The technology burst of the 21st century has made access to the internet, social media, and smartphones almost universal, but what happens when we are unable to disconnect from the ever-enticing news feeds, instagram posts, and text messages that our phones provide? According to a 2016 study by Common Sense Media, 50% of teens report feeling like they are addicted to their mobile devices and 72% of teens feel the immediate need to respond to the notifications from their phones. Cell phone addiction and addiction to technology as a whole can cause decreased brain connectivity, increased risk for substance abuse and poor dietary habits, and increased social isolation.
But with the multi-faceted integration of technology into children’s lives, the answer isn’t as simple as taking away devices. Teens are expected to use technology inside and outside the classroom to maintain good grades, they have to keep up a positive social media presence to maintain their social lives and pursue future career options, and they even use technology to stay organized with their many daily activities. So what does this complex relationship with technology mean for kids and how can too much technology exposure impact their developing brains?
Symptoms of smartphone and technology addiction
Technology, internet, and smartphone addiction has long experienced controversy and disagreement on whether or not it should be classified as an addiction in the same way as substance abuse or behavioral disorders. Part of this controversy stems from an uncertainty in how to measure technology addiction. Measuring addiction based on the amount of time spent using various technologies is a poor measure since many teens are required to use technology throughout their day in academic settings both at school and at home.
A report published in Frontiers in Psychiatry suggests looking for the following potential symptoms if you worry your child might be addicted to their smartphones and technology:
• Conscious use in prohibited contexts or dangerous situations such as texting while driving
• Excessive use that causes family tension such as withdrawing from family events in favor of smartphone use
• Technology causing negative impacts on school, social, or emotional functioning
• Continued excessive use despite negative impacts
• Constant and impulsive checking of phone
• Worsened sleeping patterns or insomnia
• Need to respond to text messages and notifications immediately
• Severe anxiety if phone is not nearby or accessible
Despite not currently being included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, problematic technology use including cell phone addiction can have many negative impacts on children and teens.
Technology and phone addiction impacts including impacts on child and teenage brain development
One way excessive smartphone use has negatively impacted teens is by harming their ability to stay focused and productive. Because smartphones stay by teen’s sides at all times, they tend to constantly multitask between media and real life. This phenomenon has been explained by some as “distracted from distraction by distraction”. This effect is especially pronounced in teens today as they have grown up surrounded by technology and don’t know life without it. A study from 2013 found that adolescents on average studied for fewer than 6 minutes before switching to another technological distraction. Media multitasking can have significant impacts on productivity because teens need to take time to reorient themselves to the task after transitioning from media use, which can cause cognitive fatigue and a decrease in the rate of work.
In addition to focus and attention problems, excessive technology use has also been found to have negative cognitive impacts on creating memories and filtering out irrelevant information. In terms of actual brain functions, research suggests that people who are constantly online activate regions associated with language, memory and visual procession with lower intensity, and that they do not display as much activity in the prefrontal area. As the prefrontal cortex is essential for teen decision making, it’s possible that excessive technology use can also cause children to have issues controlling or inhibiting behavior.
Technology and smartphone addiction can also have significant impacts on the family system. Research has indicated that more family conflicts arise when family members are distracted by media and technology use. Too much technology use, on both the children and parent side, can rob families of attention, communication, and a feeling of safety within the family system. In fact children may, in part, be learning their smartphone addiction from their parents, as a study found that many children report a desire for their parents to spend more quality time with them and less time on their phones.
Problematic media use can also be related to lower empathy, higher narcissism, and overall lower social well being. Time spent with technology inherently decreases in-person and face-to-face time with others that provide necessary opportunities to deepen empathy through conversing and recognizing human facial and vocal cues. Additionally, online platforms often allow anonymity which makes it easier for users to ignore how what they say impacts other people and thus can be more aggressive or insensitive than they would otherwise be in person. In terms of mental health, addiction to technology has been associated with higher levels of anxiety and depression, particularly as it relates to a disruption in sleeping patterns.
If your teen is experiencing technology or smartphone addiction, there are many ways you can help support healthy technology use to promote overall better emotional and mental wellbeing.
Ways to curb overuse and promote positive mental health
A certain amount of technology use can benefit teens, allowing them to connect with peers, get help on school assignments, and establish organization systems. The goal shouldn’t be to rid your teen of smartphone use altogether but to devise a plan that allows technology use within healthy limits.
When creating a system, it’s important to empower your teen to take control of their own smartphone use to create a healthy balance, and this conversation should continue beyond just a one-time conversation. To help your child utilize technology healthily, try these tips:
• Start a conversation – Establish a dialogue with your child about the benefits and drawbacks of technology use using evidence and facts. Encourage this conversation to be a back and forth discussion, rather than a lecture, by asking for your child’s opinions and thoughts on their technology use. Ask them how they feel physically, mentally, and emotionally when they’ve used their phone too much during the day and ask them what they gain by using their phones.
• Create a plan – With your child, create a plan for how to set healthy boundaries and limits on cell phone and technology use. Help them discover what checks and balances they can use to help keep themselves accountable.
• Make it a family project – Children aren’t the only ones facing technology addiction, so make sure you’re holding yourself accountable as well. Create goals for the whole family surrounding tech usage. You could create this goal based around the “screentime” setting on the iPhone to track overall and categorized usage. Model the behavior yourself that you hope to see from your teens for the best results.
• Don’t just limit use – If you’re going to establish technology limits, find something engaging and productive to replace that screen time with. With a little improvisation, creativity, and the desire for connection, you can turn these technology limits into moments of deeper family bonding.
• Create a check-in check-out policy – One of the biggest negative impacts of excessive technology use is a disruption in sleep patterns due to harmful blue light. Create a space where you and your children can check in devices for the night so they are not present in the bedroom during sleep time.
• Establish screen-free zones – With your children, determine times and spaces where everyone agrees to keep their phones away. This could be during weekly dinners or family outings and gatherings. During these situations set boundaries for no phone usage and stick to them.
If technology addiction is ruling your daughter’s life, she could also benefit from a therapeutic boarding school that specializes in treating kids with smartphone addiction and the related challenges. Programs like Asheville Academy can offer inpatient treatment, individualized assessment, individual and group therapy with expert staff, and coaching that can help girls achieve long term success even after they transition home.
Asheville Academy Can Help
Asheville Academy is the leading therapeutic boarding school for girls aged 10-14. Nestled in the mountains of Western North Carolina, our private 97-acre campus provides a tranquil environment where students can reflect, heal, and overcome emotional and academic challenges.
Our program provides an opportunity for families to reconnect and come out of the experience stronger than ever before. As a team, we’ll develop a plan together to address and correct negative behavior patterns before they lead to more destructive behaviors. Upon completion of the program, your child will develop the confidence and resilience to rebuild strained relationships, advocate for their needs, create healthy boundaries, and face life’s challenges. For more information, please call (828) 414-2951.