Smartphones: Do They Hurt Or Hinder Teens?

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Smartphones: Do They Hurt Or Hinder Teens?

By Paul Fuhr 11/07/17

Smartphones have been accused of hijacking the teenage brain, but how much damage are they actually causing?

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group of teens looking at tech devices

For all of their conveniences, smartphones may present just as many consequences for their owners—especially teens.

According to the New York Post, new research reveals that smartphone addiction is as much a threat to teens’ health as it is an unsettling sign of the times. “Fifty percent of teens consider themselves addicted to their smartphones,” UCLA’s Dr. Yolanda Reid Chassiakos told the Post.

She also noted that teens suffer from phone separation anxiety, a medical condition otherwise known as nomophobia. The fear of not being able to use one’s mobile device is getting worse and even more widespread, Dr. Chassiakos warned. It’s become less about determining whether smartphone addiction is real and more about how parents can identify and treat its potentially damaging side effects.

Among teens, one of the most prominent symptoms of smartphone addiction is how it affects sleep. According to the Post, four out of 10 teens slept less than seven hours per night in 2015, which is “up 58% since 1991 and 17% more than in 2009 when smartphone use became more mainstream.”

Screen-driven sleep deprivation causes everything from a general lack of focus and concentration to more serious health concerns.

The UK’s Independent suggests that children between the ages of 12 and 15 can't balance their screen-time and real-life obligations. “In the U.S., the problem has become so severe for some families that children as young as 13 are being treated for digital technology addiction,” the Independent reported.

In fact, a Seattle-based “smartphone rehab” has emerged to treat the growing problem, “offering residential ‘intensive recovery programs’ for teenagers who have trouble controlling their use of electronic devices.” With so many “screenagers” finding themselves unable to maintain relationships and responsibilities, smartphone rehabs and digital-detox centers might become commonplace.

For all the doom and gloom surrounding smartphone addiction, however, some experts contend that it’s actually serving a positive purpose. Research proves that teenagers aren’t using drugs and alcohol as enthusiastically as past generations—leading some experts to suggest that mobile devices played a role in that.

Earlier this year, researchers discovered that drug and alcohol use precipitously fell among teens around the same time period when smartphones became prevalent. This finding led researchers to theorize that perhaps smartphones had become so integral in teenagers’ lives that there simply wasn’t any room for other distractions.

A 2015 Pew Research Center report found that 24% of U.S. teens between the ages of 13 and 17 claimed to be online “almost constantly” with 73% having access to a smartphone. While an expert referred to smartphones as “portable dopamine pumps,” another expert observed “interesting correlations between smartphone behavior and brain activity.” As damaging as screens may be, some say, drug and alcohol use is down—which is a huge win, no matter what.

Still, there are those who argue that an addiction is an addiction. Whether it’s boozing or too much time texting, it’s all about disconnection. There are several strategies parents can use to help combat smartphone addiction, the Independent says. For one, parents need to lead by example, which means carving out “tech-free family time.”

Something as simple as getting outside and interacting with the world can help break the dependency on smartphones, too. No matter what, smartphone addiction has ratcheted up the stakes when it comes to teenagers and their overall well-being.

“It’s a simplistic view, but I think it is the ubiquity of broadband and smartphones that has changed the pace and the power and the drama of mental illness in young people,” said one child psychotherapist. 

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Paul Fuhr lives in Columbus, Ohio with his family and two cats, Vesper and Dr. No. He's written for AfterParty MagazineThe Literary Review and The Live Oak Review, among others. He's also the host of "Drop the Needle," a podcast about music and addiction recovery. More at paulfuhr.com. You can also find Paul on Linkedin and Twitter.

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