The Crisis in Your Home: How Smartphones are Harming Children

By: Amanda Zaidman, LCSW, The original post be found on the Constructive Parenting Blog.

If you’re worried about getting your child a phone or if you are regretting the fact that you have already have—you are not alone.  In fact, I’m worried about it too.  And the more I read about smartphones and kids, the more concerned I get.  This is an important topic that I wanted to address before my 10-year-old daughter’s peers got phones.  It turns out I may have waited too long.  The average age for a first smart phone is now 10 years old.  My daughter has affirmed this finding telling me point blank, “Mom, most of the kids in my class already have phones.”

I knew that smartphone use in childhood came with potential pitfalls, but in preparing for this post I’ve come to better understand the true gravity of the situation.  I believe that this is actually a huge public health crisis.  And it’s in my home and yours.

Research shows smartphones and social media are highly addictive and using them without restraint is changing the way we interact with each other– for the worse.  To be honest, I now realize that I too am addicted to my phone.  I know how hard it is for me to disconnect from my phone.  I know that when I am bored or looking for a pick-me-up, it is the first thing I turn to for a quick “pleasure hit.”  I also know that it has gotten in the way of so many beautiful parenting moments when my children wanted my undivided attention. What I didn’t realize is that handing over this technology to my children without fully understanding its addictive potential is like handing them drugs and then wondering why they are getting hooked.  We watch our kids get addicted to this technology and then wonder why its use is leading to negative consequences.  We’re all a little guilty of ignoring the research about why granting our kids unfettered access to a smartphone is a bad idea.

The thing is, it all happened so quickly.  Roger McNamee points out in his article Social Media’s Junkies and Dealers that the benefits of technology were so obvious, that it blinded us to the fact that having constant access to smartphones could be a dangerous thing. We knew that phones gave us unlimited access to information, increased our productivity level, and made it easy to stay in touch with others near and far– but we didn’t bother to ask questions about what the repercussions could be. 

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Childhood is changing for children. Kids are turning down opportunities to go outside, to be creative, and to spend time with friends, and instead they are choosing the instant gratification of smart devices over almost any other activity. In fact, the Kaiser Foundation reports that kids between the ages of 8-18 spend an average of 7.5 hours in front of screens for entertainment each day. If you figure that kids are in school until about 3pm, that is basically all the rest of their waking moments!

Kids are losing the ability to have face-to-face conversations.  Their social skills are decreasing, and their attention spans and boredom tolerance levels are rapidly declining. 

Mental health conditions are on the rise. Jean Twenge, a researcher who studies generational differences, points to the simultaneous rise in smartphone and social media use as the cause of our kids “being on the brink of one of the worst mental-health crisis in decades.”  As parents we know to be worried about pregnancy, drug use, and reckless driving.  It turns out that with the rise of smartphones the rates of all these things have gone down.  Great news, right?  Actually, what’s happening is that the draw of the smartphone is so strong that kids are choosing to stay home (instead of taking risks in the real world) and the result is loneliness that leads to increased anxiety, increased depression, and even increased suicide rates. 

Smartphones are addictive. Here is how the addiction starts. We know that the brain is wired to seek pleasure, and when we find a source of pleasure we lose sight of logic.  The release of dopamine is so tempting that it can motivate us to make choices that aren’t always in our best interest.  In his article How Technology is Hijacking Your Mind, Google Design Ethicist Tristan Haws explains that owning a smartphone is like having a tiny slot machine in your pocket.  Each time we check our phones and there is a “like”, text, email, or some other intermittent reward, dopamine is released in the brain, and we become a little more addicted to the device.   The counter-point to this intermittent reward, is fear of missing out on reward opportunities—a phenomenon now known as FOMO (fear-of-missing-out).  We have all experienced FOMO—not wanting to miss seeing the latest “like” on our recent Facebook post or not wanting to be left out of a group’s Snapchat conversation.    FOMO is a real thing that directly triggers the limbic brain—the part of our body wired to process deep emotional responses, including the well-known “fight or flight” response responsible for nothing less than our survival.  Social media engineers play on this deep-seeded and biologically ingrained fear and they develop apps that make it almost impossible to resist constantly checking in.  Think about how hearing your phone’s alert “ping” triggers you to pick it up and check in on Facebook or Instagram before you have even realized what you are doing.  If we understand that this is the way smartphones affect us, we should not be surprised by the way they are consuming our children’s every waking moment.

I Know It’s Hard to Tell Your Kids “no.”  Do it anyway.

Kids pressure us all the time to give them things we know they don’t really need.  When they are little, it is juice and junk food and extra screen time.  When they get a little older, it is inevitably a smartphone.  Remember that deciding to give your child this privilege is a big decision. Of course, there are benefits but the consequences deserve serious consideration as well.  Consider these important steps as a parent.

  • Learn more about the issue. Check out the article and book recommendations here.
  • Sit down with your partner to discuss the pros and cons. Discuss whether or not you think your child is mature enough to respect your limits. 
  • Talk to your friends with older children and get their advice. It is rare to come across a parent who doesn’t say they wish they had waited a little longer before giving their kid a smartphone.
  • If your primary purpose for allowing your child to have a phone is for safety, consider getting a flip-phone without Internet access. 
  • Rally your community with the Wait Until 8th pledge to delay the smartphone until at least 8th grade. There is strength in numbers. It is a lot easier to wait with community.
  • If you have already given your young child a smartphone, you can take it back (that is part of your parental power).  If that feels too extreme you can strip it down to a basic “non” smart phone by turning off their access to social media and turning off their data plan. Be sure to disable your child’s ability to install apps on the phone as well. 
  • Be equally careful about giving your child an old phone without cellular service, his own tablet, iPod, or access to social media on the computer. 

We love our children but are unfortunately giving them access to addictive devices that can rob them of their vitality.  If this article hasn't fully convinced you, or even if it has, I encourage you to do your own research.  With knowledge comes the ability to make mindful parenting choices.  

The original post by Amanda Zaidman, LCSW, can be found on the Constructive Parenting Blog. Amanda is a licensed clinical social worker, mother of two, and owner of Constructive Parenting, PLLC in Charlotte N.C.  She received a bachelor degree in psychology from Duke University and a Master degree in Social Work from UNC-Chapel Hill. Amanda is a parenting expert and a child behavioral therapist.

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