Jesper Juul
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The way we use smartphones & tablets is starving our hearts


© Jesper Juul, Familylab International

This article is inspired by a survey made by Danish TV in the spring of 2016, which included 1.600 6’Th grade/13 yeas old children and a similar group of parents. Like many other professionals I have been asked by hundreds of parents about the effect of using smartphones and tablets on children’s social skills and the development of their brains. Since neuroscientists from different countries still publish extremely different results, opinions and recommendations I have been holding back on my expertise, which is related to the nature and quality of family-relationships, but the overwhelming consistency in the thoughts and experiences of these Danish youngsters and parents inspired my to write this article. I call the electronic hardware “family-members”, because they draw a lot of attention and literally change the culture of families in ways, which are unhealthy for the love-based relationships between the adults, siblings and parents and children.


   The survey concluded that a majority of the school children missed their parents and wanted to spend more uninterrupted time with them. The same was true for parents and I’m convinced we would get similar answers from partners. This survey was well timed because we are getting closer to a point in history where a majority of young adults will no longer be able to compare the family-experience before and after smartphones.

   For a number of reasons a majority of adults have convinces themselves that their life must follow the pace of e-mails, messages, posts and texts and employers, friends, business associates seem happy to expect that we are available 24-7. The same is true for even very young children and their social network. These combined factors are now a fact, which has become such a severe problem that we must change our mindset.

Adult relationships

   Ten years ago a majority of adults experienced and perceived the use of mobile phones during private visits, dates and meals as a disturbing, frustrating and impolite factor. Now it is rarely so and when it is most young people (under 50) are embarrassed to comment on it. Its simply uncool and old fashioned.

   Any close friendship or love-based relationship needs continuity and uninterrupted togetherness in order to grow stronger and develop all its potential nuances and strength – just like plants need fertilizer. Nothing new there. We know from couples who have lived together for 7+ years that they feel estranged, lonely, unhappy and frustrated when this is only happening when there are problems or crisis in the family and even more when even these “emergency meetings” are either not possible or far too short and solution focused. At this stage both experience a feeling of emptiness and lack of meaning. We are functioning very well but we are not living they say.

   I does not really matter what is causing the lack of continuity and uninterrupted togetherness. Before smartphones it could be television, work-related stress, perfectionism, obligations outside the nuclear family, hobbies etc. All these factors – including today’s smartphones and tablets – are not the real reasons for the loss of intimacy and meaning in our close relationships. The real reason is in our minds and that is good news, because it means that we can change it no matter what others decide to do. This is what lots of couples do every day, when one of them gets Cancer or their lives and lifestyle is threatened or impossible to maintain for other reasons. Living in the vicinity of death often makes our choices more intelligent.


   Here is what happens more and more frequently in the relatively few hours children spend with their parents on a daily basis: The want to ask their parents a question, they want to tell them abut something or they want to respond to something a parents just said and very often the answer is, “Sorry darling, I have to take this one”; “I’m sorry, but I just got a text from work, which I must answer…..won’t take a minute, promise!”; “Can you wait a minute please……I have to….”; “Oh shoot – I’m sorry - forgot to turn it off and now I must take it.”

   On a short-term basis this behavior frustrates children. Contrary to what many adults believe children don’t “feel rejected”. There is no such feeling. When adults say they feel rejected it’s because they feel something, which makes them think, that they have been rejected. Children do not process their emotions intellectually like that. When their parents reject them they simply feel sad, disappointed or angry but as children always do they start cooperating with (adapting to) this parental behavior. First they resign and hope and eventually they give up and stop trying. Around the age of three they start copying the adult behavior and focus on their own screens. – i.e. tablets, TV and later their personal smartphones.

   When children from the recent survey say that they “miss” their parents this feeling is a cocktail of several different emotional reactions and formative experiences:

I feel helpless

They feel helpless because a lot of the stories and emotions they would like to share with their parents cannot be expressed under the stress of time and require a feeling of security, intimacy, confidentiality and active, supporting empathy. Even though they feel helpless at this early stage they still trust that their parents know best and follow their lead.

I’m confused

Every time a parent break the contact for just a minute or two children’s minds wander off and the flow of consciousness gets interrupted. The resulting bad “short-term memory” often frustrates parents who then conclude that it was not important in the first place. Feeling confused develops into feeling stupid.

I cannot trust you

The child makes the very accurate observation that something else is more important to my parents than I am. This tares away children’s growing and fragile self-esteem at its most crucial and vulnerable point: the feeling of being of value to their parent’s lives. No matter how many times a parent subsequently repeat “I love you” excuses and makes romantic promises about the future (like: “I’ll make it up to you”) the damage has been done. In the early years children will choose to believe their parent’s words, which will evidently lead to a point where they doubt their own emotions and another big chip has been chopped off their self-esteem.

I’m lonely

All the way through this ten-twelve years learning process children feel lonely every time their parents choose to prioritize their smartphone and for many children this loneliness defines their existence in other social contexts as well. The most common effect for children before puberty is a general loss of trust and hope that any adult will take the time to listen to them and help them formulate how and who they are. When puberty sets in they will withdraw from family life in general and seek closeness, appreciation and understanding elsewhere and very often on and via the social Internet platforms. We know from hotlines for children between 6 and 16 that a lot of children have come to the conclusion that their parents don’t have time to sit down with them. It is not necessarily the objective truth but it is their experience and conclusion.

Young adults


Psychologists and counselors who work with high school and university students and other groups of young people between 16 and 25 report a fast growing number of students and clients who are lonely, depressed, suffer from anxiety and social phobia and are self-destructive. Generally they talk about feeling estranged form their parents from very early on and this isolation has deprived them of the possibility to sense and express what is going on in their soul. We are already at a point where a lot of these young people are becoming parents themselves and will most likely transfer these handicaps to their own children, which will lead to a frightening raise in the number of children and adults with severe mental health issues. Prescribing antidepressiva medicine to these young people is contraindicated as well as counterproductive. Loneliness and grief might look and feel like depression but aren’t. Antidepressants do nothing but level out the discomfort and prevents the patient from coping with the situation in a healthy way. Children as well as young adults report that the medication makes them feel better but that does not in any way prove that they are better. Medication is a poor substitute for relationships and relationships formed under the influence of antidepressants are shallow and short lived.

We need a new lifestyle.

   During the past 4-6 years there has been experiments in some countries where children have been prohibited to use their smartphones in schools, families have tried to live completely without them for a week or a month etc. The positive feedback from all age groups has been overwhelming. Their learning curve went up in school and both parents and children were exited and very quickly got hooked on all the things they were able to do together. This experience plus the growing awareness that our tempo and priorities are not doing us any good gives me hope that a massive change of life style is possible.

   Each family will of course have to create their own new culture and rules but please bare in mind that this project it not about shielding children from potential brain damage it is about achieving a higher quality of family life, closeness and intimacy. It’s about making yourself accessible and available for those closest to you by not being available to the rest of the world. Do not wait for a new trend to arise from our misery – gang up with your kids and other families in your network and decide on a two-week experiment. After two weeks evaluate, adjust and make sure that everybody know that 3 months is the minimum trial period. Share your experiences on FB or other social media and help creating a lasting movement.

   These are my suggestions:

  • The whole morning ritual is a phone-free zone and the same rule applies for half an hour before dinner to the children’s bedtime. Make a fancy box in the hall where everybody has to deposit and charge their phones during phone-free zones.
  • Turn all phones off from bedtime till you are on your way to school and work the following day.
  • All meals are phone-free zones including meals in restaurants and including the waiting time before the food is served. (These minutes are perfect for establishing contact and closeness after a period of separation) If you allow phones and tablets to be used during the waiting time the message is: we are only gathered in order to eat and stuff our bodies with nutrients, not our hearts and souls. (Bare in mind that children can open their hearts to a questionnaire but often not to their parents or only when it’s almost too late)
  • Parents and couples can agree on specific windows where smartphones and tablets can be used but they must as a minimum be turned off when you share meals and beds, Cinemas, outings etc.)
  • Make sure to inform friends, family, colleges and employers that you are no longer available all the time and help your children do the same if needed.

   Judging from the reports we have from families who already did something like this we know that it is important that parents take leadership especially during the first 3 months, which includes regular updates on everybody’s needs and schedules. After 2-3 months children become the most convinced agents and often inspire their friends to reshuffle the electronic cards in their families.

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