Smartphone Addiction Can Lead to Edgy, Overweight Teens

Kat is an entrepreneur; she opened a bakery on her own and is working hard to get the business off the ground. She spends nights baking pastries and breads for the next morning, and though she does this from her home kitchen, she’s often preoccupied. She and her children are together, but somehow not together.

Kat is the mother of Josh, 15, and Rebecca, 11. Every other weekend, and occasionally on Wednesday nights, the kids are with their father. Two years ago, Kat added two lines to her existing cellular service and made the decision to get both the kids a cell phone. She wanted them to be able to communicate with her when away from home or at their father’s; she felt she needed the reassurance that she could reach them and vice versa, at any time. At the cellular phone store, Kat was convinced that smartphones would be best; they are “what everyone uses now” according to the customer service rep, who offered her a good deal.

Here’s what a typical evening with the kids looks like: Kat prepares dinner and thinks hard about what needs to be baked and whether her prices are right. Is she making a profit? Should she consider expanding the kitchen? While she’s hard at work and thinking about her business, Josh sits in the corner chair with homework in his lap. However, each time Kat glances at her son, his face is lit by the glow of his phone. What Kat doesn’t realize is that Josh is sending about 3,000 texts per month, in line with the research on the numbers of technology use by teens. One hundred texts per day means Josh is nearly always texting or reading texts. And he’s connected to his peers via Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter. When not texting, Josh is posting photos, sending photos to friends, viewing photos, commenting on photos, posting thoughts on Twitter, and even playing games he’s downloaded to his phone. It’s no wonder that Kat feels her son has grown distant, but she has chalked this up to “typical teen behavior” – after all, he’s becoming more independent and that’s normal. Still, his grades have fallen and whenever Kat tries to discuss this subject or any other with her son, he appears distracted.

Rebecca, even at 11, is no different from her brother. Her face is nearly always turned downward, observing the phone in her hands. She has said that she is “addicted to Facebook.” Kat was initially unaware that a person should be 13 before signing up to Facebook, but after discovering this, she felt it would be too much to demand her daughter shut her account down. She didn’t want to deal with the conflict that would result; she was simply too overwhelmed with being a mother and a business owner. Kat decided that Facebook was probably harmless. Her own friends mostly used it to post the innocuous details of daily life as well as photos of their kids. What could be bad about that? Still, unbeknownst to Kat, Rebecca had a secret account, separate from the one on which she’d “friended” her mom.

It was their father who decided to enforce a rule that when the kids are with him, they must put their phones away except in cases of emergency or when they received a call from their mother. The kids protested. They’d always accepted their father’s authority, but suddenly they’d grown defiant, testy, restless to check their Twitter feed and their Instagram comments. They demanded to be able to text their friends. Holding to his new rule was harder than their father thought it would be.

The Research on Kids and Technology Use

According to the Washington Post, today’s teens spend more than 71/hours a day consuming media – watching TV, listening to music, surfing the Web, social networking, and playing video games, according to a 2010 study of 8- to 18-year-olds conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation.” Seven-and-a-half hours a day is difficult to imagine, as it’s more than half a typical day. The research would appear to suggest that kids may be using personal technology when at school, usually a violation of school rules. But as Josh says, “everybody does it.”

Is this tendency isolated to youth? “According to a 2012 survey by the Pew Research Center, 46 percent of all American adults now own a smartphone – up a whopping 25% from 2011.” When parents are also checking their digital devices at an alarming rate, the trend of technology consumption cannot be limited to children, however more easily distracted they may be. Even Kat checks her phone regularly as if on automatic pilot.

Can This Trend Be Harmful?

Kids who are connected to technology spend less time in unstructured play – playing basketball in the driveway with friends, for example. Technology can keep them sedentary, and this may be a large component of the trend of increased obesity in children and teens. There may also be deficits in social connections and in-person communication. Teens who spend most of their free time connected to the Internet and other technologies frequently report a preference in using the screen to communicate rather than in-person interaction.

A Korean government study reported that almost 20 percent of teens are “addicted” to technology. To be an addiction, there must be withdrawal symptoms when the object of addiction is removed. In the case of these teenagers, anxiety and depression occurred when they were unable to access technology. And the teens reported being much happier when they were using their smartphones than when interacting with family or friends.

Parents can help their children and teens by becoming aware of the impact of smartphone use and talking to their kids about the drawbacks. Suggest or demand that everyone turn off their notifications, so that the temptation to check the phone every time it beeps is diminished. Never check your phone when driving, and set a good example. Practicing what you preach is critical.

Josh and Rebecca are typical kids, and their smartphone behavior is no exception. As their parents began to communicate about what unfettered access to these devices was doing to the kids and to the family as a whole, they agreed to become more aware, to communicate more, and to set times when smartphones were off limits. Though the kids protested in the beginning, eventually the new rules were simply a way of life, and everyone benefited. Josh’s grades are even up again.

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