Help for a Smartphone-Addicted Generation
How to reclaim our essential humanity in the digital age.
Posted July 8, 2019
As an article in the July 7th New York Times reported, “parents around the country, alarmed by the steady patter of studies around screen time, are trying to turn back to the land before smartphones (Bowles, 2019, p. 1).
As a college professor, I’ve noticed how attached my students have become to their smartphones. They check them before class begins, then dash out of class, scanning their phones for any new messages. While walking across campus, I see at least eight out of ten students staring down at their phones. “They’re addicted,” says neuroscientist Robert Numan, Ph.D. (2019), explaining that the “intermittent reinforcement” from their phones keeps them compulsively coming back for more.
For many of our nation’s young people, their phones are their primary relationships. They spend more time with them than with their friends, their parents, or anyone they know. They eat with them, study with them, even sleep with them, awakened in the middle of the night by buzzes from incoming messages.
And all this electronic addiction is unhealthy. In recent years, San Diego psychologist Jean Twenge and colleagues have identified an alarming rise in anxiety, loneliness, and depression among American adolescents (Twenge, Gentile, DeWall, Ma, Lacefield, & Schurtz, 2010; Twenge, Spitzberg, & Campbell, 2019). Her latest findings indicate that high school seniors now spend an hour less each day in personal social interactions than their counterparts in the 1980s. That means less time socializing with family and friends, going to parties, dating, and going to movies than teenagers in previous decades—and they’re experiencing record levels of loneliness. Twenge found that self-reports of loneliness among adolescents rose dramatically after 2010, at the same time that smartphone use became common among American teenagers.
This rise in loneliness has serious health implications. It has been linked to poor sleep quality, immune system dysfunction, and depression (Twenge, Spitzberg, & Campbell, 2019). If that is not bad enough, child psychiatrist Bruce Perry has found that substitution of screen time for personal interaction, especially in early childhood, can adversely affect children’s developing brains, even leading to serious and permanent disability (2017). Perry and his colleague, Mala Szalavitz have written about what they call America’s “real and growing problem with relational poverty, a decline in the circumstances and situations that enhance empathy” which they see as “responsible, at least in part, for many of the current health, political, social, and educational challenges that we face” (2010, 297-298).
What can we do to reverse this unhealthy trend? Parent coach Gloria DeGaetano was way ahead of the curve when she recognized the damage done to our brains by what she calls “an industry-generated culture” that “is not in the business of meeting our human needs, “but, rather, “creating pseudo-needs, even addictions” (2004, p. 29). In 1987, she became increasingly concerned by the effect of screen technology on children’s developing brains as busy parents were parking their children in front of television or videos for hours instead of talking or reading to them and encouraging them to engage in interactive play. In 2000, she founded the Parent Coaching Institute in Seattle, training coaches to offer 21st-century parents helpful strategies based on the latest research in psychology and neuroscience. Her book, Parenting Well in a Media Age outlines a child’s five essential needs for:
1) a loving parent-child bond
2) an interior life
3) image making
4) creative expression
5) active contributions to the relationship, offering parents advice on how they can more effectively meet these needs.
As DeGaetano said in this week’s New York Times, too many of us have been “thinking like machines because we live in this mechanistic milieu. You can’t grow children optimally from principles in a mechanistic mindset” (Bowles, 2019, p. 4).
As we seek healthier lives for our children and ourselves, we need to remember that while technology brings us remarkable tools, our greatest strength is our essential humanity, our ability to connect with our hearts and minds, together with those of the people around us.
Photo: Per Palmkvist Knudsen. Checking smartphones continuously can be stressful. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Exhausted_smartphone_user.JPG
Bowles, N. (2019, July 7). Kid’s digital detox: A ball. New York Times, Sunday Styles, pp. 1, 4.
DeGaetano, G. (2004). Parenting well in a media age: Keeping our kids human. Fawnskin, CA: Personhood Press.
Numan, R. (2019, July 7). Personal communication.
Parent Coaching Institute. For more information, see https://www.thepci.org/
Perry, B. D. & Szalavitz, M. (2017). The boy who was raised as a dog and other stories from a child psychiatrist’s notebook: What traumatized children can teach us about loss, love, and healing. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Szalavitz, M. & Perry, B. D. (2010). Born for love: Why empathy is essential—and endangered.New York, NY: William Morrow.
Twenge, J. M., Gentile, B., DeWall, C. N., Ma, D., Lacefield, K., & Schurtz, D. R. (2010). Birth cohort increases in psychopathology among young Americans, 1938-2007: A cross-temporal meta-analysis of the MMPI. Clinical Psychology Review, 30, 145-154.
Twenge, J. M., Spitzberg, B. H., Campbell, W. K. (2019). Less in-person social interaction with peers among U.S. adolescents in the 21st century and links to loneliness. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. 20 (10), 1-22.