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7 Triggers that Get Teens Reaching for Their Phone When They Shouldn’t

Parents everywhere are complaining that kids are using their phones way too much. They are glued to their screens at dinnertime, staying up when they should be asleep and are opting for virtual interaction over real-life conversations. It’s a growing problem, and even 50% of teens themselves think they’re addicted to their smartphones.

Such a high level of usage makes it easy for teens to develop an addiction to their phones and many parents and teens are oblivious to the dangers this presents. For starters, dangerous levels of phone use could lead to internet addiction. This could in turn spiral to serious issues such as insomnia or relationship problems with friends and family. Heavy phone use has also been linked to depression and anxiety thanks to the social isolation it fosters.

What Triggers Your Teen?

In order to break the hold that phones have over your teen, you first need to know what drives them to use them so much in the first place. In other words, what are their triggers?

Your teen might use their phone to cope with any of the following:

  1. Boredom – Before smartphones came on the scene, teens used to hang out with their friends whenever they’d get bored. Nowadays, they spend hours locked up in their rooms, chatting with their friends on the phone or mindlessly surfing the internet. Phones, with their endless stream of news, entertainment, and connectivity, are the perfect panacea to boredom.
  2. Anxiety – Anxiety is a common reaction to stressful situations. Whenever teens get anxious, e.g., when seated in a waiting room or when faced with a socially awkward situation, they whip out their phones to distract themselves from feelings of discomfort.
  3. Rejection – Rejection stings, and it takes a lot of maturity to accept it gracefully. Most teens haven’t developed the resilience or self-confidence required to handle rejection be it from friends, a crush or a school team. As a result, they look for any means available to divert their attention from their hurt feelings. More often than not, their phones provide the necessary distraction.
  4. Addiction – At other times, teens simply reach for their phones because they’re addicted. Compulsive cell phone use is similar to other types of addictions in that it stimulates the brain’s pleasure centers to release dopamine, which in turn makes you crave more. The phone itself can provide access to the real addiction, which could be porn, gambling, gaming or an internet addiction.
  5. Stress Teens these days are under intense pressure as they try to juggle schoolwork, friendships, budding relationships, changing bodies and an uncertain future. They may turn to their phones to get a temporary reprieve from these stressors.
  6. Poor communication skills – Teens who have problems expressing themselves might opt to conduct their interactions virtually to avoid any awkwardness or embarrassment.
  7. Schoolwork – If teens find schoolwork hard, uninspiring or boring, they might procrastinate by reaching for the phone. Sometimes what starts out as innocent research ends up with hours spent surfing the internet, liking photos and watching videos.

Helping Your Teen Learn to Cope in a Healthier Way

We parents don’t have to just resign ourselves to the fact that our teens overuse their phones. Instead, there are proactive things parents can do to help their teens learn to cope with the above triggers and assist teens in becoming more well-rounded people.

  • Model appropriate phone use. Our actions have a huge impact on our teens, so modeling restraint where phone use is concerned might inspire your kids to follow suit. Start by switching off your phone when spending time with your family and encourage them to do the same.
  • Turn off those notifications. Sometimes something as simple as adjusting app notification settings can pay off. If the phone isn’t constantly buzzing or dinging, then your teen won’t be tempted to reach for it as much.
  • Set routine and structure. Kids always benefit from structure and routine at home. To curb your teen’s dependence on their phone, cut off phone use at certain times, e.g. at the dinner table, when doing homework or before bedtime. Outlining the consequences of not adhering to these rules and following through when they’re broken will reinforce the message.
  • Offer healthier substitutes. Encouraging your teen son or daughter to take up extracurricular activities they’re interested in can help break their phone addiction. Taking part in these activities also teaches them to be immersed in the moment, and they’ll also learn how to make friends, socialize and interact with people in the real world.
  • Talk and spend time with your teen. Your teen might be going through a rough patch, forcing them to turn to their phones in a bid to escape reality. You can help them by providing a safe space for them to talk, vent and figure out their feelings.

If you feel that your teen’s phone use is getting out of hand, it’s advisable to seek professional help. Therapy can assist in uncovering the underlying cause of your teen’s excessive phone use and can give them the requisite coping skill to help them deal with their triggers in a healthy way.


Common Sense Media. (2016). Dealing With Devices: The Parent-Teen Dynamic. Retrieved from

Ungar, M. PhD. (2018). Teens and Dangerous Levels of Cell Phone Use. Retrieved from

Teen Internet Addiction Infographic. Liahona Treatment Center. Retrieved from

7 Triggers that Get Teens Reaching for Their Phone When They Shouldn’t

Tyler Jacobson

Tyler enjoys going to the mountains near his home in Draper, Utah to connect with his wife and children through camping, hiking, and quality time together. When he isn’t rebooting in the outdoors, he shares his fatherly experiences with the world through writing and creative designs. Tyler shares the ups and downs of family life and the solutions he’s found through lengthy research and involvement in the industry and his own experiences to help parents everywhere. Follow Tyler on: Twitter or LinkedIn.

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APA Reference
Jacobson, T. (2019). 7 Triggers that Get Teens Reaching for Their Phone When They Shouldn’t. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 25, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 6 Feb 2019 (Originally: 6 Feb 2019)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 6 Feb 2019
Published on Psych All rights reserved.