Rice and Melendez say they’re concerned that teenagers’ over-reliance on the phone for gathering information and connecting with friends will erode face-to-face communication skills. They fear they’re already seeing it happen at the middle school level, where friendship troubles tend to flare up. The negotiations that used to take place in person, when friends tried to sort through conflicts, are now unfolding online in group chats, texts or comments on social media.

That’s a problem when you consider, Melendez says, that communication incorporates three main elements: 7 percent is what a person says, 55 percent is body language and 38 percent is voice or tone. “So when you’re online, you’re basically losing 93 percent of the communication and you’re just getting the words,” she says. “That makes communication much more difficult. When kids are behind their screens and they’re not working on eye-to-eye contact or reading body language or picking up on the subtleties of communication, chances are they’re losing the capacity to build social relationships in a meaningful way and failing to develop empathy, which is huge in today’s world.” 

Susan Kaminskas says this lack of in-person communication is one of her biggest concerns for her daughter, Randolph, a freshman at Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bethesda. “When I was a teenager, my friends and I would hang out together and we’d have conversations with no distractions, looking at each other, talking and laughing,” says Kaminskas, who lives in Upper Northwest D.C. “Sometimes when Randolph has a friend over I’ll just see them sitting on their phones on Snapchat or Instagram. While they’re spending time together, it just doesn’t seem like the quality time I had with my friends, or maybe it is but it’s just different. I’m not really sure what to make of it.”  

Randolph, 14, says she’s not worried about herself or her relationships. “I really don’t feel like I’m missing something or that I don’t talk to people enough face to face,” she says. “I have social skills, and I don’t just sit there at a loss for words when I’m around people.” But some kids do, which is why you’ll often see teens with their faces glued to their phone screens when they’re in large groups, she says. It’s a coping mechanism. “I guarantee you that 90 percent of the time they’re not doing anything important,” Randolph says. “They just don’t know what to do or say, so they sit there on their phones.”

Still, Randolph says, the phone can be a relationship-building tool. When two of her close friends left her school three years ago because their family moved to London, Randolph stayed in touch with them through social media. In fact, she had a 303-day snapstreak with one of them recently, meaning they each exchanged a snap every day for 303 consecutive days. “I would send a picture of myself or the floor or the ceiling or something” each day to keep the streak going, she says. She’s also used her phone to stay connected with two girls from Minnesota she met while vacationing with her family in Costa Rica this year. “I wish I could see them more, but I can’t since they’re so far away,” Randolph says. “So social media helps in that way.”

Randolph says she recognizes that she’s probably spending too much time on her phone. During one rainy day at the beach during summer break, she estimates that she was on her phone four to five hours on Snapchat, texting or watching Netflix. “I’m not proud of that, but it’s just the truth,” she says. “I don’t like how much I use my phone. I wish I used it less.” 


Tips from the Experts

Check in Before Bedtime

“Teens need 9 to 9 ½ hours of sleep each night. But the light from something as tiny as a cellphone screen can cue their brain to be awake. If teens are using their phones or computers past 9 p.m., they should use the built-in programs on the iPhone and Android operating systems that filter the phone screen’s blue light. They can also buy the Uvex orange lens sunglasses to filter out the blue light.”—Dr. Helene Emsellem, medical director, The Center for Sleep & Wake Disorders, Chevy Chase

Lay the Ground Rules

“Parents should create a contract as early as possible detailing phone use rules. Use tools such as ‘Ask to Buy,’ a built-in feature in Apple products that forces kids to gain parental permission before downloading apps. I know of children as young as 10 who have watched 13 Reasons Why (the controversial Netflix teen suicide drama) because they had access to the Netflix app on their phones and their parents didn’t know about it until after their child got upset by the show. Parents need to be aware of what’s happening on their child’s device.”—Adam Pletter, child psychologist and founder of iParent 101, Bethesda

Teach Them That it’s a Privilege

“Teens need to know that having a phone is a privilege that is earned. If parents take the phone away from their teen for negative behaviors, the consequences should be logical and predictable. Do not take the phone away indefinitely. You need to reinforce the idea that a person can make mistakes, learn from them and earn back a privilege. When teens say that taking away their phones causes too much discomfort or stress, it is an opportunity to teach other effective strategies for dealing with those uncomfortable emotions. It’s important to learn a variety of coping skills.”—Avy Stock, psychologist, and child and adolescent program director, The Ross Center for Anxiety & Related Disorders, Friendship Heights, D.C.


Monitor Use During Homework Time

“Having the phone within easy reach when kids are doing their homework can be a bad idea. Research shows that a phone’s mere presence is distracting even if it’s not in use. If students insist they need the phone for their homework, limit screen time to half an hour or so. If it’s a group chat, designate a communal space where they are within earshot. The presence of a parent tends to keep children on task.”—Tina Melendez and Meredith Rice, co-founders of AIM Education Strategy, Bethesda

Remember That Privacy Matters

“Technology should be an ongoing dialogue with your teen, not just a one-time talk when they get their phones. Ask them which apps and social media platforms they like and why. Listen—without judgment—to why they’re posting the things they’re posting online. And talk to them about what privacy means to you, keeping in mind that your definition will differ from theirs. Remember what it felt like talking to your own parents, and ask yourself: Is your goal to prevent your child from making a mistake now, or to build trust so they are comfortable talking to you about difficult issues in the future?”—Doug Fagen, director of the Reservoir Psychology Group at The Lab School of Washington, Northwest D.C.

Dina ElBoghdady spent more than two decades as a journalist at several newspapers, most recently The Washington Post.