What Can We Do About our Teens’ Smartphone Addiction?

Posted on December 30, 2017 · Posted in Analysis and Opinion, Impact and Symptoms
Teens using smartphones

An interesting audience question

I had just finished delivering my lecture on Information Overload at a hi-tech company and was taking comments from the usual group of attendees that approach me after everyone else has left – these are usually the best comments, since they come from people interested enough to stay and wait their turn.

And this time I had a surprise. A man asked me whether I give such lectures in schools, targeting kids in their mid to late teens. These are the members of Generation Z (what will we do next, one wonders, now that we’ve run out of letters?), who are “Digital Natives”, and who live in a state of total symbiosis with their mobile devices. Shouldn’t we do something about their addiction to those devices, and about the information overload they undergo?

Then, as we were talking, a woman approached and raised the exact same question.  There ought to be an intervention in schools to address the situation, she felt.

I promised to look into it.

A new childhood model

Throughout history old timers had loved to complain about how things were different in their youth… and while this is still the case, the rate of change today is accelerating and the childhood of today isn’t even remotely like that of my own youth, or even that of the Gen X following mine. I grew up without a TV in my home (not that I lacked my fill of technology – by tenth grade I was home brewing ham radio gear). My main pastimes were hobbies, reading, and playing with my friends indoors and out. My kids had TV and video games, but still got with their friends face to face a good deal. Today’s kids have Smartphones: they are always connected – but much of it is through the social apps on their devices. The numbers are outright astounding: one study found that in 2015 US teenagers (ages 13-18) use an average of nine hours of entertainment media per day, not including time spent using media for school or homework.

This new screen-mediated socialization mode has never been tried in history, and of course is being applied without a shred of advance testing of the implications.

And now we can look at the outcomes.

Are smartphones harming our kids?

Opinions may vary, but new research raises some serious worries.

The first sign I saw was the research of Prof. Clifford Nass and his team at Stanford, which found that “heavy media multitaskers” – the most screen-savvy kids – performed worse at multitasking than their less digitally obsessive peers. This suggests actual changes – for the worse – in the brain’s hardware as a results of too much digital activity.

And now we hear of a study done in the US that links the alarming rise in teenage suicide and depression (we’re talking doubling rates between 2007 and 2015, for girls) – and the rise in Smartphone and social media use in the same period. Gen Z kids spend hours and hours on their smartphones – connected but physically alone. Evolution never planned for such a change to happen in less than a generation’s time. The outcome shows up in the research data: Teens who spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy, and those who spend more time than average on non-screen activities are more likely to be happy.

Naturally these findings are raising controversy among academics. The facts themselves are clear – more mental health issues, and more hours on smartphones at the expense of face to face time – but the “correlation vs. causation” debate is likely to continue for a while.

Anyway, if I had teenage kids today, I’d be worried.

What can we do about this?

Telling teens what to do is notoriously difficult, and forbidding them to use smartphones would hardly work (well, perhaps it would in an Amish family)… but there are other things parents can do, such as:

  • First, parents can and should serve as role models. If the adults in the family are addicted to their smartphones and to their email, as many are, it’s unlikely that the children will grow up any different; but where the adults can take the stress, the children may end up with mental health problems. Having strict rules that affect the entire family, like “No smartphones during meals”, or “Quiet time” periods for family time, can make a difference.
  • Some parents I know address the problem from a young age, when their authority is still absolute – they limit their children’s screen time (whether watching TV or YouTube videos and games on the parent’s smartphone).
  • Parents can control the onset of the problem by disallowing smartphone ownership for the younger kids. A recommended age for getting the little wonders is about 14, when the kid is more capable of handling the effects and the likelihood of mental health issue is lower than for younger teens.
  • It is worth noting that surveys have found 44 percent of teens believing they spend too much time on their cell phones. It is therefore a good tactic to involve the teens themselves in the setting of limits, steering them to introspectively assess their use model and identify remedies.
  • In severe cases, an actual rehab program for smartphone addiction is an option – and there are many programs out there by now, treating all aspects of Internet Addiction.

Lastly, as a society, we should put the subject firmly on the agenda of our educational institutions. Of course this is complicated, because many schools now rely on students’ online presence to facilitate teaching and learning: pupils are required to search for information online during the class, classes have WhatsApp groups that teachers use to give pupils their homework assignments, e-books can replace paper books in the classroom, and so on. On the other hand, even the presence of smartphones can distract students from following the material being taught, reducing scholastic achievement, as seen in a number of recent controlled experiments. But however complex, it is a subject that schools and education organizations should be discussing and planning to address.

It is necessary for schools to include in their curriculum subjects like internet addiction, responsible mobile device use, and information overload management. This also applies to college curricula, but should start in junior high school, not just because younger minds are easier to train, but because by the time the kids reach college it may be too late.

Image courtesy verkeorg, shared on flickr under CC license.


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