Device Dependency: The Digital Pacifier

Has your teenager weaponized mental illness as a way to put limits on your ability to set limits
for him on his screen time? Well, let's talk about that today on tips on teens. My name is Kent
Toussaint. I'm a licensed marriage and family therapist, and I specialize in helping kids, teens,
and families to live half your lives. I lead two organizations teen Therapy Center and the nonprofit
501 c three organization, child and Teen Counseling, both here in Woodland Hills, California.
Every Wednesday at noon, I jump onto Facebook Live to answer your parenting questions. Let's
answer today's. My son struggles with anxiety and depression, and he's on his phone all the
time. He plays games and is on social media and texts with friends. He says that the phone is the
only thing that helps him cope with his feelings. We tell him we think it's making his problems
worse, but he says it's the only thing that helps him feel better. We feel guilty and conflicted
about taking it away. What should we do?

Thank you for your question. This actually happens a lot. First, let me put out there that my
belief is the phone is not helping him feel better. It is distracting him. It is not helping him
learn coping skills or strategies to deal with the real world. It is an amazingly complicated
and beautiful digital pacifier. And any of you who ever gave your toddlers or babies pacifiers,
you know, the Arduous journey, it was to get that pacifier out of their mouth. This is going to
be 100 times worse, because, again, it gives someone the sense of that they can be distracted
from their feelings of anxiety or depression, and they aren't really focusing on it. So it's
this distraction. But of course, that distraction eventually just circles back, and it makes
them feel worse because of situations like FOMO, fear of missing out, negative comparisons
to others on social media, not being able to self soothe without the screen. So, yeah, there
probably need to be some limitations, some boundaries on screen

time. Now, if your son is dealing with symptoms of anxiety and depression, maybe therapy is
a way to consider addressing that. If you've exhausted all other options, you may want to consider
medication, going to a psychiatrist, getting an evaluation. Again, it's not the worst thing
you can do for your child, but it may not be the first thing you do with psychiatry, with medication.
Start with therapy. Also, if your child is able to transition into other positive outlets,
creative outlets, physical outlets, social activities that are healthy, I mean, the combination
thereof may be beneficial for him to learn coping skills in the real world and how to actually
be himself. But again, if he's so used to the phone, that may be a hard transition. Perhaps a therapist
can help support you guys through that. How do you set boundaries on screens? There's a thousand
different ways. It really depends on you and your family and your child's needs. There's no
one size fits all, but there probably does

need to be some limits on when he can access, how lady he can access, what he's accessing. Again,
it's the pacifier, and you can find anything you want on a screen. There's a digital Ethicist
that I've really been inspired by named Tristan Harris, and he talks about how the cell phone
is like a pocket slot machine, and it works in a very simple way, has lights and flashing sounds,
and it gives you intermittent rewards. And what that means is it doesn't always give you what
you want, but sometimes it does just enough for you to keep coming back. Keep coming back. So
you feel like this compulsion to always be on your phone. We've all felt this in one way or another,
even as adults. But as a teenager with the impulsiveness that a teenager has because of a developing
teenage brain, it's magnified again ten times. So if you want him to self regulate and put limits
on himself, he may not be able to do that on his own. He may need your help, and he's going to say,
you're horrible. I hate you.

No other parent does this. You're the worst parents in the world. Yet he's not the only kid who
says that. So just be mindful that that can happen, and it's okay. Having the bigger picture
is important. That's our question for today. Again. My name is Kent Tussaunt with Teen Therapy
Center and Child and Teen Counseling. If you have a question you like me to answer here on Tips
on Teens every Wednesday at noon, email us at You can
also direct message us right here on Facebook. And please join our Facebook group, Tips on teams.
We'd love to have you aboard and have your participation. We'd love it. Thanks again. I'll see
you guys next Wednesday. Talk to you then. Bye.


So, your kid is telling you that without their phone they will be overwhelmed with anxiety and depression? You probably know this isn’t true, and you’re probably right! Digital devices are nothing more than the equivalent of a digital pacifier that distracts kids from dealing with their real issues. Device dependency inhibits a teen’s ability to develop coping skills and strategies for dealing with the real world. And just like the pacifier, it’s going to be hard to take away!

You need to set boundaries and find a way to transition your kid to a healthier alternative than screen time. The best course is to get them involved in a real world pursuit that eases them out of device dependency and to start interacting socially with others. Think of sports, art classes, etc. If you can achieve this then you’re a step ahead.



The trap that most parents fall into however is overestimating their child’s ability to self regulate. You want to involve your kid in the solution to device dependency, and you want to trust them. But remember this: your teen literally has no impulse control, or very little, because the part of their brain that handles that isn’t even fully developed yet! The result is that as a parent, you may have to be the baddy and get really involved at first.

The solution is going to be different for every family, and we take a swipe at it in this Tips on Teens video:

“My son struggles with anxiety and depression and he’s on his phone ALL THE TIME. He plays games and is on social media and texts with friends. He says that the phone is the only thing that helps him cope with his feelings. We tell him we think it’s making his problems worse, but he says it’s the only thing that helps him feel better. We feel guilty and conflicted about taking it away. What should we do?”

Clinical Director Kent Toussaint answers your parenting questions every Wednesday at 12:00pm in our weekly segment Tips On Teens on Facebook Live. Have questions about parenting kids and teens? Send them to: We love to hear from you!

Head on over to our Facebook page every Wednesday at 12:00pm to watch LIVE!  Check out our page here –

If you have more questions or would like more information, please contact our Clinical Director, Kent Toussaint at 818.697.8555.