New research on cell phones and interactive media should be of interest to all parents and grandparents. And to people like me who advise them on parenting in the new digital world.

Smartphones arrived in 2007. Social media burst forth between 2007 and 2010. These dates are important as you will see.

Jean Twenge, a psychologist who studies generational changes recently published an article in “The Atlantic” with some startling findings. She began seeing interesting shifts in behaviors of the young born between 1995 and 2012. So interesting she gave then a name: the iGen. Unlike the Millennials these kids grew up with smartphones and tablets.

We used to be worried about the effect of screen time on baby’s attention spans. I still am and I agree strongly with the American Academy of Pediatrics reccomendations: Zero screen time under age two and limited/monitored screen time in childhood. Teens? Twenge’s study found that smartphones and tablets have changed all aspects of teen life.

There were unexpected (and quite positive) teen behavior changes.

Because teens spend so much time in their bedrooms with their smartphones (most sleep with their phones in or on their beds!) they are safer: fewer car accidents, less alcohol, less dating (the teen pregnancy rate is the lowest in years). But on the negative side teens spend less time spent on homework, more time alone, and do little or no hanging out together except virtually.

Twenge writes, “the twin rise of the smartphone and social media has caused an earthquake of a magnitude we’ve not seen in a very long time, if ever. There is compelling evidence that the devices we’ve placed in young people’s hands are having profound effects on their lives—and making them seriously unhappy.”

Her correlations are strong. Those teens who spend long hours on screens report more unhappiness. They get less sleep. The rates of teen depression, and risk of suicide have risen to scary levels. Teens feel both lonely and left out even though they are “connected” on social media. When others go out, those who didn’t go feel even more alone and left out. Girls especially are affected by this and by cyberbullying.

Twenge, acknowledging it will be hard to pry cell phones from iGens, does recommend parental boundaries to usage.

Alexandra Samuel is a PhD in political science and a technology writer. She has a different spin. She acknowledges that Twenge is on the right track but looks at it another way.

Studying data that shows penetration of media use, she asks what happened to society between 2007 and 2010 that so affected our teens. “Social media happened. But it didn’t happen just—or even mainly—to teens. It happened to parents.” The addition of social media to the smart phone created “minimal parenting.”

The steepest curve in growth of social media usage occurred in those between 29 and 40. What happens in this age group? Parenting. What happens to parenting? Samuel writes, “You know what smartphones and social media are really great at? Tuning out your children.”

In 1980 Dr. John Zussman studied parental distraction by asking parents of young children to work on a word puzzle for 10 minutes while he observed what happened to their parenting style. Parents change when distracted. They are with their children but interactions are shorter. They are more abrupt and critical. And are less stimulating. This “minimal parenting” is not optimal parenting.

Distracted parents are slower to respond to their children. Such parents do shift to interaction when the child needs to be controlled but “it’s the encouragement that suffers, more than the control.” This lack of parental interaction likely interferes with fostering independence in the child. Repeated positive encouragement helps children grow up to be independent. Lack of this could be “a competing explanation for the recent declines in adolescent independence that Twenge observes.”

But she (and I) worry about kids that are “social butterflies on the Internet, but socially awkward in the real world.”

My advice to families is moderation in all things including social media. Don’t toss out the cell phones. Rather institute sensible family policies: zero screens at mealtime, a screen-free weekend day, we look at nature not a screen when hiking.

Samuel suggests this is not enough, parents should also become “digital mentors encouraging our kids to use technology, but offering ongoing support and guidance in how to use it appropriately.” She encourages parents to talk with their children about using the Internet “…responsibly and joyfully.” Kids need digital skills today, who knows what they will need tomorrow in our rapidly changing world. Pay attention to your child’s interests rather than forbidding all media usage. Good thinking.

I feel parents and teachers have a role in guiding children to be responsible users of our digital world, not addicts substituting screens for real interaction.

And so do grandparents. Talk to your grandchildren about life in a pre-digital world. Tell them about party-line telephones and other antiquities. Show them a love letter you saved, they probably never saw a hand-written letter! Ask them to help you with your computer glitches. Ask about their ideas for the future in the current world. Ask them to think about what new inventions could change the world in the near future. Say you expect them to be prepared for and good at what’s next and must help you figure it out!

Dr. Heins is a pediatrician, parent, grandparent, great-step grandparent, and the founder and CEO of She welcomes your questions about parenting throughout the life cycle, from birth to great-grandparenthood! Email