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Today’s generation of teens have grown up with smartphones. The only world they know is one in which every device is continuously connected to the internet. With a smartphone in their pocket, everything they could possibly want is just a few clicks away: friends, information, answers, and any products they want to buy.
According to Pew Research Center, In 2015, 92% of teens used the internet daily, while 24% reported going online “almost constantly.” In 2018, 45% of teens reported going online “almost constantly.” These studies also revealed that teens who don’t access the internet from mobile devices use the internet less frequently. This suggests the convenience of a smartphone encourages teens to use the internet more than they would otherwise. As we’ve seen with video games, Excessive use of any tech gadget can lead to addiction.
Smartphone addiction is hidden in plain sight
Many addictions are invisible. For instance, some people addicted to drugs and alcohol know exactly how to keep their addiction hidden. However, smartphone addiction is highly visible and practiced out in the open. Everywhere you look you’ll find teens staring at handheld screens – the same screens they stare at during dinner, at restaurants with friends, in the bathroom, and while in bed.
If a drug addict were to shoot up in the middle of a restaurant, everyone would notice and become worried. Witnessing smartphone addiction doesn’t garner the same concern, but carries equally damaging consequences. We know excessive blue light can wreak havoc on the body’s circadian rhythm, but some say the addiction to screens is also psychologically damaging.
In Screen Time Is Killing Teens, Serenity Gibbons points out that today’s teens are struggling with mental health more than previous generations. Depression diagnoses among adolescents rose by 63% between 2013 and 2016; teen suicide rates are also climbing. Why the sudden increase? A groundbreaking 2017 study suggests it has something to do with excessive screen time. Teen depression and suicide rates rose during the same period smartphones hit market saturation, a correlation that can’t be ignored.
Excessive screen time causes social isolation
The connection between smartphones and teen depression is isolation. The more teens use their smartphones to connect with their peers, the more socially isolated they become. Platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram are defined as social media because they facilitate conversation, but the interactions are flat.
Online, friends are communicating two-dimensionally by tapping letters on a screen. Emoticons are not a substitute for real emotions. We naturally look for cues in body language, posture, and facial expressions to gauge a person’s intentions and emotions. That’s not possible in a plain-text social media interaction. Without in-person cues, interpretation of intent and meaning is likely incorrect. It’s no wonder so many misunderstandings, arguments, and fights occur online.
Prior to smartphones, teens spent a significant amount of time socializing after school. They went to cafes, community centers where they’d met new people and form real-world friendships. That’s not the norm today. “Instead of going out with friends and looking for every chance to get away from their parents,” David Morris from Fortune.com explains, “the post-Millennial generation is staying in and Snapchatting – and it’s making them less happy.”
When teens rely on a smartphone to stay in touch with friends, they don’t get much personal interaction. Even when they’re together, friends aren’t present with each other. Instead of sharing deeply with each other and building their relationships, they’re distracted by a device.
The problem is too complex for a simple answer
The problem is multi-faceted. Smartphones are addictive because they provide unrestricted access to friends and information. Can’t remember the lyrics to a song? Pull out your phone and look it up in under ten seconds. Smartphones also provide a real-time connection to social media feedback, allowing teens to indulge in that addiction everywhere they go. Smartphones are tools that act as instant communication, phones, cameras, computers, books, and research libraries. We’ve put the world in our pockets.
Although future smartphones promise holograms, there isn’t a substitute for personal interaction. You can’t hug a friend through Facebook or high-five someone over Facetime. These physical interactions might seem insignificant, but they play a critical role in building relationships with people.
It seems the best solution, for now, is for parents to limit their kids’ screen time while they’re young. Helping kids develop healthy smartphone habits at a young age could be the difference between life or death.