Q: Maybe I'm jumping to conclusions, but my middle-schooler honestly seems like a zombie during the day since we agreed to let her have a cell phone. She's grumpy and sleepy, though she doesn't seem to be having trouble with friends or school. I have noticed that she’s constantly checking the phone—even bringing it to the dinner table—but when I mention it, she snaps at me. What's going on here?
Phone-miffed Mom in Glen Arm, MD
A: Dear Mom,
It’s likely that what your daughter is doing with her cell phone is affecting her behavior, not the phone itself. Like most tweens and teens, your daughter probably uses her phone primarly as a platform for texting--thus, she may sleep with it on a nightstand or even under her pillow, just in case she receives middle-of-the-night messages. When a text does arrive, her sleep is interrupted and she never makes it to stage 4 REM sleep. This stage is when the dreamwork necessary for resting and repairing brain circuits and moving experiences from short- to long-term memory takes place. Not a good stage to skip since adolescence is the period of greatest physical and intellectual development since infancy!
So it’s little surprise that recent studies suggest that kids who use electronic media before bed—or after they’ve supposedly hit the hay—have a greater incidence of sleep disorders that lead to the sort of prickly behavior you’re describing, in addition to learning problems, mood swings, anxiety, and depression. Lots of parents believe that their teens’ cell phone usage is none of their business, but I would argue that it is as much your business—and just as important—as ensuring that they buckle their seatbelts. Parents are in charge of setting boundaries to keep kids healthy, and you can do so here. Discuss with her some reasonable rules about when she needs to turn her phone over to you at night before bed. A previous Q&A addresses how parents can set and enforce cell phone limits; our CMCH website offers more tips on curtailing use.
A final consideration, given your daughter’s dinnertime reaction: Could her grumpiness be on account of what she’s seeing when she receives a text? Kids who are cyberbullied can become hypervigilant about the messages on their phones. They’re often fearful, anxious, or sad because of how they’re being harassed but are embarrassed and therefore reluctant to share what’s happening. Before you delicately broach this topic with your child, take a look at some of these cyberbullying resources that can help steer your conversation.
Enjoy your media and use them wisely,