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Is The New Drug Of Choice Smartphones?

As the parent of a teenager, there’s a good chance you’ve noticed your child spending a lot of time looking at their smartphone. If you’re concerned about this behavior, you’re not alone. And while there are some potential negative effects of so much smartphone use, it’s not entirely a bad thing.


In recent years, psychologists and researchers have determined that some teens have low self-esteem and higher rates of depression, isolation, and anxiety due to the amount of time they spend looking at a screen.1,2 But there may be an upside. General studies also show that the use of illicit drugs and alcohol among teenagers is the lowest it has been in the past 2 decades.3 Some have theorized that this shift may be, in part, due to the rise in smartphone use and the amount of time teens spend at home engaging in online platforms.

For parents who grew up without smartphones, it can be difficult to determine how much screen time is OK and whether excessive use is becoming problematic. Understanding the rising trends of smartphones and how to monitor your teen’s use can help guide you through this difficult time.

Related: Video Game Addiction

Rising Use

Smartphones and social media platforms are now woven into the fabric of our daily lives.  Today, almost every young adult (92%) owns a smartphone.4 Your teen and other members of their generation live a life dominated by smartphone use—introducing a level of connectivity that is above and beyond any generation prior.

Surveys show that smartphone owners check their phones about 85 times a day, including immediately after waking up and right before going to bed.5 More than 90% of people never leave home without their phones and 46% say that their smartphone is something they could not live without.5

We are now able to connect with people in other countries, enjoy endless forms of entertainment, chat online at any time of day, and make purchases while standing in line at the grocery store or waiting in traffic. Among teens and young adults, social media platforms serve as a means to construct their social identity, and these virtual selves can interact with different friend groups in a wide variety of forums and platforms that you may not even know about.


What Does This Mean for Teens?

The rise in smartphone use among teenagers has corresponded with a decline in teen substance abuse and involvement in certain substance-related dangers, such as drunk driving. From 2002 to 2014, the rate of drinking and driving among teens dropped from 16.2% to 6.6%.6 And according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), teenagers’ use of opioids, cigarettes, and all other illicit drugs except marijuana is the lowest it’s ever been.3

Researchers have not been able to definitively explain the decrease in substance use among teens, but many have pointed to the possibility that smartphones may be at least partly responsible.7

Is Smartphone Use Addictive?

Cellphone addiction is not officially recognized as a clinical condition in the way that alcohol or drug addiction is, but some researchers believe that the excessive attention and compulsive dedication to their smartphone exhibited by some users should qualify as an addiction.8

Some of the criteria these researchers use to define smartphone addiction are also criteria for substance addiction. These include:8

  • Continuing excessive smartphone use despite worsening symptoms of mental health conditions, such as depression or anxiety.
  • Using a smartphone in situations where it’s dangerous or prohibited, such as while driving.
  • Experiencing difficulties in personal relationships because of excessive smartphone use.
  • Experiencing anxiety, loneliness, or dramatic mood changes when unable to use a smartphone.

In analyzing self-reported data, one study found 22.1% of adolescent respondents to be addicted to their phones.8

Some health problems associated with excessive smartphone use include:8

  • Irregular sleep patterns.
  • Mental health problems.
  • Poor relationships with others.
  • Fatigue.
  • Eye problems (blurry vision, irritation, or redness).
  • Pain or weakness in the thumbs and wrists.

That’s not all. People who use their smartphone excessively may experience the following phenomena:1,8-10

  • Phantom cellphone experiences: A user may think that their phone is ringing or vibrating, but there is no call or message. One group of researchers considers this a symptom of psychological dependency to a smartphone.
  • Nomophobia (No-Mobile-Phobia): Defined as the fear of not being able to use one’s phone, researchers believe this to be a withdrawal symptom of smartphone use in people who have developed a dependency. Nomophobia can be characterized by anxiety over running out of battery, not having service, or not being able to use their phone.
  • FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out): This is the feeling that other people are having a great time without you or that you are missing out on some other experience. Teenagers with FOMO might obsess over checking their social media accounts to see what their friends or the celebrities they follow are doing.
  • Textiety: This is the anxiety associated with responding too quickly to a text message after receiving it.

Read More About FOMO

For Parents

Giving your teen a smartphone is a big decision, and you will play an important role in helping your teen develop safe and healthy habits around technology. According to a stress survey, 94% of parents say they take at least one action to manage their child’s technology use, but 48% report that regulating their child’s screen time is a struggle.11 Additionally, 58% say that they worry about the influence of social media on their child’s mental and physical health.11

Before you make the decision about giving your child a smartphone, you may want to take these issues into consideration:11,12

  • Cellphone versus smartphone: When you give your teen a smartphone, you are giving them much more than a way to communicate. The entire world—including the good and the bad—is now in their back pocket. Many parents start by giving their teen a basic cellphone for emergencies and simple communication only.
  • Age: There are no evidence-based guidelines on the appropriate age for a child to get a phone. However, a common age for parents to give their child a phone is between 13 and 15 years old, which is when kids are getting involved in after-school activities and may need a phone to coordinate rides home.
  • Setting expectations: Talk to your teen about the rules and expectations of owning a phone. You can use an online tool to create a family media use plan, or simply create one yourself to help your family agree upon—and stick to— phone use policies. For example, your plan might include tech-free meals. Remember, parents must stick to the plan too.
  • Discuss the dangers: Start teaching your child about technology safety at a young age and have ongoing conversations about how to treat others with respect, both online and in person. Discuss the importance of protecting personal information, avoiding cyber bullying, and only trusting websites that are reliable and authentic. Warn your teen about downloading links that look suspicious or sending inappropriate images or texts.
  • Protect your child’s sleep: Studies show that using phones at night can negatively affect sleep patterns. Consider restricting the use of phones or tablets at least 30 minutes before bedtime. You might also consider requiring your child to charge their phone outside of their room at night to eliminate distractions.
  • Model behavior: When you are talking to your teen, put down your phone. Avoid using your phone while driving, during meals, and before bed. Keep your interactions with others online healthy and positive. If your teen sees you “trolling” other people on social media, they will be likely to do the same. Emphasize the importance of in-person interactions and if you see your child exhibiting signs depression or isolation, encourage greater involvement in non-screen activities.

Whether your teen is already using a smartphone or you are considering purchasing their first device, there are strategies and professional recommendations to help you guide your child toward a healthy and balanced approach to smartphone use. The American Academy of Pediatrics’ Media and Children Communication Toolkit can help you stay updated on the latest research, trends, and strategies on talking to your teen about media use.

The way teens interact and use technology is continually shifting. Although the world of technology is constantly changing, the same rules of parenting apply. You can help teach your teens how to practice safe judgement, behave appropriately online, and avoid developing addictive smartphone behaviors. In many ways, smartphones are incredible tools. It is how your teen uses their smartphone that matters.

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