The power of IRL: Creating space for teens to unplug and engage

When I share that I’m a clinical social worker specializing in adolescents, the common responses are, “That must be so hard,” “Aren’t their problems just due to puberty?” and “Isn’t that young to begin therapy?”

However, the most frequent statement, often expressed with disdain, is: “Those teens are so addicted to their phones! They never put them down! How do you deal with them?”

This stereotype is not completely unfounded. Members of the so-called iGen (individuals born between 1995 and 2012) were prey to increased technology exposure in childhood. A 2017 survey of more than 5,000 American teens found that 3 out of 4 own a smartphone. The consequences of such exposure have yet to be fully understood, with many concerned about its impact on cognition, most notably attention.

iGen and Mental Health

What we do know is that iGen seems to be particularly vulnerable, as the surge in teen suicide and mental health diagnoses since 2011 reveals. In fact, based on the growing evidence, many believe iGen is in the midst a mental health crisis, with some experts asserting that this could be traced to the isolating nature of their smartphones — though a myriad of immeasurable variables may be at play.

The Monitoring the Future Survey indicates that teens who are on their phones more often have an increased likelihood of feeling unhappy. This is where the metaphor of phone use as an addiction is clearest. Parents, teachers and coaches witness how just staring at screens can change teens’ moods. Yet teens sit alone in their rooms all weekend despite parents’ best efforts to pull them away from these seemingly depression-inducing devices. Similar to a drug user, who may or may not have insight into how drug use and unhappiness are correlated, the teen is incapable of peeling themselves away from their phone, which is the core of addiction: behaving the same way over and over again despite continued negative consequences.

But is the idea of turmoil in the adolescent social space (virtual or in real life) truly unique to this generation?

[See: 9 Surprising Things That Happen When You Go on a Digital Detox.]

The Phone as a Source of Both Isolation and Connection

There is a large body of literature clearly illustrating that isolation is the crux of all human suffering and, consequently, that connection is its antidote. Paradoxically, iGen’s phones are both a place of adult-perceived isolation and iGen-perceived connection. For many iGen, the phone is their only way of connecting. This raises the question: Is this phenomenon really unique to the iGen population? Is the maturation process of an adolescent prioritizing their social life above school and family actually new?

Of course it isn’t! However, almost overnight, adolescent social space has undergone a metamorphosis from house parties IRL (“in real life”) to the House Party app used by iGen. In family therapy, I am frequently confronted with this theme: “My son/daughter will not put down their phone.” We adults look at this behavior and judgmentally label it unhealthy, accompanied by phrases such as, “They aren’t getting outside. When I was a kid, I was outside every day” and “They just sit in their room all day — that can’t be good for them!” Implied in these statements is a simple underlying message: My child is not socializing the way I used to socialize when I was their age, and that scares me.

In past generations, parents would link rewards for good behavior to independence and freedom to go out and socialize with friends. With the advent of FaceTime and Snapchat, teens now fill their insatiable desire for socializing while alone in their room, smartphone in hand. For iGen, features like FaceTime are not only filling that hole, they are at times the desired, or at least default, forms of socialization. Therefore, in the iGen world, earning privileges to go out seems to be irrelevant.

Nowadays, losing a smartphone or computer — really any device that links to the internet — equates to being grounded. This is why I’m frequently faced with using the confiscation of the phone as a consequence, because being grounded is meaningless to iGen. Take away their phone — or change the WiFi password — and you’ll watch a demon rise up unlike anything you have ever seen.

Parents Need to Model Healthy Behavior

Beyond this, parents need to self-reflect about their own use of phones, which surfaces the concept of modeling behavior. As the saying goes, “If you spot it, you got it,” and I find this sentiment to be incredibly true when treating this particular issue. Are adults not behaving the same way as teens, just in a different manifestation? Maybe it’s not the House Party app, but it’s e-mail, work, Facebook and texting.

When family sessions wrap up, I take note of how quickly parents go to find their phones, return texts,and then pull out their calendar to schedule our next session. I observe their behavior in the waiting room as well, typically witnessing them on their phones while they wait. My most powerful intervention to this recurrent problem is, “If you would like your child to put down their phone, you will need to begin to model this behavior, creating a technology-free room in the house and making dinner cellphone free, including your phones.”

[See: Am I Just Sad — or Actually Depressed?]

Creating Camp YEAT

Springtime in our teen outpatient treatment center is bustling with anxiety. Parents are aware that their children are transitioning into an unstructured summer and, for the teens we treat (who are dealing with mental health issues such as anxiety, depression and trauma-related disorders), unstructured time can leave them vulnerable to increasing severity of symptoms. Out of this angst came an idea, simple yet surprisingly innovative, as there didn’t seem to be a similar program within driving distance. “Let’s start a camp!” I exclaimed on a Monday mid-April morning at a team meeting, “a camp for teens who struggle with mental health issues, one where they can build a sense of self, connect and participate in new experiences, instead of sitting in their rooms all summer on their phones” — which had increasingly become both the fear and the reality of parents of struggling teens.

But how to get them engaged? We decided that, first, the name needed to be catchy and relatable. Often, my teenagers would exclaim “Yeet.” I am still not quite sure what it means, but I knew they liked to say it, and it was usually after something positive. So we decided to name it Camp YEAT (Youth, Education, Adventure and Therapy). I am pretty sure my plan to get them engaged with the name didn’t work out as intended and they all made fun of me, but, despite my fears, the camp filled up.

Do Kids Really Need Their Phones as Much as They Think They Do?

The first day, we had nine teens between the ages of 15 and 18. In the first 15 minutes, we went over group norms, rules and expectations. Outlined in these rules was the cellphone policy that stated campers were to hand in their phones at the beginning of the day and were allowed access to them on breaks.

The day began simply — we did a few icebreakers, we broke out a parachute game (remember those parachutes you used to play with in kindergarten? They make them for adults, and they are huge and awesome!), and we began working on an outdoor labyrinth project. During the first break, not one teen asked for his or her phone. Lunch rolled around and they ate while laughing, joking, talking about their lives, friends, schools, teachers, coaches and sharing about their future career choices and overall views on life, digressing of course to fart noises and romantic interests. Lunch came and went, and not one teen asked for their phone. Next up was group therapy, then yoga and meditation. All our campers were engaged throughout the whole first day of camp — drum roll, please — without their phones. As they greeted their parents, some even forgot to ask for their phones on the way out! I was just as shocked as you are reading this.

When we talked to them about the stunning phenomenon we had witnessed on the first day of camp, the campers shared that they had felt relief being away from their phones. Relief!? I feel anxiety when I’m away from my phone! How could they — the generation that is perceived as the most addicted to their phones — feel relief? This goes against every stereotype I’ve ever heard. The answer is simple: IRL community.

[See: 7 Types of Friends You Need to Break Up With.]

What Parents Can Do

As much as we may fear it, phones and the world of social media are only going to permeate our lives more in the future. The question remains: What can we, as adults, do to help foster and support environments like Camp YEAT?

At Camp YEAT, our kids experienced connection, volunteering and creativity; they used their bodies in yoga and their minds in meditation. To put it simply, they had space and time in which they could focus on connection — mind, body and spirit. And this is what kept them from asking for their phones. We need to provide teens with these kinds of spaces: places for them to build a community.

And the substance use disorder experts agree: The only way to help someone heal from addiction is to help them create a fuller life, which includes a career, fellowship and/or spirituality. Creating something to replace the addiction is the goal. Thus, the goal with iGen is to replace the phone with something more stimulating, like Camp YEAT or another IRL community.

Ways to Help Teens Unplug and Engage

Here are three techniques parents can use to help their teens unplug and engage.

1. Put down your phone: Model the behavior of separating your hand from your phone and being fully present at family engagements.

2. Plan technology-free time: Schedule a specific day and time parameters in which everyone will put their phones in a drawer and leave them there.

3. Plan IRL activities: Create space for a fun, unique activity for the whole family that will help everyone unwind, unplug and be present.

More from U.S. News

7 Ways Technology Can Torpedo Your Health

The DIY Detox: How to Create the Healthiest Cleanse for You

9 Surprising Things That Happen When You Go on a Digital Detox

The Power of an IRL Community: Creating Space for Teens to Unplug and Engage originally appeared on

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