Luisa describes herself as one of the lucky ones. She says, “I have it better than so many of my friends. My grandkids live near me and I see them all the time.” But for Luisa, her visits with her grandchildren have taken a troublesome turn. “I SEE my grandkids,” she says. “But that’s it. We don’t talk anymore. My grandkids are glued to their cell phones.”
Luisa’s lament is just one example of the mania plaguing families around the US and around the world. Children as young as four and five have already developed the cell phone habit while tweens and teens are enraged when anyone dares comment that a cell phone should be switched off.
“I tried that,” Luisa admits, “but I had no success. One time I got so frustrated that I made my grandkids deposit their phones into a lock box. You could have heard the shrieking all the way to the North Pole! Finally I couldn’t take it anymore. I know it was wrong but I didn’t know what to do. I gave back their phones. There’s got to be a better way.”
Whitney Flemming, founder of the online blog, “Parenting Teens and Tweens” is the mother of three daughters and like parents and grandparents everywhere she observed the deteriorating emotional process that promoted greater dependence on electronic devices and less on in person communication at home.
Flemming admits that her first foray into regulating cell phone use was similar to the lock box Luisa tried with her grandchildren. Both attempts resulted not only in failure but in frayed relationships that were not easily repaired.
That’s when Whitney Flemming sprang into action by tackling the problem, first at home and then sharing her success with her readers. Flemming’s post, “Tired of Yelling at Your Teen to Get Off Her Phone? Try This Trick,” (August 2022). She describes her family’s transformation from cell phone dependence and explains that “We can’t just tell our kids to put down their phones. We have to show them how to fill their time.”
For Ms. Flemming this was key. She slowly weaned her three daughters away from constant scrolling, video watching and game playing by providing activities that the family could do together. Ms. Flemming admits that it’s time consuming but her success is based on a simple fact. She emphasizes that “I had to teach my children to do things without their phones.”
Instead of berating them to put their phones away, Flemming would say things like these:
“Hey, let’s go thrifting.”
“I looked up a new trail to hike.”
“Let’s try to make those new cookies, but we have to go grocery shopping first.”
“Let’s watch an episode of that show you like.”
“Do you want to go to the bookstore with me?”
The list of activities is as varied as your imagination and Ms. Flemming says it best when she emphasizes, “Anytime they expressed an interest in something that didn’t have to do with their phone, I tried to pounce on it.”
After reading the Flemming blog, Luisa was motivated to try some of phone-alternative suggestions. “I got a lot of eye-rolls and absolutely no thanks, but I pressed on.”
As a grandmother in her late sixties, Luisa understood that there were some activities that Ms. Flemming listed that were less appropriate for an older person. Luisa says, “The activities that I planned with my grandkids were things that I was able to do.”
Puzzle pieces set up on a card table provided the first interactive experience. “Grandma’s Fashion Show” was also a big hit. Luisa chuckles when she recalls how the kids rummaged through her closet and, with a grandson adding “runway” music, the girls sauntered forward, twirling and spinning in Grandma’s clothes.
Cooking together became yet another favorite alternative and during trips to the grocery, Luisa entertained the kids with audio books.
“Am I tired? You bet I am,” says Luisa who sits in front of her bedroom fan in an attempt to regain her “cool.” But Luisa reports that after several weeks her grandchildren were so involved in Luisa’s projects that their cell phones sat on the kitchen counter, untouched.
Luisa sums up her ongoing cell-alternative initiative this way. “I admit it. I was at fault, letting the kids entertain themselves with their phones while I checked Facebook and chatted with friends on my own phone. It’s curious how a communication device can become a barrier to communication. I was a bad example, but not anymore.”