Skip to main content

How to get your kid off the smartphone

By Mel Robbins
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Mel Robbins: Here's a genius move to help you win cell phone battle with teenagers
  • Make them turn over phone to parent at bedtime for charging; it's better for them, she says
  • Sleep deprivation hurts kids at school, affects health; phones put them "on-call" to friends
  • Robbins: Without phones at night, her kids more alert in morning

Editor's note: Mel Robbins is a CNN commentator and legal analyst. Robbins is the founder of Inspire52.com, a positive news website and author of "Stop Saying You're Fine," about managing change. She speaks on leadership around the world and in 2014 was named Outstanding News Talk Radio Host by the Gracie Awards. Follow her on Twitter @melrobbins. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- Ever feel like you're losing the cell phone battle with your teenager? I did, too. But I'm about to share a genius move with you that will help you win it again.

When we first gave our daughters (now 13 and 15) cell phones for "emergencies," we made them sign a contract, monitored every text and restricted where and when they could use their phones. In less than a year, we lost control of the situation.

Mel Robbins
Mel Robbins

There is the search activity for starters, and then the Snapchat stories, Vines, Instagram posts, Facebook messages, Ask.fm questions and Twitter feeds. There is the stunning reality that the average teen sends between 50 to 100 texts a day -- some as many as 300 -- and 70% of them admit hiding their online behavior from parents.

Add to this that 84% of teenagers sleep with, next to or on top of their cell phones, according to a Pew Research Internet Study, and we get into the realm of health concerns. We may not be able to monitor our kids every online move, but this we could do something about. And here comes the genius move:

We recently adopted a "check in at tuck in" rule at our house, an idea I stole from a parenting expert. It is simple, and you must try it. At bedtime, when you "tuck in" your kids for the night, they must "check in" their phone for charging with you.

Why? Turns out it's a horrible idea to let your teens sleep with their cell phones. It deprives them of sleep, makes them feel obligated to be "on-call" for their friends at all hours of the night and prevents them from creating healthy boundaries with technology.

The research is indisputable that teens needs "as much sleep or more" than they got as children -- that's between 9 and 10 hours of sleep a night -- and only 20% of them are getting it, thanks to their sleeping with their cell phones!

When they don't get sleep, they perform poorly in school, feel ravenous, get acne, are more susceptible to the flu and are overly emotional.

Even though most teens turn their phones to vibrate at night, with every buzz and incoming text, their sleep is disrupted. Sleep researchers say that the blue light from the time display on a smartphone sets off the brain receptors that are designed to keep us awake.

Before we implemented the "check in at tuck in" rule, I'd often find our 13-year-old passed out in her bed, music still cranking away on her headphones. Our 15-year-old still had several hours of homework to finish so I'd kiss her goodnight and remind her to set the alarm clock on her cell phone for 6 a.m.

Will teen text and drive? "Probably"
The real deal on teens and cars
Bus driver caught on camera texting

Now our 13-year-old "checks in" her phone at 9 p.m. when she heads to bed. Our 15-year-old "checks in" her phone at 10 p.m. The phones get powered off and plugged into a power strip on the floor of our bedroom -- where they charge all night.

By taking the phone, you'll also be rescuing your kids from needing to be "on call" for their friends.

Dr. Orfeu Buxton, a neuroscientist and assistant professor in the division of sleep medicine at Harvard Medical School, has found 10% or 15% "of teens in middle school are hardened insomniacs that not only sleep with their cell phones on but feel they have to be responsible to intrusion, in case a friend is in need."

As one high school girl in the Pew study explained, "Our friends are texting constantly, and the people will wake me up at like midnight and I have to like wake up and talk to them or like they'll think I'm mad at them or something."

You'll catch flak, but you can handle it. Nothing good will come from a teenager, alone in his or her room, late at night with a cell phone.

"But I use it for my alarm clock."

"I'll wake you up."

"My friends might need me."

"Blame me. If it's an emergency, they can call the house and I'll wake you up."

We've had the "check in at tuck in" rule for about three months at our house and the difference is amazing. The sleep-deprived and grouchy wildebeests that used to arrive in the kitchen (phone in hand) have been replaced by half-awake teenagers who sometimes even talk to us. They get their phones after breakfast is finished and backpacks are ready.

A few weeks ago, driving my daughter to a friend's house for a sleepover, she handed me her phone. "I guess I should check this in now, since you won't be there to tuck me in tonight. I'll call you from Ellie's phone if I need you."

For a fleeting moment, I actually felt like I was back in control of this parenting thing.

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

Part of complete coverage on
updated 1:33 AM EST, Thu December 25, 2014
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
updated 6:12 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
updated 8:36 AM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
updated 2:14 PM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
updated 10:35 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
updated 7:57 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
updated 11:29 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
updated 4:15 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
updated 1:11 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
updated 1:08 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
updated 1:53 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
updated 3:19 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT