Jesper Juul, a famous Danish pedagogue and a family therapist, explains how the use of smart phones affects our relationships and suggests an experiment which anyone can carry out in their family.
This text is inspired by a research which was conducted in spring 2016 by Danish television. The research covered 1600 thirteen-year-old students going to the 6th grade and a corresponding group of parents. As it happens to many other experts, parents often ask me about the consequences of using smart phones and tablets for children’s social skills and the development of their brains.
Since neuroscientists from many countries are still processing various results, opinions and recommendations, I will rely on my expertise and knowledge which are connected to nature and quality of relationships within the family, and I wrote this text because I was encouraged by powerful consistency in thinking and experiences of the youth and parents in Denmark.
I call electronic devices ‘family members’ because they take a lot of attention and literally change the culture of family life in ways that are unhealthy for the relationships based on love – relationships between adults, brothers and sisters, parents and children.
According to the conclusions of the mentioned research, most children going to school say they miss their parents and would love to spend more undistracted time with them. Parents wanted the same thing and I am pretty sure we would get the same answer from the partners. The research was done at the right time because we’re coming to a point in history when most young adults will no longer be able to compare their experience in the family before and after smart phones.
Out of numerous reasons most adults think that their life should follow the tempo of received e-mails, messages, posts and SMS and it seems that employers, friends and business associates are happy because they can expect us to be available 24 hours, seven days a week. The same goes for small children and their social networks. This cognition now represents a fact and that is a serious problem – to the extent that we need to change the way we think.

Relationship among adults

Ten years ago adults thought that using your mobile phone during private visits, meetings and meals was disturbing, frustrating and impolite. Today, not many people get upset about it and when someone does get upset, most young people (up to 50 years) ignore such reactions.
That’s simply not cool and it’s old fashioned.
Every close relationship based on love needs continuity and undisturbed unity – to grow, develop its nuances and strengthen – the same as every plant needs nutritious substances.
There’s nothing new in this: couples who have been together seven years or longer tell us they feel distant and frustrated if they connect only when there are problems or crises; and they feel even worse when those ‘urgent meetings’ aren’t possible or are too short and directed only towards finding the solution.
In those conditions both sides feel emptiness and senselessness. ‘We function pretty well, but we don’t live’, they say.
It’s not even important why there’s no continuity and undisturbed unity. Before smart phones came along, there were TV, stress because of work, perfectionism, duties outside family, hobbies… etc. All these factors – including today’s smart phones and tablets aren’t real reasons for the loss of closeness and sense in relationships that are important for us.
The reason is in our mind and that is good news because it means that we can change something by ourselves, no matter what others decide. That’s what many couples do when a partner gets cancer; when their life, or a way of life is at risk, or it cannot go on as it is out of some other reasons. Life close to death often teaches people to choose more intelligently.

This is what happens during those several hours that children spend with their parents every day: Children want to ask their parents something, want to tell them something or want to respond to something that parents have just told them and very often they get the answer: ‘I’m sorry, honey, I have to answer the phone’; ‘Excuse me, I’m sorry, I have just received an e-mail from work that I have to answer… I need less than a minute, I promise! ‘; ‘Could you, please, wait a minute… I need to… ‘; ‘Oh, I’m sorry, I forgot to turn off my mobile and now I have to answer. ‘
For a short time, such behaviour frustrates children. Contrary to what many adults think, children don’t ‘feel rejected’. Such a feeling doesn’t exist. When adults say they feel rejected, it is because they feel something due to which they think they are rejected. However, children don’t process intellectually their feelings that way. When their parents reject them, they are simply sad, disappointed, angry, but as always – children start cooperating with parent’s behaviour (they adjust). First, they give up and hope, then they withdraw and give up trying. At the age of three children start copying adults’ behaviour and using their own screens – tablets, TV, and later on smart phones.
When children, covered by the mentioned research, say they miss their parents, the feeling is a cocktail of several different emotional reactions and for them the experience which shapes them is important:
I feel powerless
Children feel powerless because many stories and feelings they would like to share with their parents simply cannot be expressed because of the stress which is caused by the lack of time, and what they need is a feeling of security, closeness, trust and active, supportive empathy. Even when they feel powerless, children believe that their parents know the best and they follow their lead.

I am confused
Every time a parent interrupts a contact, even for a minute or two, child’s thoughts wander and stream of consciousness is disturbed. Bad ‘short-term memory’ as a consequence often frustrates parents and they conclude that what they did together was actually not important. The feeling of confusion in children grows into the feeling that they are stupid.

They can’t trust you
Pretty accurately children notice that their parent finds something else more important than them. This exhausts and hinders their development and damages their sensitive self-awareness whose most important and most vulnerable part is the feeling of value in their parents’ lives. Regardless of how many times parents would consistently repeat ‘I love you’, find excuses and give romantic promises for the future (such as ‘I will make it up to you’), the damage has already been done. In early childhood children will believe those words, which will drive them to the point of doubting their own feelings and that way another big part of their self-awareness has been cut off.

I am lonely
Throughout 10 to 12 years, which the duration of this learning process, children feel lonely every time their parents choose to prioritize their smart phone and for many children this loneliness defines their existence also in other social situations.
Before puberty this usually results in general loss of trust and hope that any adult would devote their time to listen and help them realize how they feel and who they are. At the time of puberty, closeness will withdraw from family life and they will start looking for respect and understanding somewhere else, often through social platforms on the Internet. From my experience with phone calls for children aged 6-16 we know that many children have come to a conclusion that their parents don’t have time to sit with them. This isn’t necessarily an objective truth but their experience and conclusion.

Young adults
Psychologists and counsellors who work with high-school students, university students and other young people aged between 16 and 25 report there is an increasing number of young people who are lonely, depressed, suffering from anxiety and social phobias, who are also self-destructive.
These young people generally speak about feeling alienated from their parents from an early age and the isolation deprived them of the possibility to feel and express what happens to them. Many of those young people are now becoming parents and will probably transfer those flaws to their children, which will lead to a terrible increase in the number of children and adults with serious mental health issues.
Prescribing antidepressants to these young people is contradictory and counter-productive. Loneliness and sadness may look like depression but that’s not the same. Antidepressants can only reduce unease and prevent patients from facing the situation in a healthy way. Children and young people say the medicines make them feel better but no way does it prove they really are better. Medicines are a lousy substitute for close relationships and relationships which are formed under the influence of antidepressants are superficial and short-term.

We need a new life style
For the past 4-6 years experiments, where children are banned from using smart phones in schools and families try to live without them for a week or a month or longer, have been done in some countries.
Positive feedback from all age groups was amazing. Grades are higher while parents and children are thrilled and have hooked fast on all activities they can do together. This experience and increasing awareness that our life pace and priorities don’t do any good give me hope that a big change of a life style is possible.
Of course, every family needs to create its culture and rules, but please, have in mind that the goal of this project isn’t to protect children from possible brain damage, but to achieve higher quality of family life, closeness and intimacy. The point is to be available and approachable to your loved ones instead of being constantly available to everybody else.
Don’t wait for the misery to become a trend – join your children and other families you are connected with and decide to try a two-week experiment. After two weeks assess, adjust and make sure that everybody knows that the minimum trial period is three months. Share your experiences on Facebook and other social networks and help create a permanent movement.

These are my suggestions:
The whole morning ritual is the zone without a phone and the same rule applies to a half an hour before dinner till children go to bed. In the hall put a box where everybody would leave and charge their phones during the time they spend without them.
Leave all the phones turned off from the time you go to bed until children go to school and you go to work the next day. – All meals are the time spent without a phone, including meals in restaurants, as well as the time you spend waiting to be served. (Those moments are ideal for establishing contact and closeness after the period of being away from each other.)
If you allow a phone or tablet to be used during the waiting period, the message is: we got together only to eat and fill our bodies with nourishing substances, but not our minds and soul.(Have in mind that children may open their heart during experiments, but often can’t do it with their parents, or can do it when it’s almost too late.)
Parents and couples can make a deal in which situations smart phones and tablets may be used, but they need to be turned off during joint meals and sleeping, in the cinema, at picnic and similar activities. – You surely need to inform your friends, family, colleagues and employees that you’re no longer available all the time and help your children do the same if necessary.
Judging from the reports that we received from families that have already done something similar, we know it’s important that parents take the lead, especially during the first three months and it includes following everybody’s needs and timetable. After two-three months children become most convinced plan executors and often inspire friends to shuffle the electronic cards in their families again.

Translated by Jelena