Smartphones have made many aspects of our lives easier and more productive. I honestly don’t know how I’d live my life or run my business without my phone. I use my phone’s calendar to keep track of appointments, social events, and even tasks I need to accomplish; I primarily use texting to communicate with my students; and I use the phone’s GPS to navigate to meetings.
Yet, smartphones also have had some unequivocally negative consequences, especially where kids are concerned. Several new studies indicate that today’s teens, having grown up with the constant presence of computers, the internet, social media, and smartphones, are being adversely impacted by so much screen time.
In September’s issue of The Atlantic, Jean Twenge, a psychology professor who researches generational differences, cites numerous statistics that, on the surface, seem like positive changes in teen behavior. For example, the current generation of adolescents is less likely than those in older generations were to have sex, drink alcohol, or get into car accidents. But these laudable outcomes are directly linked to teenagers’ postponement of what used to be seen as rites of passage: dating, working (which I discussed in a recent blog post), and getting a driver’s license.
Rather than going out on a date or with friends, many young people are content to sit alone in their rooms, browsing social media, texting, and using Snapchat. They feel that to have a social life, they don’t actually need to leave the house. Yet, while parents might be grateful that their kids aren’t out partying and getting into trouble, communicating via a phone is a poor substitute for face-to-face interaction.
More importantly, there appears to be a link between the amount of time adolescents spend online/on their phones and their happiness. According to Twenge’s article, “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 nonscreen activities are more likely to be happy.”
Furthermore, teenagers with higher amounts of screen time also are more likely to report feelings of loneliness, symptoms of depression, and risk factors for suicide.
While we cannot be sure that increased screen time is actually causing these negative effects on teens’ mental health, Twenge suggests that the proliferation of social media contributes to people’s feelings of being left out. In previous generations, if you weren’t invited to a party, you might hear about it from your peers. Now, thanks to social media, not only will you hear about it, you’re likely to see photos of and posts about it, which can exacerbate your feelings of loneliness.
Additionally, technology has made it easier for today’s youth to engage in bullying. For years, I’ve said that when I was growing up, kids who were bullied (myself included) could go home from school and get away from it. These days, social media and smartphones make it impossible to get away from bullying, and cyberbullying adds a layer of anonymity that often leads bullies to be more hurtful than they would if they were facing their target in person.
So, what can teenagers do to combat the negative effects of smartphones? The obvious answer is to spend less time on your phone. Instead of texting back and forth with your friends, make plans to meet up in person. And when you’re together, put your phones away. There’s nothing more frustrating than trying to carry on a conversation with someone who keeps looking at his or her phone.
Parents also can play a role in reducing their kids’ screen time. Just as many parents have rules about the number of hours their children can spend watching TV or playing video games, they also can set limits on how much time their kids spend on their phones. Granted, this is more difficult to enforce, especially with older children, but at the very least you can insist that your kids not use their phones when you’re talking with them or when you’re spending time together as a family, such as during meals. (Of course, if you are going to make such rules, you need to be prepared to follow them yourself.) Encourage your children to spend time outside and to get together with their friends, even if that means you have to drive them somewhere.
Although your kids might gripe about such restrictions, chances are, they will thank you later in life. One of my students, “Annie,” wrote her main college essay about how her mom imposed strict limits on her children’s screen time when they were growing up. At the time, Annie and her siblings complained about their mom’s rules. Yet, looking back, Annie credits her mom with helping to foster the close relationships she has with her siblings, relationships Annie believes were strengthened by her mom’s limits on technology. Both Annie and her mom consider that to be a big win.