, according to a recent survey by Common Sense Media. Parents know that this attachment is not only time consuming but isolating, exhausting and stressful.

So what’s wrong with our teens being in love with their phones?

A lot is wrong with this unusual desire to bond, and be controlled by a device. Constant attention to their phones with all the interruptions leads to difficulty concentrating and fragments the brain. Science tells us that our brains get good at what they practice and our kids need to practice focus and self control instead of managing phone distractions 24/7.

In addition, teens’ brains are not equipped to handle the high levels of stress and anxiety that come from social media. They need to use their cognitive resources for learning and developing emotional health instead.  

Some parents think that their children need to be exposed to the dark side of social media to prepare them for the real world one day. The science, however, is clear that early exposure to “traumatic content” depicted in some of these “Dark Side of Social Media” videos, can be very damaging to a young brain and there are no benefits.

My experience as a nurse and as a mom for the past 24 years tells me that our children need us to set expectations and clear boundaries for them.  As studies continue to warn us how smartphone use is isolating, it's our job to listen, and help our teens maintain strong attachments to their families before they attach to anything else … especially an electronic device.

Remember my story of the little girl with the teenage sister outside the restaurant? Even sibling bickering is better than being ignored!

Here are two of my favorite quotes from a story called, “Parents: Here's How to Stop the Worst of Social Media” related to CNN Special Report: #Being13: Inside the Secret World of Teens  on

"Help them steer away from it because it's really hard for them to do it on their own," says Marion Underwood, a child clinical psychologist with the University of Texas at Dallas and one of the two experts who collaborated with CNN on the study. She’s also dean of graduate studies and a professor in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

Jay, a 13-year-old who participated in the study, says social media is addicting — but her grades went up once she put her phone down more often: “A lot of kids are going to be like, 'She's talking gibberish. I can totally multitask,' and that's what I thought until I put my phone away and I'm the happiest person I could be right now."

While this issue seems overwhelming to most parents, the solutions are easier than you might think. It is all about cutting back on the number of hours your child spends on their phone and social media. Is your child in love with their phone? Think about it and visit Families Managing Media online for a list of real social media and phone solutions.