Main image photography credit: David Dewitt @cozycoffee
If your teen spends nearly every waking hour on their cell phone checking social media sites, watching videos, playing games and texting their friends, you’re not alone.
Today’s hyper-connected teens have more than a few parents in sheer panic mode feeling helpless and frustrated that they haven’t made eye contact with their child more than a handful of times in the last week. Many parents are asking how this constant connectivity is impacting their child’s social development, sleep habits, cognitive development and parent-child relationships. To put it into perspective, here are a few facts according to a recent Google and a Common Sense Media study:
- 92% of American teens now own or have access to a mobile device
- 56% claim to connect to the internet several times a day
- 50% of teens feel they are addicted to their phones
- Most kids receive their first cell phone by the age of 12 with the number of kids receiving cell phones by the age of 10 on the rise
- Watching videos is the most popular way teens spend time on their phones with 71% of teens saying they spend 3+ hours a day watching videos
- 52% spend 3+ hours messaging, while 51% spend time on social networks
- 78% of teens check their phones hourly
- According to a study conducted by The Statistics Portal (a firm dedicated to conducting studies and collecting statistics), Snapchat is the most popular social media and networking site with 79% of teens and young adult users in the U.S., Facebook pulls in a close second at 76%, Instagram follows at 73%, and Twitter at 40%
Online Worlds Often Mirror Offline Worlds
Interestingly, despite the fact the average teen spends an average of 7.5 hours devoted to a variety of digital media outlets and 36% of parents say they argue about the amount of time their teen spends on their cell phone, the vast majority of families feel devices aren’t hurting parent-teen relationships. In fact, according to a Futurity study and an article published by Duke University entitled “Kids Addicted to Phones: Why Parents Shouldn’t Worry,” some experts say parents shouldn’t worry too much about their teen spending hours upon hours texting and connecting on social media, unless it’s keeping them awake at night. According to the study, teenagers’ online worlds often mirror their offline lives.
Teens that have strong child-parent and social relationships offline tend to reinforce and strengthen their relationships through online interactions. Rather than connecting with strangers, which is many parents’ worst fear, most teens use digital media to further connect with existing friends and acquaintances that are already present in their face-to-face social networks.
However, the outcome is somewhat different for those kids who struggle with relationships. For those teens that are typically more unsocial, spending large amounts of time on their device could predict a decline in well-being. According to the article, “If parents have concerns about their teen’s face-to-face social interactions, they probably have more reason to be concerned about online activities.”
The Mere Presence of a Cell Phone Reduces Cognitive Ability
One of the more compelling issues, aside from the impact cell phones have on relationships, is how our kids’ constant digital usage is impacting their cognitive ability. According to a new study conducted by McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin, the mere presence of a cell phone is enough to reduce cognitive ability.
In the study of more than 800 cell phone users, researchers gave participants tasks to perform and found that participants with their cell phones in another room significantly outpaced those who had their phone on their desk or in their pocket or bag.
The takeaway here is that although our teens may feel they’re giving their full attention to a task or conversation, having their cell phone even within reach significantly reduces cognitive capacity and impairs cognitive functioning.
Parents’ Fears about Cell Phones and Sleep Loss Are Well-Founded
If your teen is like many, they’re spending countless hours at night texting, surfing the internet and watching videos long after you’ve gone to bed. Although it can be difficult as a parent to monitor late-night cell phone use, especially when teens are older, it’s not a bad idea to put some parameters in place when they’re young.
Studies have shown that the light emitted from the screen interferes with the ability to fall asleep and the overall quality of sleep. Furthermore, a new study in the journal Child Development reports that nighttime usage of cell phones suppresses melatonin, stimulates the brain and can increase the risk of anxiety and depression, and even reduce self-esteem, especially in girls who tend to be more vulnerable to the effects of sleep loss.
The Positive Side
All this information is enough to make any parent put their child’s cell phone under lock and key, but there is a bright side. The New York Times recently posted a story that correlates teen Smartphone usage with the decline in teen drug use and cigarette smoking.
Although there isn’t any clear evidence just yet, researchers are pondering an intriguing question, “Are teenagers using fewer drugs in part because of the constant stimulation they’re receiving as a result of their phones and computer?”
Additionally, let’s keep in mind that today’s teens have access to far more educational resources than the Baby Boomers ever did. If the Boomers wanted to know more about a subject it meant a trip to the library or diving into the family gallery of Encyclopedia Britannica which was often found collecting dust on a nearby bookshelf. If a teen needs help with a math problem, they can watch a YouTube video; if they have a question about their homework they can text a friend.
Parameters in Place
When teens reach high school, it becomes far more difficult to keep track of and monitor their cell phone usage. They’re far more independent, driving, they’re not home nearly as much and their friends and connections become a much more significant part of their life. When teens are young, however, it’s a good idea to set parameters – electronic curfews if you will – to keep them on track. Open communication with teens of all ages should include the threat and avoidance of online solicitation and the possibility of cyberbullying which is a far bigger threat than most parents realize.
A whopping 25% of teens have been cyberbullied repeatedly on their phones and the internet and more than half of cyber victims don’t tell their parents about it.
Smartphones are here to stay. We can’t eradicate them from our teens’ lives, but we can guide them during the influential years of their lives to become more aware of what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior on social media sharing sites, better equip them to handle issues if and when they arise and help them create a balance in their lives so digital connectivity doesn’t infringe on their ability to function or succeed in their lives.