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At a get-together with close family friends we hadn’t seen for months, the teenagers brought out their smartphones and began playing with Snapchat filters. Soon, we were all laughing as we watched our own images morph into zombies, hippies and hybrids of two of us. Two hours later, the adults were still socializing with each other; the teens, meanwhile, had each retreated into their own phones on the couch.
Any parent can see that the hold these phones have on tweens and teens is strong –and it’s growing. A survey of more than 1,100 U.S. teens ages 13 to 17 by the San Francisco-based nonprofit Common Sense Media in 2018 revealed that 93 percent had some sort of mobile device such as a tablet and 89 percent had smartphones, more than double the 41 percent who did as of the organization’s last survey in 2012.
Teens are spending more time than ever on these phones accessing social media sites. In 2018, 70 percent of the surveyed teens used social media more than once a day compared to 34 percent in 2012. Twenty-two percent in 2018 reported using it several times an hour – Snapchat was the survey favorite – and 16 percent were on social media "almost constantly." A 2015 survey by Common Sense Media revealed that tweens average more than 4.5 hours and teens more than 6.5 hours of overall screen media use per day.
This is not all bad; according to the 2018 survey, more teens felt uplifted by social media than negatively impacted by it. Asked how using social media made them feel, 21 percent said more popular compared to 3 percent who felt less so; 20 percent said more confident versus 5 percent who felt less so; and18 percent felt better about themselves while 4 percent felt worse. (The rest said social media didn’t impact their self-image either way.)
"At the same time, teens acknowledge that social media can detract from face-to-face communication and make them feel left out or less than their peers," says Common Sense Media CEO and founder James P. Steyer.
Dr. Richard Freed, a child and adolescent psychologist from Walnut Creek, sees this all too often.
"Too many kids I work with are ridiculed and bullied online, and kids experience FOMO, or the fear of missing out, as they watch their peers post about what a wonderful life they’re having," Freed says. "All this often leaves kids feeling left out and depressed."
The Pitfalls of Phones
Parents today are becoming aware of the consequences of constant phone and screen use, Freed says, but that wasn’t the case a few years ago. What he saw then led him to research and write the book, Wired Child: Reclaiming Childhood in a Digital Age (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015).
"Parents were bringing in teen girls to see me in therapy, asking why their girls were suffering from depression and thoughts of hurting themselves," Freed recalls.
He would ask the girls what they did after school and nearly all reported the same scenario: they’d come home from school and then go into their rooms and get on their phones.
"In so many of these cases, it became clear that these kids’ phone overuse was at the center of their problems," Freed says. "These girls were disconnected from their families, from school and from real life. Instead, they were caught up in cyber drama and dealing with often abusive online peers."
Parents, meanwhile, were bringing in their boys because they were losing interest in school and their grades were suffering.
"With just a little digging, it became apparent that these boys had shifted their life’s focus to gaming, and effort in school became an afterthought," Freed says.
A study reported in November 2017 by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) confirms his observation, revealing that 8.5 percent of U.S. youth ages 8 to 18 develop internet gaming addictions, whether playing online with friends or offline alone, on big screens or phones. Other studies show that most of these gamers are boys.
"Sadly, too many boys I work with may not go to college or become gainfully employed because of their gaming habits," Freed says.
Many other studies have indicated that excessive screen or phone time harms teens. In one huge survey of national data representing more than 500,000 adolescents and published in November 2017 in Clinical Psychological Science, researchers found a strong correlation between the time teens began using smartphones a decade ago and a rise in depression and other serious mental health issues.
Addicting by Design
Such findings are particularly upsetting in light of revelations by industry insiders that smartphones and social media are designed to be addicting to their users.
A new documentary called Like by the non-profit organization Indieflix looks at both teens’ love of phones and the tech industry techniques that keep users glued to the sites for hours. Some of these maneuvers are easy to see: news Feed that scrolls continuously so you never have to click a link or turn a page; Snapchat challenges that call on friends to send "snaps" back and forth every day to keep their "snapchat streak" alive and YouTube videos that autoplay within seconds after the previous video ends.
Social media firms are "doing algorithms to keep you on an app, or to click on a particular ad, or to click on an element on a web page," says Dr. Jevin West, assistant professor at University of Washington’s Information School, in Like. "They’re able to run millions of AB tests – experiments online to see if you respond to certain colors or certain kinds of text or …stories."
Some of these experiments can be used to make the experience user-friendly, but they’re also employed to keep the user stuck to the site where the social media firm can profit off the sale of ads or the user’s data.
"These companies are…caught in a zero-sum race for our finite attention, which they need to make money," according to the San Francisco-based Center for Humane Tech, which is featured in Like. Co-founded by an ex-Google design ethicist, the center aims to influence the tech industry to design devices that help rather than addict its customers.
Dr. Anna Lembke, a Stanford psychiatrist and expert on addiction, says smartphones "tap into the basic human need to connect, and exploit it, turning the smart phone into a vehicle for addiction." The "24/7 flood of text messages" is particularly addictive, she says, giving us affirmation with so little effort on our part.
Addiction, she explains, is the process whereby neural circuits programmed for motivation and reward are hijacked by drugs, so that using that drug becomes the most important thing. The drug can take many forms, including smart phones.
In normal, healthy circumstances, when humans socialize, oxytocin ‒ known as the "love hormone" ‒ is released from the hypothalamus, promoting bonding. Oxytocin in turn stimulates the release of dopamine, the neurotransmitter of pleasure and desire.
"I speculate that every time we connect with another human using our smartphone, and we get a positive response… we get a little release of oxytocin, followed by a release of dopamine," Lembke explains. "When we reach out to connect, and don’t get the desired response, or don’t get any response at all, I speculate we experience the opposite: a sudden decrease in brain dopamine, contributing toward depression and anxiety."
Sadly, at-risk teens are more likely to spend excessive phone time and to experience more of the negative effects of smartphones and social media than well-adjusted ones, the new Common Sense Media survey showed. "These teens are much more likely to report feeling bad about themselves when no one comments on their posts or feeling left out after seeing photos…of their friends together at something they weren’t invited to," Steyer says.
It doesn’t help that many teens are exposed to dangerous content online. Sixty-four percent of teens surveyed said they often or sometimes come across hate speech in social media and 13 percent reported being cyberbullied.
But more destructive than problem content is how our kids’ overuse of phones is pulling them away from in-person interaction with family and friends, says Freed, the Walnut Creek psychologist.
"Science is clear that teens’ strongest connections should be with family and school," he says. "But these are increasingly shunted aside as kids can’t look away from social media or video games on their phones."
The Common Sense Media survey seemed to confirm this: teens who said their favorite way to communicate with their friends was in person dropped from 49 percent in 2012 to 32 percent in 2018. Fifty-four percent of teens reported that social media distracted them from the people they were with and 57 percent from their homework. In studies by California State University’s Dr. Larry Rosen, an expert in the psychology of technology, dependence on screens led to poor grades in college students.
What Can We Do?
While some influential individuals, Fox News’ Tucker Carlson among them, have called for banning smartphones for youth, most experts point out that phones and social media have pros as well as cons and say that we as adults need to step up and teach our kids how to manage them.
Many experts believe one of the easier steps is to delay giving children smartphones in the first place. This keeps them from unsafe online content and gives them time to develop normal, in-person relationship skills.
"I suggest that parents do what I call ‘Parent like a tech exec,’" says Freed, who himself has two daughters aged 11 and 15. "We’ve long known that Steve Jobs and Bill and Melinda Gates pushed back the ages when their own kids got gadgets such as smartphones and tablets. At home, I've really tried to push back the age when my girls got gadgets. They never had tablets and my oldest got her phone at 13."
Freed is an advisor for the grass-roots group, Wait Until 8th, which urges parents to postpone buying smartphones for their kids until they are at least 14. The group asks participants to get 10 or more other families from their child’s grade and school to also make the pledge so that there’s less peer pressure from other kids to get phones.
"Parents feel powerless in this uphill battle and need community support to help delay the ever-evolving presence of the smartphone in the classroom, social arena and family dinner table," Wait Until 8th’s homepage says.
By high school, most teens persuade their parents that they need smartphones, and Freed urges parents at that point to set rules for when and where the phones can be used.
For example, his 15-year-old uses her phone only in public areas at home so that a parent can ensure that it doesn’t impact her family time, homework or sleep.
Stanford psychiatrist Lembke didn’t use a smartphone around her four kids when they were small, but now some of them have reached adolescence and have started using the phones themselves. To help them manage it, she says, "I’m struggling as much as the next parent. What I try to do is at least educate my kids about what’s happening in the brain, what addiction looks like, and the down-sides of getting lost in your phone, so they can be more mindful of their choice."
Discussing with your children the dangers of screen use is essential, the AAP says in a recent policy statement on teen media use. Other ways that parents can help their teens get control of their technology use is by insisting that the teens get an hour of exercise a day and eight to 10 hours of sleep and that dinner and other specific family times be media-free. The academy offers an interactive tool on their website to help parents and teens set specific screen times and zones, safety rules and online manners.
Other tools recently became available to make the job of parenting phone-obsessed teens easier.
Google and Apple both rolled out new operating systems last year that allow parents and teens to better manage their screen time. On iPhones and iPads with the new ios 12 operating system, parents who link their devices with their children’s can receive data on how long their kids use the devices overall as well as specific apps and websites. Families also can restrict how much time their teens spend on apps; reduce or silence notifications more easily; and use an enhanced "Do Not Disturb" feature they set to end at a specific time or place.
New smartphones with Google’s new Android 9 Pie operating system offer similar features. Users can open a colorful report showing them how many notifications they get, how much time they spend on favorite apps and how often they check their phones. They can set app time limits, and when they’re close to the maximum, the app icon turns gray as a reminder. However, parents can’t receive data or set limits from their own phones, so they’d have to work with their teens on their phones to monitor screen time.
Google also offers the free Family Link app, which can be downloaded onto both the parent’s and child’s Android or newer Apple devices. Parents can see reports on their children’s screen use, remotely lock devices, set bed time and total time use limits and block apps. At age 13, teens can opt to control their own Google accounts, which means they’d have to give you their password if you’re to keep using Family Link.
Another option is to download a screen management app such as Moment for Apple devices or Our Pact for Android. Moment lets you track daily phone use and offers daily exercises teaching healthier screen use. Our Pact lets parents remotely block phone or app use instantly or in advance. Both Moment and Our Pact are free except for premium features, which cost a few dollars month.
Whatever screen control methods they use, the AAP urges parents to also model healthy phone behavior.
Freed so often sees the need for that in his practice. "As I work with kids who overuse devices, they often express concern and sadness that their parents struggle to look up from their own phones," he says. "Any effort to help kids lessen their use of technology demands that all of us parents take a hard look at our own phone habits."
commonsensemedia.org – Reviews media for age-appropriateness and advises families on harnessing technology as a positive force.
healthychildren.org/mediauseplan – An interactive tool designed by the American Academy of Pediatrics to help families develop screen use rules and plans.
indieflixfoundation.org/like – Watch a trailer for the Like documentary on teens and excessive smartphone and social media use or find or schedule a local screening.
richardfreed.com – Offers videos, book lists and links to aid parents and teens as they manage screen time.
waituntil8th.org – Cites studies and offers tips to families on delaying smartphone use.