Why Does My Teenager Never Lose Her Phone?

4 memory tips that use FOMO, phone attachment, and habit building to help teens.

Posted Feb 07, 2020

Is your teenager always within arms reach of her phone?

A mother and her 15-year-old tenth-grade daughter recently visited me for a neuropsychological evaluation where one of the concerns was difficulty with emotional regulation. The young lady was described as “freaking out” when her phone was taken from her by a teacher for violating school rules, and the school principal had to become involved due to the intensity of this incident.

Interestingly, she had not had any noteworthy behavioral issues in the past. Her mother stated, “It's as if her phone is surgically attached to her arm, and it was literally painful for her to let it go.”

This mother is not alone in her observation. The Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, John  Roberts, stated in a 2014 ruling that “cell phones, which are now such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy.” Studies suggest that 70 to 75 percent of people (and likely higher for teens) can always reach their phones without moving their feet. No wonder your teen never loses her phone!

But if I am to answer the question of why your teen never loses her phone but can’t find anything else, I’ll need to explore both the attachment to her phone and the power of working-memory skills and, along the way, hopefully, discover how we might teach teens how to apply their prolific memory skills for their phones to everything else.

 Jacqui Brown/Flicker
Source: Jacqui Brown/Flicker

First, let’s tackle phone attachment. Phones are a teen’s link to her personal world and the world at large. It is the tool that helps connect teens with others and use social media, in all its forms: Instagram, texting, YouTube, WhatsApp, Snapchat, Twitter, TikTok, Kik, and many others. If you don’t have your phone, you might be left out. At the same time, having your phone and seeing social media feeds may also provide evidence that you are being left out. The fear of missing out, or FOMO, is a source of much of teen angst when they lose or are restricted from their phones. 

Phones also provide immediate feedback. Teens have become accustomed to texting and getting an immediate reply. If they are looking for information for a school project or about a favorite musician, it’s right there at their fingertips and immediately available. Psychologists describe “point of performance,” where feedback is immediate and to the point, as a powerful tool for learning and rewards. Phones are made just for this type of ongoing feedback. 

Phones provide ongoing stimulation. Are you ever bored when standing in a line, waiting to get onto public transportation, or in a waiting room? If you pull out your phone and start playing with it, maybe you are a teenager, or maybe not. There’s always something going on with your teen’s phone—maybe a social media feed or an online game with a friend or family member. Teens and many of the rest of us don’t know how to handle even a moment of boredom, so their phones become the go-to tool for stimulation. You don’t want to be without your phone because of the threat of being bored.

Phones are a necessity for most teens. Does your teenager remember your cell phone number? Does she know how to read a map? I’m betting you answered “no” to both of those questions. Teens, and to a lesser extent adults, have become dependent on technology for many activities. This is not all bad. Your phone can free up cognitive resources to help you become more creative and smarter. When used effectively, many of the tools on your phone can help with organization, time management, planning, and working memory. Part of our strategy is to help kids remember more than where they left their phones, to leverage their phone into a tool to help with these skills. 

Source: Pixabay

So how can we transfer the memory skills teens use to keep track of their phones to other areas of their lives? Try the following:   

Phones as a memory supplement—not as a pill to take daily but as something to check daily, if not more. Encourage the use of a simple app such as “Notes” on an iPhone or Wunderlist to keep track of things that need to be remembered. However, teens would still need to remember to check them on a daily basis. The same strategy is true for the many types of calendars available on all smartphones.

Make it a habit. One reason teens recall where they left their phones is that many of them develop a habit of putting their phones into specific places, such as a pocket, purse, or backpack, that is always with them. Because habits take 66 days to develop, kids may tend to lose their phones more often when they first get them. You can point out that the habit of knowing where one’s cell phone is located can be applied to other things in their lives.

Use and attend to visual-spatial memory. Ask teens to describe where they typically place their cell phones when they are not using them, and you will find they do a good job with this task. Ask them where they leave their favorite jeans when they are dirty, and you might not get as good a response. When teens take a mental picture of where they have left something or can picture when a teacher posted an assignment on the blackboard (even if they cannot remember the details), they are more likely to remember what they need to do.

Learn through deliberate practice. Teens who remember the location of their phones do so consciously. Make recall of other important tasks such as completing homework or chores deliberate. Much of the research that examines the transfer of skills from one thing to another suggests that applying a skill that one uses in one area to another involves a deliberate mindful abstraction of the skill and knowledge from one context or application to another. This sounds complicated but essentially means that deliberately thinking about how the skill helps in one area and then applying the same skill in a different area promotes real learning. 

Motivate by making other activities more important and salient. A good part of why your teen never loses her cell phone is motivation. It means something to her. Teens who independently make the recall of homework more important via discussions around college or self-improvement are likely to have more motivation, as well. Make recall more salient by connecting recall to other meaningful activities in your teen’s life, such as having time to spend with friends or a family activity that depends on everyone completing necessary tasks.

Here’s the deal. I doubt you will ever find many possessions or activities as important to your teen as her cell phone. However, if you can engage her in understanding the skills and strategies she needs to keep track of her cell phone, there is a good chance she might apply these skills to other parts of her life. Even if this improves her skills by 50 percent, you've made quite a dent in her behavior.