Are smartphones killing your relationship with your kids?

Originally published in the Baltimore Sun on October 26, 2016.

For parents of teenagers, it’s tougher now than ever to find out what the heck they’re up to.

Not so long ago, I used to volunteer — selfishly, I’ll admit — to play chauffeur to my now-teenage children and their friends. In the pre-smartphone era, acting as carpool taxi driver to adolescents used to allow me to act as a mole of sorts.

It’s a no-brainer, really. You squeeze a bunch of silly hormone-laden adolescents into a car and, before you know it, they are swapping stories, giggling over transgressions and inadvertently sharing with the unassuming adult behind the steering wheel a healthy dose of what is on their minds, information they might not willingly share with an adult otherwise.

Now, the job is all drudgery with no benefits. You sit behind the wheel, the kids get in the car, possibly grunt a greeting, and immediately their eyeballs go to their smartphones, tethered to their hands like an appendage. The only movement comes from scrolling thumbs.

Chalk it up to a technology revolution like none other we’ve seen before, one that’s happening at such a rapid clip that we’re barely able to identify, let alone ponder, the impact it will have long-term — on teen-to-teen relationships, parent-to-teen relationships, and people-to-people communication in general.

It’s no exaggeration. An overwhelming 73 percent of U.S. teenagers own or have access to a smartphone, according to a 2015 Pew Research Center report, compared to just 23 percent of teens in 2011. And they’re using them, a lot. At last count, U.S. teenagers were reportedly spending about nine hours a day using media for their personal enjoyment, according to a recent study by Common Sense Media. That’s more than one-third of an entire day.

With the rise of electronic communication between teens, casual “verbal” conversations aren’t the only thing parents are missing out on. Smartphones allow teenagers to hide other things, like love interests. Sure is different than when I was young.

I’ll never forget, as a 16-year-old, fighting off a gaggle of siblings and my mother’s quick hands in an effort to reach the phone if it rang when I was expecting, or at least hoping, a crush would call. If I were fortunate to get to the phone before anyone else and it did happen to be for me, I would stretch the cord as long as possible, ducking out of sight to try to secure a slice of privacy in my crowded house. When I returned the phone to its place on the kitchen wall, several sets of eyes would follow me, completely red in the face, as my mother asked me who called.

These days, I have no idea who is on the other end of my teenage children’s phone calls; or, rather, texts, Snapchats or whatever other form of electronic communication they happen to be using. Many of the messages they receive, so I’m told, disappear “into the cloud” or some such place within minutes or seconds of reaching them. And I am far too busy, and technologically inept, to trace their messages. Plus, I figure I will respect my teenagers’ privacy until they give me a reason not to.

Chances are, it’s only a matter of time.

In this super-secretive era of lightning quick communication, teens may find it easy to hide transgressions from adults until things really escalate. But with the temptation of inappropriate “over-sharing” literally at teens’ fingertips, bad behavior can ramp up, and be exposed, pretty quickly. Today, it’s extremely common for parents to confront an uncomfortable situation whereby their adolescent is on the sending or receiving end of a compromising photo or a boastful message about activity that’s illicit, cruel or otherwise inappropriate.

Up against the almighty smartphone, parents can feel pretty powerless. But we don’t have to be. I tell my kids their smartphones are a privilege, even if they paid for them with their summer job earnings, that can be taken away if misused in any way. My kids also know their cell phone use is limited based on what their father and I deem acceptable. This means that during certain times — including dinner, local car rides and bedtime — the smartphones stay out of reach.

Surprisingly, my kids don’t complain about these rules. Maybe it’s because they, like all teenagers, still want the opportunity to share things with their parents. And it’s a lot more likely to happen when they’re unencumbered by their smartphones.