A new study highlights a problem that’s getting increasingly old: We’re raising a generation of young people addicted to their smartphones and other digital devices.
A poll of 1,240 U.S. parents and children by Common Sense Media, a San Francisco nonprofit that offers educational materials on digital media and safe technology for children, indicates that 50% of American teenagers feel addicted to their smartphones. Most check the devices at least every hour and feel pressured to respond immediately to messages received.
This is one thing that parents and kids agree on. Nearly 60% of parents of children between ages 12 and 18 say their kids can’t give up their phones. But it’s not drama-free. A third of parents and children say they argue daily about screen time.
In reporting its findings, Common Sense Media says that overreliance on portable digital technology can cause problems, including unsafe driving, shoddy homework, and compromised family time. Multitasking while using a smartphone can hinder your ability to focus and prevent the formation of memories. Infrequent in-the-flesh interaction can interfere with the development of empathy.
The numbers are staggering. American children between 8 and 12 say they spend an average of six hours a day using digital media, and those between 13 and 18 spend nine hours a day.
Because of their need to connect with their peers, teens are especially vulnerable to the instant gratification that smartphones can provide through texting and social media posting. The irony is that these fleeting virtual connections can damage your ability to connect in real life.
Digital addiction isn’t new, and teens aren’t the only ones affected. The Common Sense Media poll found that while 50% of children say they can’t put their phones down, 27% of adults say the same about themselves. An astonishing 56% of adults say they check their smartphones while driving.
What to do? As with other aspects of parenting, part of the solution lies with setting boundaries for children. This can be said also about adult self-control, setting boundaries for our own behavior.
But it’s not easy. The poll indicates that half of parents and a third of teens say they “very often” or “occasionally” try to cut down on the amount of time they spend with their devices.
Should parents ban all use of portable digital technology by their children? Should we as a society ban smartphones? This would be akin to what the Amish do, living only with yesteryear’s technology. For most of us, this isn’t a practical solution. Despite the problems, the upsides of the technology are too great. We just need better balance.
Similar social problems have accompanied the wide-scale adoption of other technologies in the past. The railroad, telegraph, telephone, electrical grid, automobile, radio, movie, television, and personal computer caused sometimes drastic changes in how we live, work, socialize, and educate.
Just as for the most part we eventually found balance with these technologies, it’s likely that we’ll eventually figure out how to balance our use of portable digital technology with the rest of our lives.
Common Sense Media offers these specific suggestions:
- Talk about it. Have in-person discussions with your family about the role different media play in our lives. Lessons may not be learned instantly, but most children want to do the right thing.
- Delve deep. Help kids understand the importance of concentration and delayed gratification. Dealing with boredom is an important life skill, no matter what people do in life. Focusing helps with homework, friendship building, and driving as well as being a surgeon, roofer, or homemaker.
- Create limits. Declare tech-free zones and times. For instance, when at the dinner table tell children that their phones have to stay in their pockets. Create an honor system where phones are used when doing homework only if the messaging is homework related. Prohibit phone use after a certain time, such as 9 or 10 p.m., which has the added benefit of facilitating sleep.
- Set a good example. Never text while driving, which today is as much a contributor to car accidents as alcohol. Follow the law in your state or community about handheld voice talking while driving.
- Seek outside help when appropriate. Sometimes children, and adults, become deeply dependent on digital technology in a way that harms their overall lives and are unable to change on their own. These days many teachers, school counselors, clergy, and mental health professionals have experience helping others find a good balance here.