Screen time – what is its effect on teens?

teen boys with smartphones
image | CBS Interactive

Two articles appeared recently in national magazines which address the issue of how damaging the amount of time adolescents spend on phones/tables/computers is to them. Specifically, both articles addressed the effect of screen time on adolescent brains and behavior.

The first article appeared in The Atlantic in the September 2017 issue. Jean M. Twenge is a professor of psychology at San Diego State University and there is no question where she stands on this issue. “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” She believes that the evidence supports the notion that adolescents are on the brink of a mental-health crisis, and that the almost constant use of hand-held devices is to blame.

Twenge’s evidence includes some pretty impressive statistics including information that indicates that since 2007, when the iPhone was released (hard to believe it’s only been 11 years, since it feels like the things have been around forever), adolescents are less likely to go out without out their parents, they are less likely to have a driver’s license, they are less likely to date, and they are beginning to be less likely to have sex. I agree, you might think all of those findings are great, but pair these findings with the fact that this same group is much more likely to feel lonely, and less likely to get enough sleep.

The assumption is that if you feel lonely you are probably depressed. All experts agree it is hard to decide whether depression leads to less sleep or less sleep leads to depression, but the two are closely connected and both indicate someone who is not happy.

Based on this information, I would expect that most of us would grab smartphones out of adolescents’ hands and let them use them only on very special occasions, and certainly not during the school week.

However, following on the heels of this article is one by Carlin Flora in the February, 2018 issue of Scientific American entitled “Are Smartphones Really Destroying the Lives of Teenagers?” Flora is not a scientist, but the article does appear in one of the most respected science magazines, and her findings are well supported by solid science. The point of this article is that the adolescent brain is very adaptable and less likely to be permanently affected by screen time. In fact, the cited findings indicate that adolescents are more likely to express empathy and sympathy indicating that they may have better social skills.

Flora does discuss a study being run by Jay Giedd, a professor at University of California, San Diego that is using information from smartphones to learn about adolescents’ mental health. When he was at the National Institutes of Health, Giedd looked at ways to identify mental health issues as early as possible in children. Giedd cites some troubling statistics that 50% of mental illnesses begin by age 14 and 75% by age 24. The problem is trying to identify adolescents with mental illnesses; Giedd wants to use teens’ online activities to get a reference point for their behavior.

A third source is not going to make you feel good about the effect of screen time on your children. A documentary on the TV called “Undercover High” sent seven young adults to pose as students in a high school in Kansas. A report on this documentary speaks specifically about the use of cell phones in school. The scariest part of the report for me was the reasoning behind why bullying is so bad these days: it appears to be due to the constant nature of adolescent presence on the Internet.

In the old days (of 2006 and before), if one child bullied another, separating them would solve the problem, at least for a while. With social media, it is impossible to separate children, and too often the situation gets worse because others will pile on. The target feels overwhelmed; we have seen the result in teen depression, and suicide.

I have no magic solution to this situation, but something needs to be done, and soon. Everyone agrees that teens lack proper amounts of sleep, and many teens are obsessed with keeping up with social media. That obsession interferes with the relationships that they have with their family and friends, as well as takes up time better used on school work. We don’t yet know exactly how electronic devices affect the adolescent brain, and probably won’t for some time.

Yes, smartphones and other devices allow all of us access to information that we would not otherwise have (what device are you using to read this right now?). As with all new technology, we need to learn to balance how it fits into our lives. Moderation in all things should be our watchword.

Talk with your son about how much time he spends on line. Ask him to show you messages from his friends, but be careful about violating his privacy – adolescents are notoriously prickly about that. If you start early enough, he will see your interest as an indication of caring. Share postings from your friends with him, especially if they are silly.

Most important, monitor your own use. Last year, I was in an upscale restaurant and two young parents were there with their small children – I’d guess the kids were around 2 and 5. The older boy was running around the restaurant with a large napkin tied to his neck so that it looked like a superhero cape. The younger girl was dumping the saltshakers on the table and mixing the contents with leftovers from various plates. The parents were right there, but both were so engrossed in their smartphones that they never noticed their children.

The rule is, if you are with your child, do not pick up your smartphone unless you are expecting a vital call. You are the most important person to your child and you need to pay attention to him. If you do not, he will find something else that will pay attention to him, and that may be someone of whom you do not approve. This starts very early, so from the beginning, put the phone down.