It’s no secret that our teens are addicted to their smartphones. According to a Common Sense Media survey, they rack up more than seven hours of daily screen time. Most teenagers would rather be texting or scrolling their social media feeds instead of spending time in the “real” world. Student wellbeing activist David Magee says parents have every right to be concerned by this alarming trend
“Smartphones have changed children’s lives forever, but not necessarily for the better,” says Magee, author of the upcoming book Things Have Changed: What Every Parent (and Educator) Should Know About the Student Mental Health and Substance Misuse Crisis (Matt Holt, August 2023, ISBN: 978-1-6377439-6-6, $22.00) and founder of the William Magee Institute for Student Wellbeing and the William Magee Center for AOD and Wellness Education at the University of Mississippi. “These devices are the gateway to your child’s weak spots. Over time they steal their joy and set them up for problems they aren’t equipped to handle.”
Smartphones rob children, teens, and young adults of the connection they really crave and create habits and behaviors that will lead to challenges down the road, says Magee. They also keep children up late, stunt their social development, and open the doorway to excessive social media use—which comes with its own set of negative consequences.
Here’s a closer look at how smartphones are putting your children at risk.
Smartphones fuel rising levels of stress, anxiety, and depression in teens. Young people prefer to stay connected to their phones to avoid missing out on texts and social media posts from their friends. But at the same time, excessive smartphone use erodes their mental health in various ways. Constantly checking a phone for updates creates stress and anxiety.
They rob children of vital sleep. Smartphone use disrupts sleep in many ways, yet children routinely sacrifice a good night’s rest so they can scroll. One study showed that use of electronic screens before bedtime results in longer time to fall asleep and decreased evening sleepiness, reduced melatonin secretion, circadian clock delay, reduced amount and delay in rapid eye movement sleep, and reduced next-morning alertness.
“Lack of sleep creates a domino effect,” says Magee. “Children and teens who don’t sleep are more at risk for symptoms of ADHD, rollercoaster emotions and impulses, increased anxiety and depression, and angry outbursts. This can lead to use of prescription medications when in fact, what is needed is more routine quality sleep.”
Smartphones stunt children’s social skills. As children and teens opt to spend more time online and less time engaging in face-to-face interactions, their budding social skills suffer. There’s even a name—“phubbing”—to describe the act of ignoring the person one is with to look at one’s smartphone.
Social media apps fuel body image issues and disordered eating—particularly among girls. Social media portrays an idealized version of life that most people cannot live up to (often including the influencers putting their too perfect to be real lives on display). Apps like Instagram feature filters that change the appearance of influencers and lead young people to have an unrealistic perception of what normal bodies look like. This can fuel disordered eating and body dissatisfaction. A systematic review of 20 studies showed that social media use was associated with disordered eating and body image concerns.
For young males, eating disorders can be harder to detect because they might involve getting too thin, but it’s frequently about achieving a “perfect sculpted body.” The Child Mind Institute calls this manifestation “reverse anorexia” or “bigorexia.”
Smartphones have become the primary tools for purchasing substances…Those searching for or even glancing at drug-related content show up in recommended follows to the pushers, thanks to the algorithm, and the pushers send chats in response. It’s not what they asked for, but that’s how social media takes advantage of users—one’s curiosity can gain unintended momentum. From there, children can purchase drugs at the push of a button. It works like this: The drug dealer and prospective client exchange messages on platforms like WhatsApp or Snapchat. The buyer “orders” their preferred substances and the dealer instructs the buyer to make a food order through a delivery app such as Door Dash. Their food delivery arrives along with the buyer’s drug of choice.
…And for viewing pornography. They often initially discover it accidentally—often at a far younger age than most parents would hope—and then become frequent viewers. (Some studies show teens to be the most significant consumers of online porn in America.)
This news may sound grim, but don’t despair, says Magee. Parents can work with their child to find a happy medium surrounding their smartphone and social media use. Read on for some advice on helping your children keep their texting, chatting, and scrolling in check.
Delay getting your child their first phone as long as possible. There is no “right” age recommendation for giving a child their first smartphone. Only you know your child’s maturity level, what they can handle, and what’s right for them.
Work with your children to set reasonable limits on phone use. Have an open and honest conversation with your child to figure out how much access they can have to their smartphones. Also establish times the whole family will “unplug” to enjoy time together, for example at mealtimes or during a weekly “family night.”
Keep the phone away from the bed. Instead of preaching and pressuring your child to “get off the phone and go to sleep,” engage them in a conversation about the importance of sleep and its benefits. Help them recognize that smartphone use is an obstacle to a good night’s rest, and that bed is not for homework or social time, but for sleeping.
Silence nonessential notifications. No one can focus near a smartphone that’s constantly beeping or vibrating. Remind your children to silence the notifications on their social media apps so incoming messages are less distracting while they are doing other activities.
Set a good example by checking your own smartphone use. One study reveals that four in 10 children worry their parents are addicted to their devices. If this sounds like you, it’s time to make some changes around your own phone use. Remember, your children are watching and learning from you.
Help your child embrace their life in the “real world.” When your child’s life is full of healthy activities and strong relationships, they will be less tempted to escape into their social media apps.
“With the right support, your children can build a healthy relationship with their smartphones and social media feeds,” concludes Magee. “After all, there are benefits to being able to connect with friends and family and having access to a world of information. Keep the conversation going around responsible use of their devices as they grow. Soon they will be making their own smart decisions that you can be proud of.”
David Magee is the best-selling author of Things Have Changed: What Every Parent (and Educator) Should Know About the Student Mental Health and Substance Misuse Crisis and Dear William: A Father’s Memoir of Addiction, Recovery, Love, and Loss—a Publisher’s Weekly bestseller, named a Best Book of the South, and featured on CBS Mornings—and other nonfiction books. A changemaker in student and family mental health and substance misuse, he’s a creator of the William Magee Institute for Student Wellbeing at the University of Mississippi and a frequent K–12 and university educational and motivational speaker, helping students and parents find and keep their joy. Learn more at www.daviddmagee.com.