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Teen Girls And Their Moms Get Candid About Phones And Social Media

Jasjyot Singh Hans for NPR

Yassiry Gonzalez goes to bed early. But often she wakes up around 1 or 2 in the morning. And from then on, sometimes all the way through dawn, the New York City high school student is on her phone — on FaceTime with close friends, or looking through Instagram.

"Sometimes, I'm so tired that I'll just fall asleep in school." She estimates the all-nighters happen once or twice a week. And on the weekends? "There's no sleep. No sleep."

Looking back, 2018 may be the year that a critical mass of people started wondering: Am I spending too much time on my phone?

The World Health Organization officially designated "Internet Gaming Disorder," as a diagnosis similar to gambling addiction. And after Apple shareholders asked the company to address compulsive use of the iPhone, CEO Tim Cook announced new tools to track your use. Cook told NPR's Steve Inskeep in June: "I think there are cases in life where anything good, used to the extreme, becomes not good. I can eat healthy food all day, but if I eat too much it's no longer good anymore."

A recent survey by the Deseret News and Brigham Young University showed that technology overuse was the number one concern of parents of teenagers — more than sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. And teens themselves even admit to being concerned. In a Pew survey in August, over half of teens said they'd tried to cut back on smartphone use and social media.

Recently I sat down with two teen girls and their mothers in New York City to get a snapshot of what it's like to grow up with smartphones right now. Yassiry Gonzalez attends a public school, lives in the Bronx and is an only child. Her mother, Stephanie Gonzalez, is a school crossing guard. Bella Butler, also 16, attends a private school, lives in Brooklyn and has a younger brother. Her mother, Kira von Eichel, is a writer.

The first phone:

Yassiry started carrying a basic phone at age 6 because she was walking back and forth to school. By sixth grade, her mother got her an iPhone. "I was a little bit hesitant," says Gonzalez, "But then again, OK: She's in sixth grade and everybody has an iPhone."

Bella Butler had hers by fifth grade.

Favorite pursuits:

Instagram. Snapchat. Followed reluctantly by Facebook, which Bella calls "unnecessarily complicated" and Yassiry says is just for "statuses, just like updates." Yassiry also has a major Netflix and Hulu habit. She says she's watched 14 seasons of Grey's Anatomy, the hospital drama. In one month.

Late nights:

Both girls say they are often tired and that the phone gets in the way of sleep. Their mothers try to get them to turn the phones off by 9:30 (Yassiry) or 10 p.m. (Bella), but it doesn't always go as planned.

Bella says that sometimes, having the phone yanked away in the middle of a chat actually causes more anxiety:

"I would go to bed feeling anxious. I could definitely feel an increased heartbeat. Knowing that I had, like, left this conversation, that I knew someone was gonna text me where I had to respond to them."

What makes this feeling even worse, she adds, is the Snapchat interface.

"Snapchat is designed to make you addicted to it — like, you see when your chat has delivered. You see when it has been opened. And you can also see when it has stayed opened and somebody has not responded to you. So there's that constant stress. You kind of feel an obligation to respond. It's a visual representation of whether you care."

Bella is onto something. We've reported before on this idea of "persuasive design" — how companies, especially social media companies, use tricks from psychology to keep people clicking. One of the leading ways (as Bella points out), is to use people's friends to compel them to stay hooked in. Tristan Harris of the Center for Humane Technology, advocates ethical design guidelines, including a broader application of curfews for our most tempting tech.

Phones down:

Both girls admit to being on their phones at school, sometimes skirting school rules. In fact the phone is so ubiquitous that it's easier to talk about the times when they're not on it — for Yassiry, it was while working a summer job at a day camp, and for a few days on a cruise. For Bella, she can think of a single night, at an older friend's sophisticated dinner party.

Both describe a similar scene: hanging out in groups, with everyone taking turns telling everyone else to get off their phones and join the conversation.

"People are like, 'guys, come on, get off your phone' — and then they're like, 'I just asked you to get off yourphone!' " says Bella.

It can all be annoying, says Yassiry: "If we're like just sitting in the house having a sleepover, everybody will be on the phone — probably not talking to each other, probably tagging each other's stuff."

FOMO and haters :

Both girls are aware that navigating social dynamics online can bring on bad moods. Yassiry has over 1,000 followers on Instagram, but some of them, she says, are mean girls. "Like, 'oh, she dressed like this.' 'Oh she's ugly.' And the stuff they say is unrealistic. Like, it's not factual. So they're haters. And I don't like haters."

Bella, meanwhile, has suffered FOMO, or Fear of Missing Out: the hurt feelings that might happen on a Friday night when she is home for family dinner, but checks her feed to see people posting videos from parties. " It actually will really take down my mood."

Earlier this year a national survey of teensby independent policy consultants Vicky Rideout and Susannah Fox found about 34 percent "often" or "sometimes" felt left out while using social media. And, a survey by the Pew Research Center published in September found that 59 percent of U.S. teens had been bullied or harassed online at some point.

Selfies: It takes a village

Many mothers worry about young girls posting pictures of themselves. Von Eichel tried to have a no-selfies rule, but she says that didn't last long. So she shifted gears: "I had one idea last year that every post that [Bella] makes that is objectionable to me, I should just copy it, [on my own account]," she says.

"Oh God. I thought I would actually die! I already die," Bella groans. "My parents are actually both very active on Instagram and a lot of my friends follow them and it's a little embarrassing."

When Bella posted a bikini shot, her mother didn't have to say anything; Her friends' mothers weighed in.

Yassiry had a similar experience. She quit her Instagram account and started a new one because she was tired of her mother hearing from her older cousins, aunts and great-aunts about the photos she posted — again, bikini pictures.

In general, Yassiry doesn't like having so many family members follow her on social media, using old nicknames. "They're like, 'Oh NeNe I can't wait to see you at the BBQ!' It's like, keep it short and cute. And it's not short or cute. It's long and embarrassing."

But her mother, Stephanie, likes knowing that her extended family is looking out for Yassiry. They may not all live nearby, but if Yassiry is posting pictures or video of herself late at night, Stephanie often hears about it just as if the aunts were watching out a window.

The good and the bad:

Smartphones and social media connect us to other people for better and for worse. Von Eichel likes seeing Bella keep up with their extended family in Germany, and she also uses Instagram to stay in touch with old friends herself.

Yassiry says: "Adults don't know how important the phone is for teenagers. I feel like, when you do have social media and a phone it makes you more friendly. I sit next to some boy in one of my classes. He doesn't have a phone. He won't talk the whole class. It makes you antisocial."

Bella has more mixed feelings about the whole thing: "I don't necessarily enjoy being on it. — Well that's so not true. I enjoy being on it, at the same time, I also know what it's doing to me. I know that it actually causes me a lot of anxiety. But again like, it's really easy. I can sit on a couch, not move my body, hold something in my hand, and do so much. I can exist in another world without doing anything."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.