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A Letter from Dr. Stacey about Smartphones

Imagine this. Your 14-year-old daughter comes to you to ask you if she can go to this big event Downtown. She wants you to drop her off there with some of her friends. You start to ask some questions...

Me: Where is this event?

Daughter: It's an a big building. Kind of like an old warehouse but it's all fixed up. It's more like a shopping mall now!

Me: Will there be any parents there?

Daughter: Maybe. But tons of my friends will be there without their parents. I really want to go. I am 14 now. EVERYONE is going!

Me: What will you all be doing there?

Daughter: Just hanging out. Spending time with each other. Talking. Looking at different things.

Me: What kinds of things?

Daughter: Oh, you know. Like fashion, cooking, funny things about puppies, watching outtakes or videos of other kids. Maybe talking with some other kids.

Me: Will there be boys or older kids there?

Daughter: Probably. But the cool thing is, we can talk to everyone there, and they can talk to us, but no one can touch us! I think it sounds so fun - and how can it not be safe if no one can touch us?!?

You think about it a little more. You feel a little uneasy, so you call some of the parents of your daughter's friends. They give you all the same information. You can't find a single one that says no. They say things like "kids will be kids. This is what teenagers do these days. It will be fine." Others say, "All of these kids go there when they are 14 - for sure by the time they are 15." Your one friend that is the most conservative when it comes to parenting says, "I thought long and hard about it. If no one can touch them, they should be fine. They will get to communicate with their friends and have fun. We can go pick them up anytime if things get crazy."

So, you decide to let her go. You offer to drive your daughter and her two closest friends to the event. You pull up outside a large two-story building that looks pretty nice from the outside. There are tons of kids congregating outside and lots of kids coming and going. You park your car to walk up with your daughter, which she is not happy about, but you resist her irritation. You go up to the door and pay the admission fee for the girls and start to walk in with them. Your daughter pushes back, but you tell her after the first few minutes, you will leave and come back later to pick her up.

The first room you walk by is just a bunch of teenagers all hanging out together. They are talking and telling jokes. You notice that the kids can all talk to each other, but that if they try to touch each other, they simply are not able to. The girls don't notice this. You think this is very strange, but since you knew this information ahead of time, you aren't surprised by it.

The girls want to go on to the next room. In this room, there are bakers and chefs showing off delicious new recipes. You actually like this room since you love to cook. The girls ooh and aah over all the delicious-looking treats.

When they are ready for the next room, your daughter begs you to leave. She just wants some alone time with her friends. What you have seen so far seems safe, so you agree. You and the girls decide on a 10pm pickup time out front where you walked them in.

You go home and have dinner with your husband and your younger daughter. Around 9:45pm you head back to the event to pick up the girls. When you arrive, they are not waiting outside, so you park and walk to the front of the building. You notice that there seem to be the same number of people coming and going as there were at 7pm when you first arrived. You see a sign on the door that says the event is open 24 hours a day, 7 days per week.

You wait for awhile and then you see the girls coming out. They seem quieter than when they went inside. You ask them if they had a good time, and they nod their heads. After awhile, they seem to be laughing and talking again, but they seem reluctant to share much information. They do say they would like to go back to the event again sometime soon. They mention they met a lot of new kids and enjoyed seeing some new things. The drive home is roughly 30 minutes, so you try to pull out more information. They seemed to be hesitant or embarrassed to talk to you about what they saw. You decide to let it go and maybe ask your daughter about it tomorrow.

Over the next few weeks, you are talking with your daughter's friends' moms about what their girls said about the event. None of them seem to know any scoop, but they all agree that their girls seem "different" after attending the event together. Maybe less talkative? Less interested in playing with their siblings? They also note the same thing you have been discussing with your daughter - she keeps asking you when she can go back.

A month or so later, you and your best friend, who also has a 14-year-old daughter, decide to go check out the event yourself. You go downtown and enjoy a nice dinner and then head over. As you walk in, you notice the same thing you did with your can talk to most everyone, and some (but not all) of them can see you, but no one can touch you. They can't reach for you or shake your hand or give you a high five or a hug. Some of the people in the rooms are more engaging, and some just ignore you.

The first room you enter is full of precious little puppies. They are so cute and do such funny things that you have a hard time pulling yourself away. The next one is full of people pulling harmless pranks on each other. You laugh a lot! As you move through the first floor of rooms you feel like maybe this event is pretty harmless.

At the end of the first floor, you see an escalator to the next floor. There are numerous groups of teenagers clustered together around the landing at the top of the escalator. You and your friend decide to check out the second floor. These rooms are a little different. The first one you enter is groups of kids making fun of people with disabilities. You quickly pass by that one. The next room is not much better - it is adults showing room attendees how to play stupid, dangerous games, and making bets with the attendees as to whether or not they can complete the same challenges. It is all making you a little uneasy, so you and your friend decide to leave.

On your way out, you notice another escalator that leads to a top floor. You can see lots of bright lights and fun music coming from the top of the escalator, and it makes you curious. You and your friend think it over and both decide, "Why not?"

As you get to the top of the escalator, you notice a few things. Unlike the escalator from floor one to floor two, floor three does not have a down escalator. You notice that these rooms seem to be more enticing somehow - maybe it's the colors of the lights or the cool music that is playing. Maybe it is the more attractive men and women at the room entrances or their cool voices. You begin to regret your decision to take the climb...then you realize it. This floor is the reason this event is being held. You can now see how the other floors were just luring people (mostly teenagers) up to the top. The same rule stands that the people in the rooms cannot touch the event attendees, but these people are a lot more intentional in trying to reach out to you. They seem to target certain people and become relentless in their pursuit. You and your friend feel so uneasy that you decide to leave...but you realize the stairs to get down are all the way at the other end of the hallway. As you walk down the crowded hall, you see it...rooms of televisions with pornography on a loop. Rooms of people having sex and other rooms showing attendees how to perform different sexual acts. "How-to rooms" and "watch this rooms." You can't believe your eyes. You lose count at 100 shops as you and your friend finally make it to the exit stairs and can't get out of there fast enough.

You can't believe you let your daughter see all of this. Did she see it? Surely not. Maybe so. You will have to talk to her more to find out what she saw. Maybe she will tell you...

The problem? Once your child sees something, she cannot unsee it.

Many parents would read this story and think, "I would never let my kid go to an event like that." The issue is, you likely already have.

This is smartphones. Every day.

If your child has a smartphone, you better believe that they have made their way to porn. "Not my child," you think. Yes, your child. The average age when a child first sees pornography is 12 years old, and one report stated that 20% of pornography viewing online is from children under age 10. The draw to inappropriate activity on smartphones is too strong for your child's brain to resist. And once they see it, not only can they not unsee it, but their brains are wanting them to see it again.

The other problem you can see here with smartphones is that the draw into this "world" is too strong for kids' brains to resist. Rather than desiring to spend time with "real" friends and family, the draw to this virtual world is hard to withstand. Teenagers need to spend time in real environments with real people - they need to have practice interacting and handling challenges in a real world, not a virtual one.

As a psychiatrist, I spend time with teenagers and their parents on a regular basis. I see one commonality across all of my young patients that are struggling with depression and anxiety-smartphones. Not even just social media is the problem anymore - it is the phone in and of itself. The more time a kid spends on their phone, the higher the chance of mental health issues; some say the risk of depression increases up to 30%! I am even considered telling families that I cannot treat their child if they use a smartphone - it is like shoveling snow in a snowstorm.

The list of issues caused by smartphone is honestly too expansive to discuss at length in this article - depression, anxiety, isolation, increased ADHD symptoms, inauthenticity, cyberbullying, social pressure, insomnia, the inability to get away from non-family influence - the list goes on. Some scientists are even beginning to see a link between suicidal thoughts and smartphone usage. These effects do not go away when your child turns 12. Or 14. Or 16. Or probably even 18. After all the brain is not fully mature until around age 25.

But go ahead. Get your teenager (or preteen) a smartphone.

What could really go wrong?


Note: I often have parents say "But I need to be able to get in touch with my child so they need a phone." Although I don't necessarily agree with this sentiment, I am empathetic to the argument. If this is the case, get them a flip phone, or check out Gabb Wireless at

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