Do you obsess about how many ‘Likes’ you get? Do you scroll through feeds, ignoring the people around you in order to focus on what’s happening online? Do you find yourself shuffling along like a zombie, eyes on your mobile phone, earbuds blaring away, occasionally grunting out a response to some question you’ve been asked?
A 2016 poll by Common Sense Media found that 50% of US teens said they “feel addicted” to their mobile devices. It’s a problem that has the potential to get worse as technology develops. We’re now all carrying around this little gateway to distraction in our pockets, and the compulsion to constantly check our favourite websites and social networks for updates is rapidly becoming, according to psychologists, an addiction.
Young people are already using their phones more intensively than older generations. In 2016, 85% of young people (aged 16-29) said they connected to the internet on their mobile device, which is significantly higher than the general population (59%).
Developers have admitted that they design social networks to be as addictive as possible, delivering little dopamine hits to keep us hooked. So, is it time for an intervention? Do we need to admit that we have a problem?
What do our readers think? We had a comment sent in from Vicki, who is particularly worried about the impact of smartphones on children. She thinks that parents nowadays are too willing to “spoil” children by buying them the latest phone, when all kids really need is human contact and quality family time. Is she right? What are the risks of children becoming addicted to their phones?
To get a response, we spoke to Dr. Mark Griffiths, Director of the International Gaming Research Unit at Nottingham Trent University’s Psychology Department. What would he say to Vicki’s point?
Well, first thing to say is that children and adults are no more addicted to their smartphones than alcoholics are addicted to a bottle. What we’re really talking about here is the application that people have on smartphones. Obviously, children now seem to getting smartphones at a younger and younger age. I’m often asked what is an appropriate age to give children smartphones. There is no right answer on this, but I certainly don’t advocate giving smartphones to children under the age of 11 years.
I think when children move to their secondary schools, most children in the class will have a smartphone, and to not give your child a smartphone can ostracise them from the class. The issue about smartphones in terms of excessive use is that sometimes parents do actually pathologise their children’s excessive smartphone use, particularly if they don’t use a smartphone much themselves. For me, the issue is whether their smartphone use interferes with the other important things in their lives?
There are typically four things I ask parents: One, is smartphone use affecting your child’s education and homework? Two, is their smartphone use affecting their physical education? Three. is their smartphone use affecting the chores you expect your children to do around the house? And, finally, does the smartphone use affect their face-to-face interaction with their friends? Typically, most parents, if they’ve answered honestly, will answer that the smartphone doesn’t affect any of those four domains. But if a parent does feel it’s affecting those four domains, then it is the parent’s responsibility to do something about it.
As a parent myself, I know that taking a smartphone off a child can be very difficult sometimes and can lead to negative reactions by the child. But at the end of the day, a parent is there to parent. They’re there to oversee their child’s development into – hopefully – a thriving adult who’s got all the capacities to go on in the world. Using smartphones, unfortunately or fortunately – depending upon your viewpoint – is now a natural thing and, particularly in teenage years, that is what children do. So I think it comes down to everything in moderation and parents absolutely have the right to restrict screen time and in extreme circumstances actually take the smartphones away.
To get another perspective, we put the same comment to Michael Robb, Director of Research at Common Sense Media. His published research includes a focus on the impact of electronic media on young children. How would he respond?
Great question – I think one of the things that should be mentioned is that the word ‘addiction’ is kind of a tricky word in this conversation. In a sense that, there’s still plenty of disagreement about whether technology addiction is a new psychological disorder or a manifestation of another disorder, but also: How do you even measure it? How prevalent is it? There isn’t a widely accepted definition.
Usually when we talk about addiction, we’re talking about kids who are using technology so much that it’s really negatively impacting other parts of their life like: they are socially withdrawn, they are failing classes, not participating in activities that they used to take enjoyment out of.
Even if it’s not addiction, there is still the issue of when kids are using technology in problematic ways. Some of the things that we know are problematic are multi-tasking, for example. When we’re on our phones a lot, we’re often trying to multi-task between the device and other activities we’re engaged in, between our homework, between other people. That makes it very hard to engage with others, and even to make accurate memories of what you’re doing. So, the end result is that you end up not doing anything particularly well, because you’re trying to switch very quickly between multiple tasks.
Phone addiction, or problematic phone use, can take away time from the things that we know are important. Things like family time, and having time with friends, schoolwork and reading. Things we know from many years of child development research are healthy for children and teens. So, to the extent that phones are taking away from those things, that can be a problem.
One aspect that I’ll mention is that we have noticed in many surveys that problematic phone use can cause tension in families, in the sense that it can be the source of frequent daily arguments between parents and children about what is appropriate device use. That’s another issue when phones are being used too much.
Next up, we had a comment from Stella, who thinks we’re being too negative about technology such as mobile phones. She argues these technologies help us build a shared sense of community online, allowing for better access to information, expression of opinions, and communication with others. Is she right?
How would Dr. Mark Griffiths from Nottingham Trent University respond?
It’s all about moderation. I personally think the advantages of smartphones far outweigh the disadvantages. I’m actually an unusual person. I actually gave using up my mobile phone a number of years ago, and I’ve now learned to live without one. But – to be honest – particularly for most teenagers, this is absolutely essential in their day-to-day social armoury. I don’t think there’s any argument that there should be a ban or a prohibition on smartphones because, as I said, the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages.
The scientific research says that a very small minority seem to overuse their smartphones, particularly young people aged between 14-to-25 years. We’ve got teenagers, older adolescents and emerging adults who heavily use their smartphones. I think most of that use is what I call ‘habitual use’. It’s not ‘problematic use’, it’s just something that people get into a habit of doing, always looking at their mobile phones even when there hasn’t been a ‘ping’ or a beep to say there’s been a notification or a message. People still automatically look at their smartphone even if there’s no sound. It’s almost like a classically conditioned response.
I think more people pathologise use. For most people, their smartphone use is not pathological in any way, shape, or form. It’s just that, sometimes, excessive use is pathologised by people who don’t like mobile phones. I notice mobile phones when I’m in a restaurant or a pub, because I don’t have one myself. I’m actually very conscious when somebody else is looking at their mobile phone during mid-conversation, and that has led to this phrase ‘phubbing’, which is ‘phone snubbing’ and which goes on all the time. But that, in and of itself, is not an addiction and is not excessive.
I certainly think that in terms of the question asked, I do think there’s a lot of good things to say about mobile phones and I wouldn’t want to be in a position where they’re not around because for some people they’re life-savers and for some it’s part of their social armoury. I do think that the way social media operators use their psychological hooks to get people to look at their phones is something where the onus is on the social media operators rather than the individuals.
Finally, how would Michael Robb from Common Sense Media respond?
I think it really depends on how you use technology. You can use it to build communities and engage in discussions with friends, or communities of interest. It can absolutely be a really useful tool. Most people worried about technological use are worried about people wasting time, flicking through Instagram, Snapchat or Facebook, doing things that aren’t mentally or emotionally nourishing. But it is absolutely the case that many people of all ages use phones and technology to connect with communities of interest, and to develop their interests. Online activities can allow people to dive really deeply into things they are interested in.
Technology is also great for creativity, in the sense that we’ve seen from survey research that many teens really value the ability to express themselves using technology. I’d also say that when we think about technological use in teens, it’s very much an extension of how teens have always been in the sense that they’re using technology to do things that they would be doing without phones: to communicate with friends, to seek pure validation. I’ve heard the case made it’s not that kids are addicted to phones, necessarily; it’s that they’re addicted to their friends.
To that extent, when kids are using media and technology to socialise and communicate with friends, I think that can be a very positive thing. It’s when they’re using it to make negative social comparisons – seeing how other people are and insights into people’s lives, where it appears other people are always doing better things or living better than they are – that it can causeissues in relation to teens on cell phones.
Are you addicted to your mobile phone? Is phone addiction harming children, hurting their ability to form real relationships? Or are they actually enhancing our sense of community, by letting us communicate with people all over the world? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!
IMAGE CREDITS: © BigStock – Rawpixel.com; Portraits: Robb © Nicolas Smith, Griffiths © Nottingham Trent University.
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