“We thought we were doing a good thing,” said Rachel as she began to talk about how a hand-me-down, mobile phone had set her sweet daughter, Sophie on a rapid downward spiral. Rachel and her husband had decided to give Sophie one of their old smartphones on her 9th birthday. There were stipulations: Sophie would use the phone more like an old-school iPod to hold her favorite songs - she was really interested in music. They didn’t give her a phone number for texting or calling and she wouldn’t be able to create an account on any of the social media channels. Everything seemed pretty straightforward and innocent.
Because Sophie liked music, she was allowed to install an app that let her build her own playlists. What Rachel and her husband didn’t realize was that the music app also had messaging functionality that encouraged users to upload their videos and audio to share with other users. What they learned later was that the app worked just like a social media platform. And, naturally, their daughter used it that way. All the girl’s friends were on the app, so she began messaging with them. She also began “friending” strangers who started reaching out to her through the app.
“At first, we saw it as cute and creative,” recounts Rachel.
A Change in Personality
“Over the course of a year, though, we noticed that Sophie was retreating more to her room,” said Rachel. “She was always on the app. We didn’t realize it at first but she began making ‘friends’ with people we didn’t know. The app had started to monopolize her life.”
Over time, Sophie became more dramatic. She talked about how everything in her life was “horrible.” Sophie’s dad, David, walked by one evening and overheard his 9-year-old daughter recording a video for the music app where she said things like, “My life sucks.”
“This bright, perky, positive, fun-loving child started to become a teenager way before she should have,” her mother said.
According to a study at the University of Michigan, personality shifts, especially in children, are not surprising outcomes of exposure to social media platforms. The study found that the more time participants spent on Facebook, the more their life satisfaction levels declined. And when looking at young teens, in particular, those who spend 10 or more hours a week on social media are 56% more likely to say they’re unhappy than those who don’t.
Sophie had lost interest in school and her parents noticed that she wasn’t talking about “real life” experiences anymore. “She was darker, edgier, and becoming more secretive. She got easily emotional and even explosive,” says Rachel. Any time her parents threatened to take the phone away, an argument would erupt and end in a meltdown.
“It was like she was intentionally separating herself from us,” Rachel lamented.
Time for an Intervention
While Sophie was at school one day, Rachel and David confiscated the phone and began investigating. It was full of songs with adult content and inappropriate lyrics. Many of the messages with her new “friends” were pushing the envelope, especially for a 4th grader. Their daughter had developed a more negative alternate persona in her communications with other people on the app. They even found unhappy and slightly suggestive videos that their daughter had been posting to her network.
“I was disappointed in us for being naive,” said Rachel. “We didn’t realize how deep, far and wide it could go so quickly. I was upset that she had broken our trust, but I was more upset that we allowed it to happen.”
When they confronted their daughter, Sophie began sobbing. They immediately consoled her and told her it was their fault. They had given her access to something she wasn’t ready to deal with.
The girl’s shame turned into relief. She had wanted to tell her parents all about it but didn’t know how. Sophie felt like she had gotten in too deep and couldn’t see how to get out.
Getting Their Daughter Back
Rachel and David made a pact with their daughter that they would all close down their social media accounts, which, as you might imagine, wasn’t easy.
The first month or so was tough. Sophie was having serious FOMO (fear of missing out) because some of her friends were using inside jokes - from chats in the music app - to exclude her from conversations IRL (in real life).
But the positive effects overwhelmingly outweighed those negative feelings. Sophie stopped hiding out in her room and started hanging out with her parents again.
“We got our daughter back,” said Rachel. “And it might sound funny, but she became ‘young’ again. She still suffers from FOMO, but she has a calmer life. And we’ve found that she’s better connected to her real friends.”
That last part about Sophie reconnecting with her friends was especially interesting and even inspiring because in this age of devices, there’s an alarming trend regarding teen interactions. A recent study found that the number of teens who get together with their friends nearly every day dropped by more than 40% from 2000 to 2015.
Because Rachel and David caught the problem early, they say they feel like their daughter is more aware of what she’s doing with her time.
“I feel like Sophie’s eyes are open to what real communication is and what it isn’t,” said Rachel.
Rachel understands how weaning children off screens and social media seems scary at first.
“If you can do it early, you can protect them from this fake life that’s out there,” she said. “I’ve felt more genuinely connected to real things in the last six months than I’ve felt in a long time, and my daughter has felt that too.”
Have you had a similar situation with your children or young people in your family? What did you do? What has worked and what hasn’t?
*Note: I changed the names in this post to protect the family’s privacy. "Rachel," you know who you are and I am very grateful for sharing this important story.
Resources Worth Considering
“Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011. It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen (born between 1995 and 2012) as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.” –Jean Twenge, author iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy–and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood–and What That Means for the Rest of Us
Screenagers, is an award-winning film that probes into the vulnerable corners of family life and depicts messy struggles over social media, video games and academics. The film offers solutions on how we can help our kids navigate the digital world.