Parents, say no to smartphones for your teens. YES! to wait
Updated: May 18
In 2018, a research led by Anderson and Jiang estimated that 45% of teenagers use their smartphone near-constantly. This was 5 years ago, before the pandemic, before we spent all that time home, before the algorithm of most apps diabolically perfected even further in the art of hooking customers to screens (ie the introduction of the infinite scroll on Instagram and most social media , anyone?). What could it be now?
I am not sure how you feel but this makes me feel awful and utterly worried.
After I watched the Dove advert campaign "Cost of Beauty" about girls and social media and seeing how that happy little girl got hijacked by her phone and the pressure of social media, I actually felt panicky. Here is the video:
Sadly, the story in this short film is a true story. The video was made by Ogilvy in consultation with mental health and disordered eating experts at the National Alliance of Eating Disorders.
My own use of smartphone is one of my daily battle and concern. I try everything: apps time limits with secret passcodes that I hope to forget, reading every possible book and article on the matter (including the super highly recommended "Stolen Focus" by Johann Hari), reading books , nature walks, sport activities, seeing friends, going to exhibitions, cooking, you name it. Although it is getting better and I have managed occasional days of very restricted use of screens, I still feel deflated and not happy at all with the time I waste and I have wasted on my smartphone.
It is possibly a bit late for us adults to completely free ourselves from the slavery of smartphones but it is definitely not too late to delay this addiction for your teens or nearly teens children. Parents are actually the only ones that have the power to protect their children and say NO to buying them a smartphone.
Since nearly every teenager/adolescent has a smartphone today we have come to believe that is okay. If everyone does it, it should be okay and inevitable, right?
Well, not at all. Safety is not in numbers here. While parents of older adolescents probably did not have enough information and trusted new technology blindly when they bought a smartphone to their children, we do now have growing information and experiences to make an informed decision. Parents are asking themselves more questions but unfortunately they still feel the pressure from some society beliefs that smartphones are inevitable for preteens and teens.
Most parents would tell me: "But how can my child be the only one without an Iphone? He/she will feel left out". Fair question. But what if we got very soon to a scenario were only half of the kids in our child's class have a smartphone? And then only a quarter? The scenario would change completely. Change has to start somewhere and every parent who decides to wait a few more years to give their child a smartphone can make an invaluable change not only to their child's wellbeing but to their entire peers' group.
But why are smartphones so bad for children in pre-teens and teens years?
Findings are still inevitably new since smartphones were only introduced only a bit more than a decade ago but they show us an undeniable truth. Screens are addictive as they trigger the same neurological path of rewarding that drugs use and because of incomplete brain development adolescents are more prone to addiction.
According to a research, 56% of children felt more anxious and depressed without their phone. Findings by Sapiens Lab's project showed that the younger the age of getting the smartphone the worse the mental health reported later on by the young adult. The most mentally healthy respondents are those who did not get a phone until their late teens.
It seems even more the case for young women compared to young men (Jon Haidt).
Teens, Smartphones and Socialisation
If you are in your mid 30s and older you must have noticed an odd phenomenon around you when you go to parks, malls, family parties. Most teenagers when they get together are all on their phones, they do not speak much to each other or gossip, if not to show the other friend what they have on their screen or to do a selfie together.
The excessive use of smartphones has a negative impact on socialisation. Research has shown that teenagers tend to meet much less in person since the era of smartphone. Let's look at this graph from the Financial Times.
Striking, isn't it?
Without opportunities of real world interactions which happens when people play, talk, share activities together, have a common goal, it becomes very tricky to develop strong social skills, to navigate the complex world of socialisation.
Alarmingly, more and more teenagers form relationships with peers whom they have never met in real life with the illusion that these contacts can substitute in-person interactions.
Family life is also significantly disrupted by smartphones. Most parents notice their children in teenage years are harder to reach than ever as they are glued on their screens.
Last but not least, the risk of cyberbullying which you have probably read a lot about. On smartphones, on social media, the bullying is non stop. There is no break.
Children become extremely dependent on "likes" and deeply affected by comments on their posts. Innumerable conversations with my teenagers patients consist of their distress caused by the approval or criticism they feel they got on Instagram to the point of being unable to sleep, to focus on their studies and even attending school. And most often they have never even met their followers whose approval ends up meaning so much to them.
Emerging research indicates an association between increased technology use and higher depression rates among adolescents, and connections between internet use and increased self-harm and suicidal behavior.
The graph above based on the research led by Jon Haidt and Jean Twenge ( both psychologists from NYU and San Diego university respectively) for an article appeared in the Journal of Adolescence shows how feelings of loneliness in school had dramatically increased since 2012. As Haidt and Twenge pointed out, it does not prove it is because of the social media but they took into account all other factors and "the results were clear: Only smartphone access and internet use increased in lock step with teenage loneliness. The other factors were unrelated or inversely correlated."
Sleep and learning
Smartphones are also detrimental to sleep. The light from screens tells the brain that it is daylight and to wake up when it is actually night, when our body and mind need to recover and rest to be able to function the next day.
Teenagers are particularly in need of the mandatory minimum 8 hours sleep to be able to learn and process new information the next day and to store the memories of the previous day.
Furthermore, social media leave teens anxious about their social status , often wondering if their post received enough approval which leads them to compulsively check their apps.
Strongly connected to this aspect is learning. If we do not sleep we cannot learn properly and effectively. What we learnt the previous day cannot be stored securely without non-REM sleep which happens mostly in the first hours of the night.
If teenagers stay up to be on their screens, the non-REM sleep window will close and so will the opportunity for memory solidification. Sleep also allows non-relevant information to be discarded so that new learning can find space and be stored.
If we stay up most night to check our phones, all of the above is not going to happen. Which is bad for us but imagine how bad it is for a teenager who is embarking in the most intense and potential stressful academic years of his/her life?
Not to mention the constant interruption of checking phones, notifications when teenagers are trying to do her/his homework. I am so grateful smartphones did not exist when I was in high school or even university as I struggle to even imagine how I would have been able to focus and I so wish it could be the same for this generation. Actually I do think we owe children the same chances of focusing and doing well in their studies especially at a time where competition and demands to academically succeed are ferocious.
Teens and impulse control
As I mentioned before, for adults it is quite hard to resist to the luring light of smartphones when we have notifications. The average number of times an adult pick up their smartphone during the day is 96 times per day, or once every ten to 12 minutes. However we actually touch our phones up to 2,617 times per day and unlock our phones 150 times on average. We have all been there, it is hard to control that impulse.
Now imagine a teenager. Their brain is still developing. In particular, the frontal and prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for the executive decision-making - judgment - is not fully developed yet.
As the Neurologist Dr. Frances Jensen pointed out in her book "The teenage Brain", the brain only fully develops in our mid 20s. The different areas of the brain get connected by an insulation process called myelination, this is how the signals travel. But this process starts from the back of our brain to the front, which means that the pre-frontal and frontal cortex are the last to be insulated. This is the area of the impulse control and by developing last it leaves teenagers less successful in controlling impulses and being able to say NO. Dr Jensen also adds ""addiction is more efficient in the adolescent brain. That is an important fact for an adolescent to know about themselves - that they can get addicted faster".
I am all with Alison Pearson from the Telegraph who seemed to have read my mind when she wrote "How much more evidence do we need that smartphones are the nicotine of our age?"
In her Telegraph article, tellingly titled " Highly addictive smartphones are destroying teenagers – we need to ban them now" , Pearson is extremely concerned and upset and I could not agree more. Did you know that half of all 12-year-olds have viewed pornography material online (some as young as eight)?
Among disheartening findings, there are some more hopeful signs of an increasing awareness of smartphones for kids such as the Safe Screens Campaign whose goal is to limit the threat to children' brains through measures including smartphone use to be prohibited in schools and early-years settings and prominent tobacco-style health warnings about screen time and potentially addictive nature of devices to be displayed on smartphone packaging.
What can schools do?
As I said before, I do believe Parents are the best placed to make the change and have the right and power to say no to smartphones but schools have to get on board too. A few suggestions:
- Make space for this conversation and debates.
- Choose Paper, textbooks, handwritten notes over screens whenever possible. As Melanie Hempe, founder of Screenstrong.org pointed out "Middle schools and high schools push for laptops in the classroom to prepare students for college. However, many college professors are banning laptop use in lecture halls due to rude interruptions and distractions. Your student still must learn how to focus and take hand-written notes".
There has been research proving that reading and learning from books is more effective than reading from screen. Anne Mangen, professor at Stravenger Univeristy in Norway has conducted studies which have proven that people pay more attention and memorise better when they read from books whereas when they read from screens they "skim and skip". (Johann Hari, Stolen Focus)
- Do not give for granted that children in middle or high school have smartphones
- Do not solely and heavily rely on emails for information and communication to students (ie schedules, homework ) or do not expect immediate response by email.
- Ban smartphones in schools and school trips.
- Encourage after-school activities and off-screen learning (BOOKS!) and homework.
Change is possible. We can say no to smartphones and yes to wait. If you would like some support, check the website and campaign Wait until 8th for support and ideas. Also, please remember: Teens can still have phones to call and send basic messages for their safety and to stay in contact with their family and friends without being on internet/using data. They can still use the family desktop laptops for their homework and stay connected to the world. By not having smartphones, it does not mean they would be cut out.
I do agree with Dame Rachel de Souza, the Children’s Commissioner, as reported by Pearson, who said: “I honestly think that we will look back in 20 years’ time and be absolutely horrified by what we allowed our children to be exposed to.”
But we can take some action NOW. We have a window , we have an opportunity to change things and stop the mental health pandemic of teenagers.
EVERY PARENT CAN MAKE THE DIFFERENCE. ENCOURAGE OTHER PARENTS! SPREAD THE WORD!
Resources for info, tips and guidance:
- Sapiens Lab full report: https://jonathanhaidt.substack.com/p/sapien-smartphone-report
- Wait until 8th: website and community
- Screen strong: Website and Instagram (bescreenstrong) which also offers workshops to parents
- Safe Screens campaign
- "Stolen Focus: Why you can't pay attention", book by Johann Hari