03/01/2012 12:36 pm ET

Digital Withdrawl: 'I'm A Teenage Tech Addict!'

About the authors: Alexander is a junior at the British School of Chicago and John Mederich is a senior at Mather High School. Both are reporters for The Mash, a weekly teen publication distributed to Chicagoland high schools.

Her alarm goes off and the first thing that Andrea Prada, a sophomore at Walter Payton, does is check her cellphone for messages. At school, she’s groggy from her Facebook-filled hours the night before. She gets ready for class, taking the necessities out of her bag: her books, notes and, of course, her cellphone. She spends some of the class time exchanging texts and updating her Facebook.

With the popularity of smartphones, more teens are like Prada, who feels the need to be digitally connected at all times. In fact, in a 2011 survey done by Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, 95 percent of all teens ages 12 to 17 go online, and 80 percent of those teens use social media sites. Ninety-three percent have Facebook accounts and 41 percent of teen social media users have multiple accounts.

Additionally, the number of teen Twitter users has doubled: 16 percent now use Twitter, up from 8 percent in late 2009.

The constant updates and notifications from Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites make it difficult to unplug. In fact, even though a lot of schools don’t allow cellphone use while in class, some teens can’t help but sneak a casual tweet, status update or a text message.

“Students try to hide their phones under their desks all the time,” said Sarina Riley, a math teacher at Palatine. “Also, more than once, I’ve had students claim they weren’t using a phone in class but while denying it, the phone falls on the floor.”

Some students come up with excuses to get out of class to use their phones. “I’ve asked to go to the nurse (so I could) text before, but I didn’t really go to the nurse,” said Kelly Miller, a sophomore at Elgin.

Charlton Kilpatrick, a senior at Benito Juarez, went above and beyond to sneak his phone inside school. “Back in my sophomore year, I snuck my phone in as a biscuit sandwich in the morning,” he said. “I covered it in (a) brown napkin and put it in between the biscuit buns.

“I would simply come to school and put my lovely cup of orange juice and tasty ‘Bisquick biscuit’ sandwich on top of the metal detector and walk right through.”

But are these things enough to qualify someone as a tech addict? Dr. Hilarie Cash, partner and executive director at reSTART Internet Addiction Recovery Center in Seattle, thinks so.

“If you as a student have your phone on in class and you find yourself texting and don’t listen to the teacher, then it gets in the way of being a good student,” she said. “This is an example of a mild addiction. A nonaddict would put the phone away and an addict wouldn’t.”

Mark Sanders, a licensed clinical social worker and certified addiction counselor at Governors State University, categorizes this digital addiction in three stages: increased tolerance, where a teen may start with one to two hours a night on Facebook, which transforms to all night; loss of control, when teens may believe that they have a grasp on their digital addiction, but the truth is they don’t; and continuous activity in spite of adverse consequences.

Too much of anything is never good, and when school work, social life or family time suffer because of dependence on one thing, that’s addiction, Sanders said. “I’ve seen teens that have failed classes, been suspended and even expelled and (still) have continued their abuse of technology,” Sanders said.

Cash adds that problems at home and insecurity also contribute to digital addiction. “Digital media operates through a behavioral principle called ‘unpredictable reward,’ “ she said. “If you think about texting and someone texts you and you’re like, ‘Oooh, someone texted me!’ It’s that unpredictability that hooks us. And when you have all these uncomfortable feelings, and you have all these rewards within digital realms, that really is the perfect storm for digital addiction.”

But to some, using the term “addiction” is too extreme. “I use my phone when I’m bored at school and ... at home,” said Amber Colon, a Lincoln Park junior. “Sometimes (it) stems from just being bored.”

Sanders said teens should channel their free time into face-to-face interactions. Locking themselves inside all day with their gadgets won’t cure their problems, he said.

“Teens need to be connected with things within their school (such as) academic clubs in order to build many social relationships,” Sanders said. He adds that another tip for getting over one’s addiction is simple moderation, such as trying to cut down the hours of Facebook usage.

Cash adds that digital addiction contributes to stress levels. Imagining that your phone is ringing or beeping, or being afraid to leave your phone even for a second for fear of missing any messages can be destructive. “My phone has my whole life in it,” said Zena Salam, a Niles West senior. “If I ever lost it, I think I would die.”

And although the American Psychiatric Association doesn’t formally recognize Internet addiction or cellphone addiction, Cash believes it is one.

“When we’re so dependent that we continue to use something even when it’s having a negative impact on us, then we say it has crossed the line to addiction,” she said. “(Teens) ... never have to pause and just look inward and even look into their thoughts and feelings because they are always distracted.”

Jessenia Martinez of Juarez and Emma Goodwin of Palatine contributed.

Students and Teachers sound off:

What’s the sneakiest thing you’ve done to use your phone at school?

“I’ve sat in a bathroom stall to text, and whenever we use the computers at school, I always use those weird sites where you can go on Facebook.”
—Erin Traci, junior, St. Viator

“I have really long hair so I would just wrap my hair in a bun before I got to school and hide (my phone) in my hair. Whenever the (metal) detectors beeped, they couldn’t find my phone...”
—Maggie Trujillo, senior, Benito Juarez

“Some kids run their ear buds through their sleeves so they can listen to their music.”
—Mike Riedy, math teacher, Prospect

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