In today's episode, I make the bold argument that we need to step up our parenting game in order to save our children from their phones. The convergence of COVID with the near ubiquity of smartphones (even in middle school) has been a 1-2 punch that is devastating the academic trajectory of many of our kids. What can we do to stop it? At what point is it too late for them to be saved?
Not able to listen to the full show? You can read the full transcript of today's episode below.
[00:00:00] Hello friends and welcome back to the PrepWell Podcast. In today's episode, I want to make the case that we as parents need to spend more time parenting our kids. And I know this may be hard to believe for some of us who already spend an ungodly amount of time coaching, redirecting and guiding our kids, especially those early teen years. But I think it's worth considering. And in my opinion, the reasons we've reached this point are in large part due to COVID, COVID's aftermath, societal trends and technology. If I had to boil it down to two main issues, they would be COVID and smartphones. This one-two punch has been an absolute disaster for many teenagers, and it spells trouble for years to come if we don't take action. The two methods to counter these issues that I'll be espousing in today's episode are number one, a systems approach. And number two, good old-fashioned face time with our kids. And I'm sure there are many other strategies to tackle the growing list of challenges faced by today's teenagers, but these are the two that I want to put forward today. Let's start with the COVID lockdown. Not COVID per se, but the extended lockdowns that were mandated across most of this country.
[00:01:34] The COVID lockdowns were massive momentum killers for students of all ages, but particularly for students in middle and early high school. Those students who hadn't quite established their academic identities, their study habits, their friend groups, this threw them into a black hole. The fact that some kids were prevented from going to school for 18 months and more. Has been an unmitigated disaster. The idea of sitting on your bed, taking Zoom classes, getting A's with little to no oversight, minimal, if any accountability and questionable academic rigor. Has wreaked havoc on the work ethic and expectations of many of our kids, mine included. During this time, they lost critical academic momentum, and in my experience, it's been very hard to get them back on track because they've lived through a time where academics took a back seat to what was happening with COVID or perceived to be happening with COVID. And we can debate about how long this health emergency should have kept kids out of school. But I think no matter what your personal view is on that, we can all agree that from an education continuity point of view, the shutdowns were horrible for kids. Now combine this once in a generation school shutdown with the meteoric rise of smartphone use, especially with the younger set and boom, you've created hell on earth for a parent trying to get their kids reengaged in school, reengaged in reading or anything remotely academic anymore. Social media has gotten so good algorithmically by learning what our kids want to see based on their online behavior that it's nearly impossible to pull them out of the vortex, out of the cesspool of continual social media consumption.
[00:03:41] Yes, there may be a few parents out there who had the foresight and the intestinal fortitude to keep their kids away from smartphones and social media use over the last two years. To those parents, I applaud you. Unfortunately, those parents are in the minority. For most of us. Smartphones have become integral parts of our kids' lives, for better or for worse. Yes, there are some edge cases of four or five and six year olds that have smartphones. I'm not even talking about those extreme cases. I'm talking about rampant smartphone use starting in middle school, in sixth and seventh grade, which seems to be the norm these days. With four kids of my own, and through my work with tons of PrepWellers over the last ten years, I have seen a dramatic shift. And the shift is not good. In my own home, I've been able to see three distinct waves.
[00:04:40] Wave number one, my two older sons. They're identical twins. They made it through junior year in high school before COVID hit. So they narrowly avoided the worst that COVID had to offer. They had already established strong study habits. They were already participating in sports and other extracurriculars. They were on the right path. Their smartphone use was not at all as all consuming as it is today. I don't even think they had smartphones until maybe ninth grade. They didn't use them that much. Now granted this was pre Instagram, pre BeReal, snapchat pre TikTgo-took. They were so busy with so many other challenging, enjoyable and engaging things that the smartphone was not their go to activity. It wasn't their default mode that they gravitated to whenever there was an ounce of free timebreath-hold. It just wasn't a thing back then. This is two years ago, at least for them. So as parents, we dodged a bullet with them. Since then, however, things have gone downhill. Which brings us to wave number two. My current senior in high school had to deal with COVID, the latter part of his freshman year and all of his sophomore year sitting on his bed watching Zoom classes. In my opinion, this was the worst timing for students from an academic perspective for sure to live through. This transition from freshman to sophomore year is the most critical period when it comes to finding your academic identity, establishing winning study habits, and locking in an attitude about school. These things didn't quite happen for my son, at least not in a positive or productive way. He was disillusioned with remote school. Unsure about where he stood academically. And basically, like most of us, biding his time until the lockdowns were lifted. And by the way, performing well in school, from what I could tell, with minimal effort, which probably made it easier for me as a parent to ignore what was actually happening. We were all just in a continual breath hold until the quote unquote pandemic cleared.
[00:07:11] Now, granted, I could have and probably should have intervened and set up an elaborate apparatus to keep him on track at home. I could have been more diligent about checking in on him academically and power schools and assignments, making sure that he was reading, checking up on his writing skills and math progress. And I'll admit it, I didn't do as much as I should have. Especially knowing what I know now. But remember, at the time, no one was really anticipating that a total school lockdown would last for 18 plus months. So the months went by and the assumption was any day now we'll get back to normal. Well, only 18 months plus later did things start to get back to normal. And then we found ourselves in a big hole. The absurd length of the lockdowns by itself would have been a huge obstacle to overcome. The learning loss, the lowered expectations, the grade inflation, the lack of establishing an academic identity and confidence. But the fun didn't stop there. Guess what came to the rescue. To pick up the pieces of a generation of students sitting on their beds pretending to listen to a Zoom class. The pieces of a generation of students who were prevented from socializing with one another and when they could, they had to be masked. Of a generation of students who fared well academically when it came to GPAs, but not when it came to actual objective learning reference AP scores and SAT and A.C.T. scores. What came to the rescue? The good old smartphone and social media. What an absolutely horrifying confluence of nefarious forces. We were left with a generation of students disillusioned by school, sitting at home, unable to connect with friends in person or play sports, or engage in other congregate activities, who's saving grace was a handheld device that makes all of their troubles and doubts and boredom and insecurities go away. They quickly got lost in infinite loops of sports highlights, animal videos, comedy sketches, influence peddlers. And even if the madness stopped here and all of the content they engaged with was productive and moral and wholesome, it would still be a mess. But what happens when we added explicit language and sexual content and harmful pranks and glorified vandalism and overall nastiness that often lives on these platforms? We stood very little chance. How can we as parents trying to instill good values possibly compete against this? Kids have a device with them at all times that serves them on a silver platter. Any given second of their lives content that the tech lords know will keep them coming back minute after minute, second after second. It will get them addicted for as long as humanly possible. This is a mighty foe.
[00:10:26] Now, yes, there is the option of taking that phone away from our kids or installing some kind of censorship software on their phones that will filter out the worst of the worst. That is possible. Most of the parents that I talked to don't believe this to be a viable option anymore. And I tend to agree. The genie is out of the bottle and any attempt to prevent your child from getting a smartphone until 11th or 12th grade in high school, may even do more harm than good. These days, that strategy would probably put you so far out of the mainstream that you'd have to worry more about your child going behind your back to get the content or just resenting you so much that it's not worth it. Smartphone use has become so prevalent and addicting and distracting that we need to do something. Now at some point, there's only so much we can do. If you have a junior or senior in high school who's driving to school and you rarely see them, that ship has probably sailed. I'm not sure how much leverage we have with our 17 and 18 year olds when it comes to their phone usage. So our best hope might be to one, model good behavior. That means we as parents cannot be seen with our heads in our phones every waking hour of our lives. If our kids see us sitting on the couch, scrolling and swiping every night. How do we have a leg to stand on when it comes to questioning their use? We can't trot out the do as I say, not as I do. That just won't work. We have to make a special effort to not have our phones out during dinner, to not sit around on the couch all night on our phones, to not check our Facebook feeds in our cars while waiting at a red light. To not make our phones the center of our lives. We have to show our kids that we are not slaves to our phones. And you'd be surprised how difficult this may be to do depending on your habit.
[00:12:32] So the first thing to do is model the behavior. The second thing we need to do is have regular conversations with our kids about the downsides of phone addiction and relate stories of how many students have ruined their lives due to the mishandling of their phones. And I know this isn't an earth-shatteringly novel idea, and it's more of a reminder that we need to address these issues early and often. Inside PrepWell Academy's weekly videos, I address these issues many, many times because we don't know when the message will land with our kids. We have to keep up a steady diet of these messages flowing in their direction from as many people as possible. I know most kids are not going to have a lot of patience with these types of lectures, and there will probably be a lot of eye-rollingarm-crossing and arm crossing. But we need to put up a fight of some kind. Which leads me to the thesis of this podcast, which is that we may need to overcompensate for this development and redouble our efforts with our kids, especially with our younger kids who still might have a fighting chance. We can do that by setting up systems that help reinforce our beliefs or doing the hard work of more face to face one on one time with our kids.
[00:13:52] Let me finally get to wave number three with my own kids. I also have an eighth grader. When COVID hit he was at the end of his sixth grade year and then he sat on his bed and learned from Zoom classes for all of seventh grade. Not great, but in my opinion not quite as bad as the same thing happening in ninth and 10th grade. So in my opinion, his academic trajectory is still salvageable... I hope. He's rifull-scaleght now as an eighth grader trying to figure out where he fits in academically. He's in the middle of building study habits. He's trying to see what group of peers he best identifies with. The smart kids, the cool kids, the athletic kids. He's a work in progress. To me, that spells opportunity. I feel like I have a second chance to reorient him and get him on the right path. My three older sons, on the other hand, are pretty much fully baked. I'm not sure how much direct influence I can have on them anymore with respect to phone use. But I still have a shot with my eighth grader. But if I'm going to succeed in getting my eighth grader back on track. I'm going to have to go into full-scale war to prevent smartphone addiction from taking hold. I literally every day feel like I'm at war with a device, with my son's future hanging in the balance. And so as a former member of the Special Forces, I take challenges like this seriously. And this is where the extra parenting kicks in. Because you and I both know how easy it is to leave our kids to their own devices, literally their own devices. Because when they're on their devices, their phones, they aren't asking for food or to be dropped off somewhere or to be picked up or for money. They're not fighting with their brother or sister. They're not teasing the dog or bringing mud in from outside or making a mess of the kitchen. They're quiet. They're probably in their room and they're definitely on their phone. And isn't it nice to enjoy the peace and quiet? Don't you just love it?
[00:16:08] Unfortunately, that piece is a facade. What's happening in their rooms during that peace and quiet is not good. The addiction is growing. The badness is getting one click closer. And the habit is being reinforced over and over and over. The phones are so addicting that many kids would come home from school, get on their beds and just swipe and scroll indefinitely, literally indefinitely until something interrupts them. The rabbit holes are real. They will get sucked into vortexes that would make your head spin. We have to somehow stop this from happening. Well, how do we do that? As I said at the top systems and face time, not Facebook face time, but actual human one on one face time. Unfortunately, this means that we as parents need to work harder. We need to set up systems that will break the addiction from time to time, that will break the pattern. One obvious way to break this addiction is to involve our kids in sports. My son plays water polo. Thankfully, he can't bring his phone into the pool with him. This is a great way to break the cycle. Involve kids in activities, preferably activities that disallow the use of phones. And I know getting kids involved in activities is not an earth-shattering idea or anything new. But some parents that I know have gotten comfortable with the COVID lifestyle, which is when the kids find their own things to do upstairs in their rooms. And while this is convenient as a parent, because we don't have to do anything, it spells disaster for our kids. An easy system to implement is to have your child put their phone on a charger in the kitchen starting at 7 p.m.. 8 p.m., you decide or you jointly decide. Definitely before they start their homework. Do not let them take their phone to their room to quote unquote do their homework. If they need to text people for information about the homework, they can walk to the kitchen and reference their phone for that critically important update. Despite what your child says, most assignments don't actually require real time. Phone texting and messaging with friends. And I know they'll do their best to convince you that that's the case. But I would be suspicious. And absolutely, system wise, do not let them go to sleep with their phones in their beds. And yes, I know their phone has an alarm clock. Thank you. I'm sure they're going to remind you of that. So what? So spend $9.95 for a plug-in alarm clock from Target and sit it next to their bed. Problem solved. They don't need the alarm clock on their smartphone. Dinnertime is also another easy time to implement a no-phone policy. But if your kids are anything like mine the most, they'll have to forego their phone during dinnertime is maybe 9 or 10 minutes. That's how long it usually takes them to, wolf down their meal, and then it's back to their room or the bathroom or the living room and back to the phone. So you may get a 10 to 15 minute window interruption without their phones. And even though it sounds like a small window of time and may be insignificant, every little bit helps. We have to break the cycle of phone in hand as often as humanly possible. And if you try to just randomly enforce a no phone time, I've found other people have found that that's not that sustainable. There has to be some anchor to it. There's got to be some reason to it. Otherwise the kids don't really buy it.
[00:19:54] So try to build these [00:19:55]phone free [0.3s] windows into some kind of a system, dinnertime, for example, that's reasonable, and that can be replicated day after day after day. Try to avoid the one offs. Okay let's move on to another system that I've implemented that gets the phone out of my son's hand and incorporates one on one face time. It's a strategy that I call co-read. I did a whole podcast episode on this probably over a year ago. Co-reading is when your child picks out a book that they want to read or a book series which is even better. And you buy two copies of the book or two copies of the book series. One for each of you. And every night you both agree to read a certain number of chapters. And of course, there's no phone use allowed during the reading time. Then you debrief each other on what happened in those chapters. My son and I happened to do this debrief during our 15 minute drive to school in the morning. We share ideas about the characters and the setting and the themes and the plot lines and the action, the controversies, the symbolism. And by doing this, we hold each other accountable. If the other person has nothing to contribute to the conversation, then it becomes obvious that they didn't do the reading and that's frowned upon, and it's really worked out well. I think we're on our maybe our 35th book right now. In fact, just yesterday on my son's suggestion, I ordered the four book series called City of Ember that my son really seems to like. So we'll read those four books over the next month or so and discuss them every morning on the way to school.
[00:21:39] We also, by the way, have a pact. If after a hundred pages of the book either of us are not really into the book, we can vote to skip it and move on to another book. Now, the book has to be very difficult or particularly boring to trigger this policy, we don't just do it willy nilly. We both agree that not all of the books are going to be super easy to read and that we may have to struggle through some of them. So we don't want to use this too liberally, and that's okay. For example, we recently read East of Eden by John Steinbeck and A Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. East of Eden was admittedly at times pretty challenging for an eighth grader, but he stuck with it, and in the end, we quite enjoyed it. A Brave New World wasn't either of our favorites, but we decided after a hundred pages to stick with it, and we were glad we did in the end, especially in light of the way that the world is going these days. We had a lot of things to talk about with regard to this book. On the other hand, we both gave the thumbs down after 100 pages to Moby Dick. It was just way too sophisticated, way too deep for an eighth grader and for me too for that matter. We got 100 pages in and we hit the eject button and that was fine. This is one of the many ways I've tried to engage with my kids in reading over the years. But once again, this takes a lot of commitment from me to actually do the reading and to actually have the time to debrief it. Now, I can't get away with just telling him to read three chapters and then assuming that he does while I sit and swipe on my phone. Those days are long gone. Ask any teacher who sends students home with a reading log how many pages they think the student actually reads of the log that the parent signs. If there's no accountability, it's probably zero. There has to be some accountability or some type of check in place or it simply won't get done. Think about it. If your child goes into their room and they have the choice to read a 540 page book like East of Eden or swipe and scroll on tick tock for 45 minutes, which do you think they're going to do? I'm sure I'm not telling you anything you don't know. But literally every waking second, these kids are not asleep, they will be on their phones. It's like another appendage to their bodies. They are conditioned to take the phone out during any brief period of downtime and engage with friends, with games, with celebrities, with influencers, with comedians, with athletes, you name it. It's an infinite list. And since most schools ban phone use during the school day, what do you think happens the second the final bell goes off at school? Their heads are down in their phones. I'm sure you've seen this. If you've been within a mile of a school once, it lets out for the day.
[00:24:39] So in review, in addition to good modeling, that is showing your kids that you are not addicted to the phone, what else can you do from a systems point of view to get that phone out of your child's hands, at least for a little while? Number one, no phone during dinner. Number two, phone has to be on a charger starting at 7 p.m. all the way through the night. Number three, no going to sleep with the phone. Number four, no phones on their person during reading time. Well, what else can we do? Even if it requires that we need to personally spend more of our own precious time with them. We can keep them busy in activities. This is an obvious one, but one that you may need to take to another level. You know, my son has water polo practice four nights a week. It's pretty good. It's not crazy, but it does take up 2 hours of his day on those days. And as I said, no phone in the pool. So that's good. But what about the other three or four days? Do I just surrender those three days to the phone and let him go his merry way? Decades ago, we never had this conundrum because the alternatives weren't so nefarious. Watching a TV show, watching a movie, building a fort, riding bikes, playing outside with friends. Those were all well within the realm of possibility. In fact, those activities would be encouraged. These days, however, few of those activities would trump sitting on the bed and swiping on the phone. They just won't. So no, I don't surrender those off days. Those non water polo days to the phone and just hope for the best. I create my own activities with my son. If I didn't do this, he would spend that hour or hour and a half sitting upstairs on his phone. Not in a bad way, per se. He's not a deviant. But just because that seems to be the default activity. If there's nothing better to do or if there's nothing scheduled, I'm sad to say the phone is the default and the number of activities that will pry kids away from their phone is dwindling. The phone is just too titillating. It's too immersive. It's too much fun.
[00:26:52] So how do we fight back? Well, I schedule daily workouts for the days that my son doesn't have water polo practice. We go to the backyard, we go to the home gym, we move some weights around. We do pull ups, squats. We get on the rowing machine, we play basketball, we throw the football, we play lacrosse. I do whatever it takes to keep him literally keep him away from the phone for an hour. But once again, this is extremely labor intensive for me. I have to be there all the time. Every time. But when I think about the alternative, I can't help but come up with something for the two of us to do something more productive. Otherwise, he falls deeper and deeper into the clutches of the phone. Now, will I be able to keep this up indefinitely? Probably not. But for now, I'm trying to lay the groundwork for later. If I can show him that there are other activities out there that will help him in different ways that don't include the phone. Whether that's academically or athletically, I'm hoping that this will stick with him. And that when he gets older and has more free time on his hands and I'm not around as the cruise director, that he might just might consider picking up a book, doing a few squat thrusts on his own, shooting hoops, instead of reverting unconsciously to the ugly world of social media and consumption, consumption, consumption. I'd love to hear how you're dealing with this formidable foe. How are you finding ways to engage your child that doesn't include the phone? Are you setting up your own systems at home? Are you putting in one on one time as I am, to keep the enemy at bay? Or do you have other methods that seem to be working? I'd love to hear what's working, even what's not working. In either case, I wish you the best of luck in this fight. That's all I've got for you today, folks. Thank you for tuning in. Thank you for the continued support. If you know a parent with a 6th grader, 7th grader, 8th grader, 9th, 10th or 11th 12th in high school, that might find this helpful. Please share the episode with them. You can do that by finding that small box with the tiny arrow pointing up. That's the share button. Click that button. Text your friends with a link to this episode with a little personal note from you recommending that they give it a listen. Give us a rating, too. If you like what you hear, apparently that helps the podcast reach a much wider audience. If you have questions, comments, or an idea for an upcoming episode, please reach out to me by email. DM on Instagram Check out our blog Facebook page. Connect with me on LinkedIn. I would love to hear from you. Until next week. Goodbye. Good luck and never stop preparing.
PrepWell Academy's Founder, Phil Black, has spent a lifetime cracking the code on the world's most competitive programs: Yale University, Harvard Business School, Navy SEALs, Goldman Sachs, Entrepreneurship, Shark Tank (2X), etc.
Inside PrepWell Academy, Black teaches students everything they need to know about the college admissions process in a series of expertly-timed, 3-5-minute, weekly training videos starting in 9th grade and continuing through 12th grade [Note: this program can only be joined in 9th or 10th grade]. My specialties include military service academies, ROTC scholarships, Ivy League, and student-athletes.