QUESTION FROM A READER: My tween spends most of her time on her smartphone. She has no interest in hanging out with us as her family. Even when she is sitting with us, she is constantly scrolling through her phone, and doesn’t engage with us. When we take her phone so that she can have supper with us, she is not able to sit still. She gets agitated, constantly stares at the clock waiting to go back to her phone. She has even voiced being suicidal, got into fights with us, and told us that she doesn’t love us and wants to run away when we take away her phone. What is happening to our 12-year-old? Her grades dropped. Her constant argument is, “Mom, dad, you don’t know what its like being 12 years old and phoneless! It is a death sentence!” Is this a smartphone addiction?
ANSWER: You have every reason to be alarmed. These devices are quickly changing childhood for children. You are not the only parents feeling helpless in the face of technology and the negative impacts it is having on your daughter. But, you can do something about it.
Smartphone Addictive: Blame it on the dopamine
Smartphones are intentionally designed to target the reward area in the brain and its chemical messenger pathways which affect decisions and sensations. When someone experiences something rewarding (or uses an addictive substance), neurons in the principle dopamine-producing areas in the brain are activated and dopamine levels rise. Thus, the brain receives a “reward” and associates the drug or activity with positive reinforcement.
When an individual gets a notification, the brain receives a rush of dopamine and sends it along the reward pathway causing the person to feel pleasure. The more notifications the person gets, the brain gets rewired to seek more similar stimulus and thus positive reinforcement to recreate the same pleasurable feeling. To further complicate matters, the brain reward center is most active when people are talking about themselves. And in social media, people post about themselves, what they are thinking or doing.
Infinite Scrolling, Video Reels, and FOMO
Another tool that social media uses to encourage constant engagement and to promote behavior that will reinforce engagement is “infinite scrolling.” As the user scrolls, new content shows up and the user doesn’t take a break from it. He or she perpetually scrolls and is constantly bombarded with new content that keeps them scrolling through without an innate ability or awareness of the need to break the cycle and take a break. If the person does take a break from scrolling, then this may result in anxiety that is known as “Fear of Missing out” (FOMO), which is likely what your daughter deals with during dinner time when you take away her phone from her.
You may have noticed the automatic reels that play on your Facebook page or Instagram. That is another way of engaging the reward center in the brain – just another way to drive smartphone addiction. Let’s say that the “autoplay” feature shows you videos that you are not interested in it. You are forced to engage with it, because you have to pay attention to it in order to stop it. If the autoplay feature didn’t exist, you wouldn’t have to stop and go out of your way to avoid engaging with the content.
Social Media’s Impact On Mental and Physical Health
About 27% of children who spend 3 hours or more a day on social medial show symptoms of poor. Excessive social media is correlated with anxiety, depression, impulsivity and ADHD. People, and especially children, tend to become psychologically dependent on social media, similar to how people become physically dependent on substances. Adolescents who habitually use social media have severely stunted social interaction skills. Despite adolescents interacting with each other online, this doesn’t translate well to the real world. In fact, such adolescents tend to have worsening social anxiety in groups, higher rates of low self esteem, negative body-image, and lower levels of empathy and compassion toward others. The constant bombardment of perfect filtered photos also leads to disordered eating. The constant competition for attention of likes can also result in cyber bullying.
In a study done by the National Institute of Health, children who spend an excessive amount of screen time have premature thinning of the cortex, which processes information relayed through the five senses. Furthermore, smartphones impact the quality and quantity of sleep. Children and adolescents are restless when they don’t have access to messages at night and so may not sleep through the night or may wake up at night to check their smartphones. Disrupted sleep results in poor health outcomes, such as obesity, a weakened immune system ,and stunted growth.
The Impact of Smartphone Addiction on Relationships and Academics
Learning how to manage time, projects and homework are skills that children learn. Having distractions, such as social media, hinders them from learning this skill and thus impacts their academic performance. Relying on social media, along with being distracted by it, results in poor ability in language reasoning and thinking.
Relationships also suffer as a result of social media use, especially between parents and their children. Children also shift their attention to online and become less interested in investing in personal relationships with friends in real life.
A digital Detox
If you’re worried about a smartphone addiction, consider doing what is known as a “digital detox.” It doesn’t have to be completely stopping the use of social media. The idea is to be intentional about creating a break from it for a certain amount of time. That being said, consider starting a conversation with your adolescent about what they think of their social media use. In addition, lead by example. Reflect on your social media use, and the length of break you are willing to take from social media use.
Questions To Ask Your Teen About Smartphone Addiction:
- How is their sleep impacted after they look at their screen?
- Talk about how lack of sleep impacts anyone in general, but also you and your teen specifically.
- Talk about how their relationship has been impacted by constant social media use? How do they feel when they are with a friend who is constantly on their screen?
- What are they missing out on in real life by constantly being on social media?
- Do they feel in control of their online activity?
If they feel like their use is too much and they want to decrease it, you may talk to them about deleting certain apps or switching off their notifications. You may also encourage them to use a timer, so that when the designated time to use the internet is up, the timer goes off, then they start working on their other tasks. They may also consider putting their phone on do not disturb more.
As you embark on this journey with your teen, remember to be a role model and reward your teen for any tech-free moments. You are helping rewire their brain and create a different reward pathway.
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