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Dumb Phones Are Smarter Than You Think

What are they, how do they work, and is it time you had one of your own?

Key points

  • Social media use can mean harmful effects on the developing brains of young people.
  • If you are worried about excessive social media use, a dumb phone may be an answer.

Recent media reports show that many people—especially ages 11 to 27—are turning away from smartphones that do everything toward so-called “dumb phones” that do next to nothing. Except, of course, allow you to call or text your friends and family members.

This “digital detoxing” trend is fueled mainly by people who are worried about their mental health. They’re concerned about the time they’re spending on social media, and the damaging content available there.

As an addiction psychiatrist, I applaud this trend. It’s clear from research and anecdotal reports that excessive smartphone and social media use mimics addiction in many ways, including the harmful effects it has on young people’s developing brains.

Excessive social media use is associated with all sorts of other problems as well, including increased risk of depression, anxiety, and eating disorders such as anorexia and binge-eating disorder.

The U.S. Surgeon General weighs in

While reports of increased dumb-phone use were circulating this spring, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy released his office’s advisory titled “Social Media and Youth Mental Health.”

Many parts of the advisory were alarming, including the results of a recent study showing that “adolescents who spent more than three hours per day on social media faced double the risk of experiencing poor mental health outcomes including symptoms of depression and anxiety.”

When you realize that 8th and 10th graders in the U.S. now spend an average of 3.5 hours a day on social media, you see the scope of our youth mental health challenge.

And it isn’t just the amount of time young people spend on social media, it’s the content they’re exposed to there.

Again, from the Surgeon General’s report: “Extreme, inappropriate, and harmful content continues to be easily and widely accessible by children and adolescents.” This content may perpetuate “body dissatisfaction, disordered eating behaviors, social comparison, and low self-esteem, especially among adolescent girls.”

Regarding eating disorders specifically, the report says: “A synthesis of 20 studies demonstrated a significant relationship between social media use and body image concerns and eating disorders, with social comparison as a potential contributing factor.”

If it walks like addiction and quacks like addiction...

Back to the amount of time that young people spend on social media. That’s where I see so many similarities with addiction.

For one, it’s looking more and more likely that excessive social media exposure overstimulates the brain’s reward center. This can trigger brain chemistry changes that also occur with addiction.

Also, overexposure to social media may cause changes in brain structure that mimic the changes seen in people with drug, alcohol, or gambling addictions.

6 ways we can protect our kids—and they can protect themselves

One thing we can’t wait for is social media companies to solve this problem for us. Bottom line: It’s in their self-interest to get young people hooked on their content. And as well-intentioned as the government is in its efforts to protect our youth, this is a tough area to regulate due to freedom of speech protections.

In the end, it comes down to us and our young people taking the lead in this fight.

Tips for parents and caregivers:

  • Create a family social media plan. This means setting agreed-upon boundaries and rules on social media use. To establish these rules, family members need to discuss the amount of screen time, what content is allowed, the importance of not disclosing personal information and other matters. Talking about these things is important all by itself. Coming up with an action plan based on them is even better.
  • Establish tech-free zones at home and school. An example would be not allowing any screen time within an hour before bedtime and through the night. Same with mealtimes or other family get-togethers. Urge your child to establish and maintain tech-free time with their friends—it could end up being a novelty they and their peers really enjoy.
  • Model the behavior you want to see. One of the best ways to get your child to cut back on social media time is to do that yourself—and let them see you doing it. It’s okay to admit to them that you struggle with this too at times, but that you’re determined to do better and create healthier habits. Then follow through on that.

Tips for young people:

  • Put limits on your screen time. As in, don’t wait for Mom or Dad to do it for you. For one thing, they may come down harder than you would like! Also, you may enjoy large and tangible benefits when you cut back, including greater self-esteem, less concern with weight and appearance, and more time to do fun things with your family and friends.
  • Develop monitoring strategies. Among other strategies, this means setting up a system to track your screen time, blocking unwanted content and contacts, and learning the security settings on your phone and laptop so you stay better protected.
  • Reach out for help if you think things have gotten out of hand. Talk to a trusted family member or friend about your worries. Be honest with them, even if it’s embarrassing. Also, the American Academy of Pediatrics runs an excellent Center of Excellence for Social Media and Youth Mental Health. You’ll find lots of useful tips and advice on their website for staying safe and in control of your social media use.

Final thoughts

The increasing popularity of dumb phones is telling. What it proves to me is that, sometimes, the best answers to our mental health challenges are the simplest ones.

When you carry around your dumb phone, you can’t access harmful social media in the first place—problem solved!

And won’t it be so nice to have more time to call or text your friends?


Social Media and Youth Mental Health: The U.S. Surgeon General's Advisory (2023).…

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