Why Smartphone Dependence Is Ravaging a Generation

08/21/2017 08:39 pm ET

When I meet with the parents of depressed and suicidal teens, I always ask them how these kids spend their days. For the past five years, parents’ responses have been so similar that I can be nearly certain of their reply: “In the bedroom on the phone.”

It’s clear to me as a child and adolescent psychologist that our kids’ immersion in a world of smartphones, social media, and gaming is contributing to their record rates of depression, self-cutting, and suicide. I have devoted much of my life to this mental health crisis, calling attention to the problem and offering solutions. My book Wired Child, Huffington Post articles I’ve authored, and talks I give around the nation highlight the need to shift our kids towards lives centered around family and school—not screens.

Jean Twenge’s recent Atlantic article “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” adds to the compelling evidence that smartphone and social media overuse is fueling kids’ soaring rates of loneliness and depression. But it’s vital to understand why the wired life poses risks, so that we can provide kids with positive alternatives.

What About the Wired Life Hurts Kids?

A lot of material about the dangers of kids’ smartphone use focuses on media content. “They made a secret Instagram page about me for people to say something mean,” 15-year-old Kelly told me. “Even the nice kids from my school said horrible things.” Such cyberbullying attacks are all too frequent, and they increase children’s risk of considering suicide.

Another content factor that creates mental health risks is FOMO, or the fear of missing out. Our kids are now treated to an endless scroll of “we’re-having-a-great-time-without-you” posts, which eats away at the self-esteem and joy of even the most confident youngsters.

However, I believe that a non-content factor—hiding in plain sight—is taking an even greater toll than content elements. Walk into any restaurant, airport, or waiting room; peek at the kid and parent in the car next to you; or better yet, visit the homes of families with preteens or teens. You will see kids so captivated by their digital devices that they do not engage with or even seem to be aware of their parents.

Today’s teens spend an incredible eight hours each day on their devices for entertainment. And I believe the displacement of family by these addictive devices is the most harmful consequence of kids’ phone and screen use. This distancing effect is obvious even when family members share the same room. As the father of 12-year-old Jenny told me, “We’ll sit down to dinner or go on family outings, but she’s always on her phone.”

Why We Let Our Kids Go

There is remarkably little recognition that kids are being pulled away from family, despite decades of research showing that a close bond with family is the single most important contributor to the well-being of children and teens. Why don’t we recognize this?

As Kristin, the mother of an 11-year-old daughter, acknowledged, “Life’s easier when my daughter’s on her phone. I can go about my day, and I get stuck on my phone, too.” At a time when parents are busier than ever and can become preoccupied with screens themselves, it’s tempting to look away from the costs of our kids’ wired lives.

The displacement of family by smartphones, video games, and social media is also dismissed with claims that the effect is no different now than in the past, when older generations glommed onto TV and the basic telephone. Yet, unlike these older devices, today’s technologies are purposefully designed by brain scientists to foster dependence and pull us away from our real lives. In a compelling TED talk, former Google product designer Tristan Harris revealed the black box of tricks that keep us—and our children—staring at our phones and screens for hours.

Still, I believe the primary reason we discount our kids’ overuse of technology is the common belief that preteens and teens are better served by connecting with peers than parents—and these peer connections are found mostly online. But this is a destructive myth, as parents have greater brain development than peers, allowing them to be more reasoned, empathetic, and therefore better able to care for kids. Throughout the vast majority of human history, the family unit has been charged with raising children. Even preteens and teens living on the 19th-century American frontier spent their days working, laughing, and crying alongside their parents and other family members, not peers.

Entrusting our kids’ well-being to the capricious and drama-filled world of peer relationships—made even harsher and more swiftly viral online—is a mistake of grand proportions. I have worked with countless young people who cut themselves or downed a half bottle of pills because their “best friends” turned on them and shared their most intimate thoughts with the entire school online. Sure, it’s great when kids have friends, and close ones at that. But it’s time that we parents fight for our kids by taking our rightful place as their primary loving guides.

Connecting a Wired-Up Generation with Family

Consider these steps to shift your kids away from destructive tech obsessions and towards the family they need:

  • Know what kids need most: When kids complain they’re “lonely,” recognize that this is often a cry for closer family ties, not peers.
  • Parent like a tech exec: Confidently set tech limits by knowing that industry insiders, including Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, set strong device limits on their own kids.
  • Power in numbers: I recommend parents come together at schools to talk about setting limits, as rules work better when shared by the community.
  • Help schools help kids: Heavy smartphone use doesn’t only impair kids’ emotional health, it also hinders academic success. So, encourage your child’s school to have students put their phones away during the school day.
  • Delay smartphone use: Take the “Wait Until the 8th” pledge, which is a nationwide movement to push back the age when kids get smartphones.
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