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Teen Phone Use 101

Guiding adolescents towards a healthy digital future.

Twice over the holiday break, among friends and family, I was asked for advice about an increasingly common challenge: a teen spending more and more downtime on their phone, less and less time on hobbies, and struggling to stay on task for homework. It’s common in my pediatric practice too. Caring, supportive parents assume their child will sort out how to use their new phone well—and then that phone seems to consume everything.

Our societal immersion in technology is not rock and roll, a cultural change that scared people for no actual reason. What is fundamentally different about technology is that it has been built from the ground up to engage—and to over engage—us all. Ample research shows that under-monitored technology use impacts children for the worse.

Business insiders, such as the ones who started the Center for Humane Technology, are outing the process behind product development. Many consider technology, in particular, smartphones, a behavioral health experiment gone wrong. Companies access huge amounts of research about influencing behavior, huge amounts of data to fine-tune decisions, and then have the money to make it all come together effectively.

Smartphones are based on algorithms that drive usage, similar in part to how slot machines work. We get hooked on a moment of engagement, it passes, and then we crave more. Companies manipulate everything from what they give away for free to the color of notifications. For example, using a phone alarm means many people spend a few minutes on screen before bed and when waking up—which is exactly the lifestyle tech companies want for you.

Defining a balanced and healthy lifestyle.

Phone addiction is a term I avoid. Most people are not truly addicted. But our phone use is often unhealthy and disruptive anyway. With teens, for example, too much time on screen has been linked to worsening mood, attention, emotional skills, and more.

Too much tech time also cuts into healthier activities. For example, mindless screen time impacts exercise and reading. One recent study showed that people often report having no time to exercise. However, when tracked they actually have four or more hours of open-ended time daily, much of it spent on screen. Exercise has been linked to better physical and mental health, sleep, and learning—pretty much the exact opposite shown for typical screen usage.

Self-management skills in kids called executive function—including judgement and planning—do not mature until their late 20s. That makes all teens fundamentally at risk for mistakes around tech. Targeted by business, many of them lack the maturity to handle it well.

While many parents hope and assume the best path is for teens to find their own way to a healthy relationship with technology, instead of outgrowing habits it’s common they entrench bad ones. Teens with mental health issues, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism are at particular risk. Yet with or without these developmental disorders, many teens create trouble for themselves when given unrestricted access with limited adult guidance.

Technology is neither good or bad—it’s how we choose to use it

Technology is only a tool, much like driving a car. Most teens require adult guidance until they show themselves ready around driving… similar to their use of smartphones and other devices. One study even stated this: Strong parental involvement with tech use correlates with better social, academic, and physical outcomes.

For example, it has been shown that teens may check their device hundreds of times a day. But the brain cannot multitask; it is literally impossible. Each distraction doesn’t mean time lost only on another activity, but a loss of efficiency and time during each attentional shift. Since that escalating waste of time is not intuitive, to protect our kids we must discuss it, aim for better habits, and set limits when needed.

While we aim for collaboration with teenagers, that often isn’t enough. Some of the managing of technology needs to be rule-based: If we see you misbehaving with your phone or it messing with your time excessively, you’ll lose some freedom around it. Even teens—especially teens—require parents to set guidelines and boundaries.

All of which means:

  • Start with self-awareness. Use apps that show you once a day how much and when you were on screen. This first step alone leads many people to cut back on their phone time. Most of the major companies (Google, Microsoft, Apple) now have built-in tools, or check out Moment or Quality Time.
  • Set up good habits. Collaboration is always the best option if you can get buy-in. Try to define healthy habits with teens: What do you think best? But then, if needed, monitor and enforce what you believe appropriate. Keep devices in public areas of the house when possible, particularly during homework and at bedtime. When needed, shut off distracting apps during the school day and homework. Various programs allow real-time monitoring of devices, if necessary, or even restrict use entirely (such as the app Freedom, which is also a great way of voluntarily setting boundaries for yourself, Norton Family, or Microsoft Family).
  • Set rules. Like giving teens the car keys, phones are a right to be used wisely and safely, not a privilege. If you want unlimited, unrestricted use, then it stays downstairs at bedtime. You don’t distract yourself during homework. You don’t bully or speak badly about people online. If we see you doing anything inappropriate, we’ll have to do something about it. Until they prove themselves responsible and independent, stay positive and engaged, collaborate as much as you can, and then also focus on this bottom line.
More from Mark Bertin M.D.
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