5 reasons we need to help kids live “heads up” instead of “heads down”

Claire McCarthy, MD

Senior Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

I was recently at an accepted-students day at a local university with my daughter, and the president of the university spoke of how youth these days live a “heads down” life. We need them to be more “heads up,” he said.

He is right.

He is quite literally right that our youth are “heads down.” Our children and teens, like the rest of us, have their faces in their phones more often than not. We’ve grown used to it. Everywhere we go, kids are looking down at their phones and other devices. This could have real implications not just now, but for their future — because looking down all the time has some real downsides.

There are five important ways living “heads down” is bad for our youth.

1.  Safety. This is the obvious one. Anyone who does any driving anywhere has seen someone lost in their phone walk out into traffic — or worse, drive with their attention on their phone. We look down as we walk along a hallway or sidewalk and collide into others doing the same, or into doors, or poles, or other hazards. The university my daughter and I were visiting is an urban one, adding a whole other layer of danger: being aware of one’s surroundings is hard when you are looking at your device.

2.  Health. Our devices tend to make us more sedentary. Too often, our kids are happy to curl up with their phones, their tablets, their computers, or their video games instead of being active. Kids should be active for an hour a day to be healthy, and devices get in the way of that. Since using devices is generally an indoor thing, kids also lose out on being outdoors, in the sunshine, which impacts health. Devices also get in the way of sleep. More and more, especially with teens, cell phones keep kids awake — and wake them up during the night. All of these factors could have both short- and long-term effects on health.

3.  Anxiety. There is growing concern that social media fuels anxiety in our youth. Too often, youth feel measured by how many people click on or “like” their posts. They can feel like their lives pale in comparison to the lives of peers that look so successful and happy on social media. In so many ways, social media can make youth worry and feel inadequate.

4.  Social connections. Not only do kids not notice people around them when they are on their devices, it’s becoming more common for kids to be on their phones even in social situations — rather than talking or otherwise interacting. Kids are at risk of losing the important social skills of making conversation and building relationships, and losing these skills could have lifelong implications.

5.  Losing connection with the physical world. It’s not just about avoiding bumping into people or not learning how to make small talk. There is a bigger problem when people experience the world through devices. They miss out on experiencing the natural world and on all the hands-on experiences and skills the physical world provides.

There is much that devices can offer in terms of connection and information, so many ways they can make our lives streamlined and more efficient. But we owe it to our children to be sure that they live their lives in a “heads-up” way: fully engaged with everyone and everything around them.

Follow me on Twitter @drClaire


  1. azure

    Umm, it’s not just kids. This morning I wondered why a pick up seemed to be sitting on the street next to my house, instead of moving into & through the intersection of two streets. After 5 minutes, I went outside to find out why the vehicle hadn’t moved–the driver & sole occupant, hands waving (i.e, not on the steering wheel) was having an apparently emotional “discussion” w/someone via his smartphone. He finally noticed me standing & looking at him, and drove off.

    it’s a joke how we have to deal w/so much “security” & “defense” spending keeps rising, but there is no money for enforcement of the laws that exist re: “distracted driving.” My state of residence has no cell phone use while driving law, but as far as I know, it’s never been enforced in the town I live in, which ranges in population from 12,000 to over 20,000 during the height of the tourist season. Lousy urban planning means an interstate highway is also the “main street” of the town, so all pedestrians (and some motor vehicles) are at substantial risk of injury/death by distracted drivers. Yet there is no enforcement of the law. No doubt partly because the police staffing levels have reached only 2009 level. This is true in much of this state, where the state & local police forces are almost the first service to be cut, while business tax cuts get passed by the state legislature.
    I don’t know how many times as a pedestrian I’ve almost been hit by someone looking down at their tablet or smartphone-but still thinking it’s ok to drive forward (and rolling through a 4 way stop) or how often I feel I have to be extra careful as a driver because a pedestrian or other driver–adults as well as younger people–are clearly using their cellphones, whether talking or texting. When there is no penalty, no consequence –until you crash your vehicle or hit someone–there’s no reason not to engage in reckless dangerous behaviors. Particularly when you see so many of the people around you doing it.

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