Labeling certain phone habits as generation-specific makes sense in some instances—a 12-year-old is probably going to use social media differently than a 42-year-old—but one feeling that unites many phone owners of different generations is ambivalence. Indeed, 36 percent of the parents in the Pew survey also reported that they themselves were too glued to their phones.
Parents and teens alike felt that phones were encroaching on everyday interactions. Seventy-two percent of parents in the survey said that their teenagers were “sometimes” or “often” distracted by their phones during conversations. More interestingly, though, roughly half of teens felt the same way about their parents. The fact that this dynamic of distraction runs both ways is only just starting to get attention. As Erika Christakis recently wrote in The Atlantic,
A mother telling kids to go out and play, a father saying he needs to concentrate on a chore for the next half hour—these are entirely reasonable responses to the competing demands of adult life. What’s going on today, however, is the rise of unpredictable care, governed by the beeps and enticements of smartphones. We seem to have stumbled into the worst model of parenting imaginable—always present physically, thereby blocking children’s autonomy, yet only fitfully present emotionally.
The way parents interact with technology, then, shapes the way they interact with their kids. It also shapes the way that their kids interact with technology. Rideout thus thinks it’s up to parents to model good behavior: Kids tend to take note if, say, a parent puts their phone away at dinner or charges it in another room while they sleep. Witnessing habits like that can help them “realize that they can exercise some more control over their devices,” she says.
The problem, though, is that individual effort can only be so effective when going up against technologies that have been optimized to command their owners’ attention. But tech companies have started to respond to their customers’ concerns—hence their recent rollout of tools that can track and limit usage. Google and Amazon provide parents with software that lets them restrict their kids’ access to certain apps or activities and establish limits on device usage; Apple is following suit with software that will be released publicly this fall. (Third-party developers have for years recognized the power in providing users with this sort of control.) This puts tech companies in a strange position—on the one hand, trying to make the most engaging products possible, but on the other, recognizing that an increasing number of their customers would prefer to be substantially less engaged.
When I asked Rideout about the promise of these new tools, she said she expected that giving parents more visibility and control would be “nothing but helpful.” But she also said that reining in phone use is not up to just companies, or just teens, or just parents: “I think it's got to be all three.” Companies are starting to show their willingness; teens and parents, given how phones have altered the texture of family life, seem eager to change their ways as well.