Unhealthy: The Relationship Teens Have With Their Phones and Why Wilderness Experiences are Important

March 21, 2017 | by

Let’s begin with the kind of stats that make your stomach turn. Keep in mind that most of these numbers are from research done in 2015.

Mobile devices now account for 46 percent of all screen time among teens

Tweens (Ages 8-12) spend an average of 6 hours per day consuming media

Teens (13-18) spend an average of 9 hours per day consuming media

Teens get an average of just 7.25 hours of sleep per night

1 in 5 teenagers admit regularly waking up in the middle of the night to check messages or social media

 Phone dependency

In addition to these discouraging statistics we’re seeing a significant rise in teenage anxiety, depression, and other mental health challenges. Access to pornography and the pressures of a “sexting” culture loom over our middle schools and high schools. We live in interesting times.

About 50% of Expedition’s participants each year fall between the ages of 12-18. We interact with hundreds of young people from different parts of the country, different cultures, socioeconomic backgrounds, etc. We have noticed a few things along the way, some we believe are pressing and worth addressing in your home as soon as possible.


Social Media

A quick word on social media. Not only can it be a destructive breeding ground for shame and insecurity, but it rarely accomplishes the very thing it intends to do. Instead of connecting us to other people in a meaningful way, it tends to connect us in disingenuous ways. Adults aren’t guilt free here either. The pressure to look great, accomplished, happy, well liked, and successful is the real filter we use to post images of our lives on the internet.

Psychologist call this “version casting”. Simply put it’s posting the best version of ourselves. Inevitably comparison ensues and our young people one by one are robbed of joy. The teenage years are difficult enough on their own. Now with a steady stream of envy inducing images one swipe of the thumb away it’s no wonder that depression and anxiety are on the rise.


Even worse, when young people feel down they fish for sympathy online with sad or discouraged images and comments. It’s a cycle of unhealthy behavior and it’s not slowing down.

Apps like Snapchat and Instagram reward their users for posting frequently and consistently. In short, it’s “imperative” that a user post at least once a day. It used to be a HUGE deal to ask our participants to leave their phones at home during our trips so that they could be fully present in the beautiful places we were taking them. Now, students are adamant about leaving their phones at home with a trusted confidant in order to keep their daily posts/snaps up and running. God forbid they miss a week, much less a day, of social “connectivity”.


Youth stares at his phone

Unintended Consequences

It wasn’t that long ago that teenagers had to bumble through the pains of relational development, both romantic and platonic. They had to learn to look someone in the eye, to ask questions, to listen and absorb, to be vulnerable, and to be uncomfortable.

Today young people hide behind screens. If they don’t like something they can press delete, edit, or just swipe right. They can change the narrative in less than 30 seconds with a different angle, a little air brushing, and a revised comment. Risk in a new relationship? Not really, just “unfollow” or “unfriend”. Not sure what that cute guy or girl really wants? Just google it and act accordingly.

Not only are young people at risk of being unable to develop meaningful relationships, they are also, perhaps more importantly, at risk of losing touch with themselves. Consuming 6-9 hours of media a day shapes who you think you are supposed to be. Instead of being comfortable in your own skin, or driven to be the best version of yourself, you do everything you can fit inside someone else’s idea of what you should look/be like.

With the constant messaging shifting and shaping a young person’s supposed identity, it can be difficult to look in the mirror and like what you see.


A Remedy

Turning the tide of a culture changing as rapidly as ours is next to impossible, but implementing new rhythms here and there can make a big difference. After all, technology isn’t evil. We are blessed to live in such a day and age. Creativity and innovation are at full tilt like never before. Young people believe they can make a difference and should. These are exciting times.

In order to utilize technology and media as tools that serve personal, relational, and communal growth we need to learn to take a break. There is no better place to turn a phone off then under a big blue sky, next to a mountain stream, or on a walk in the forest. Young people need wilderness experiences more than ever before. They need space to remember who they really are and to test their own limits. Young people need to be a little uncomfortable, less dependent upon likes and comments, and a little more self sufficient.

Self awareness, leadership development, character building experiences happen in the great outdoors. As an outdoor professional, and big believer in the opportunities the outdoors present for leadership development, recreation, and education, I am convinced our young people need to cultivate a rhythm of recreation more than ever before. A steady and regular break so that they can think and see clearly.

 Adults? It’s up to us to model the way. This weekend, how ‘bout leaving the phone at home and getting outside. You might be surprised by how good it feels.

Campfire friends

3 Responses to “Unhealthy: The Relationship Teens Have With Their Phones and Why Wilderness Experiences are Important”

  1. Darrelle says:

    Awesome post, Matt. Seeing this every day in my practice. One of the greatest challenges of our time! Good to run into you the other day, let’s connect soon!

  2. This article gives the reality and the way forward for our young adults. I study digital distraction as part of my industry and I am grateful for the continued invitation, in this article, to beckon the call to the outdoors.

  3. Josh Gravlin says:

    I think that this post is innacurate as a 14 year old me and almost all of my friends never use 9 hours of media a day we use about 4 and maybe 6 on weekends all in all phones provide a way for kids to say things that they might not have the courage to say things that they might not in person

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