Evaluating the Good & Evil of Cell Phones for Children, Teens & Adults

03/22/2017 08:59 pm ET Updated Jul 28, 2017

Louise Stanger is a speaker, educator, licensed clinician, social worker, certified daring way facilitator and interventionist who uses an invitational intervention approach to work with complicated mental health, substance abuse, chronic pain and process addiction clients.

The evolution of technology is primarily regarded as a positive tool for societal needs. We can now communicate more efficiently and frequently thanks to a myriad of technologically sophisticated products. Moreover, the increased capability of technology has allowed for products like FaceTime, Skype and video conferencing to connect friends, family and companies quickly, easily and inexpensively. Social media, texting and dating apps have provided us with the tools to connect, communicate and even find true love. Our ability to look up information at any point and at any time has provided us with an unending ability to answer questions. When was the last time you waited to look up a piece of needed information until you returned home??!

To better understand how technologies have evolved, I collaborated with Jim Holsomback, Director of Clinical Outreach and Marketing at Paradigm Malibu. Mr. Holsomback said that few technologies have evolved like the cell phone. What was once carried in a large, heavy bag and considered a cost prohibitive tool for emergencies has evolved into a device that can hold our personal, business and communication lives in the palm of our hands. Few things can turn our lives upside down than misplacing a cell phone. As all of the conveniences of cell phones have been celebrated and we are left wondering, "What did I ever do without my phone?", we are slowly learning that there are costs associated with constant access, non-verbal communication, and a reliance on our smartphone.

Let's start with some statistics. 19 out of 20 adults (or 95%) own a cell phone and those numbers now bridge income, race, education and gender. Even age is barely showing a significant difference, with 80 percent of seniors owning cell phones and 97% of 50-64 year olds packing a phone in their pocket. Of the 19 of 20 adults owning a cell phone, 16 of those adults have a smartphone rather than a non-data driven device.

We are also using our smartphones for pretty serious research, with adults reporting using their smartphones to get medical information (62%), complete online banking (57%), and even submitting a job application (18%).  Teens, on the other hand, report using their phones for avoidance of boredom/people or to have social connections through texting or social media. In fact, Pew Research shows that over 70% of teens aged 13 to 17 use Facebook, over 50% are on Instagram and Snapchat, and 24% of all teens surveyed said they go online “almost constantly.” But what happens when that boredom or social connection happens during the school day?

We know that attention is one of the primary casualties of cell phone use and that can be particularly true in the classroom. In fact, a student will perform worse on a test if the person next to them has a cell phone that they are using. The dilemma that schools often experience is finding a balance between the need to provide education on technological platforms that can deliver more dynamic and updated material versus the potential to perpetrate more reliance on the very technology that can contribute to distraction or, at its worst, digital dependence. For instance, many schools across the country have adopted the use of tablets and iPads for use in the classroom to enhance the students’ learning and engagement with the material. These schools are slowly learning the ins and outs of using digital devices as a tool for learning.

Some schools have tried to identify creative ways to limit cell phone use in schools while many have relied on the abstinence model of cell phone bans or 'phone check stops' where students hand in their digital devices prior to entering the classroom.  For schools that have tried to embrace the positives of cell phone use, the National Education Association has released a fantastic article documenting school and classroom tools that can help structure cell phone use in a productive manner.

Interestingly, much like the varied approaches and effectiveness that schools have tried related to cell phone usage, users themselves have reported contradictory information about their use. Cell phone users are most likely to report feeling 'productive' after using their phone, with younger users reporting the highest frequency of feeling distracted thanks to picking up their phone. Putting the age difference into context, that might make sense as younger folks tend to use their phones for texting, non-content social media like Instagram and for social connection. Younger users - born into an entrenched digital society - are also more likely to multitask with their phones, which is not a skill set that most people can effectively and productively complete. In fact, multitaskers tend to struggle filtering out irrelevant material, have increased distractibility and a shorter working memory. Yet, multitaskers also report being more productive because of their multitasking, which is strongly refuted by research.

So what next? Here are some recommendations and resources that can help parents, clinicians and academic leadership consider what is most effective for their children and themselves with regard to cell phone use. If you have additional resources that would be helpful, please email us so we can include them in our resource library. 

To learn more about Louise Stanger and her interventions and other resources, visit her website.

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