By Katie Bingham-Smith
Photo by Getty Images

My kids have always been pretty extroverted. They love to be around and talk with different people. When they were younger play dates exhausted me, but like most moms, I plowed through them because I knew how important they were for my kiddos to experience.

Now that I have a few teens who are buzzing around and going from activity to party to social gathering, I still encourage them to have friends over almost whenever they want. There are times when they are OK just staying home, which at first sounded fine to me, but I noticed something: It's so easy for our teens to see what's going on in this technology-centric society where they can communicate with their friends so easily they don't feel the need to see them face to face as much.

It's something I never experienced back in my teens days during the '80s and '90s when we either saw our friends or talked to them on the phone if we wanted to connect. We weren't able to FaceTime, take and send dozens of pictures a day, and have contact instantly.

Socializing on the phone

I feel like all this phone time is a false sense of connection. If I go too long without seeing someone in real life, a strange feeling sets in. We may think we are connecting through social media, but when you are able to look at someone and interact with them, you can't compare the two experiences, especially if you are feeling lonely or isolated. It truly does something to your psyche. I think our teens are missing out on a lot of that connection because they are so reliant on their phones to do the work for them.

When I look around when I take my kids to the movies, or drop them off at sports games, everyone has their heads down in their phone. Sure, they are together, talking, and showing each other someone's latest post, but for the most part, this is screen time for them that's rarely being supervised by an adult.

Seeing a change in my son

I noticed my son was becoming increasingly curt and irritated with me and the rest of the family the more phone time he had. He was my first born and was in many ways a guinea pig when it came to how much phone time I'd allow my kids to have.

At first it seemed harmless. He liked to watch videos about cars, bike tricks, and weight lifting. After a year or so, he clearly was having a problem putting it down. He stopped asking to have his friends over, and I noticed he wasn't getting invited to hang out with his peers as much as he was before they all got their smartphones (around age 12 or so).

When I'd make him put it away, it would force him to engage with others (after the initial pouting stopped). He'd get outside and explore and would start asking to have friends over again. He seemed happier.

It certainly isn't as easy as that though. It’s been a constant struggle to try and teach him and my other two children how to demonstrate balance when it comes to using their phones.

What experts say

My kids aren’t alone, of course. Jean M. Twenge, who has been researching generational differences for 25 years, wrote in an essay for The Atlantic:

After extensive research, Twenge discovered 2012 was the year "when the proportion of Americans who owned a smartphone surpassed 50 percent," according to the essay.

Throughout the article Twenge discussed how teens are more comfortable spending time in their room alone versus spending face-to-face time with friends. “Their social life is lived on their phone. They don’t need to leave home to spend time with their friends."

Twenge's studies also revealed "the number of teens who get together with their friends nearly every day dropped by more than 40 percent from 2000 to 2015," she wrote.

She found this was affecting our teens' happiness. The Monitoring the Future survey, which has been asking 12th graders many questions about their happiness and the amount of non-screen related activities (since 1975) found direct correlation between screen time and a healthy mental state: the less screen time, the happier the child.

"Suicide and depression are predominantly experiences worsened in isolation," said Dr. David Clements of Southeastern Executive Health. He added that it's imperative we learn how to use our technology in a way that doesn't isolate us.

While there's no easy answer, you can't deny the statistics, or the fact your own child seems happier with less screen time. Technology is the way of the future, and many feel we'd be doing our kids a disservice if we take it away completely.

It's hard to teach our kids moderation when so many things are at their fingertips immediately. I think making sure they have lots of face-to-face interactions with their family and peers will help them realize the difference between feeling lonely (too much time on their phone, alone) and feeling fulfilled when they spend quality time with others.