Hot Topics     Teen Health    

Smartphones steal your teen’s joy



Here’s how parents can help them reclaim it

Smartphones steal your teen’s joy


Excessive smartphone use puts children, teens, and tweens at risk for depression and anxiety, wrecks their sleep, hampers their social skills, and more, says student wellbeing activist David Magee. Here are some of the dangers, and more importantly, some things parents can do to keep their children safe. 


It’s no secret that our teens are addicted to their smartphones. According to a Common Sense Media survey, they rack up more than seven hours of daily screen time. Most teenagers would rather be texting or scrolling their social media feeds instead of spending time in the “real” world.

“Smartphones have changed children’s lives forever, but not necessarily for the better,” says Magee, author of the book Things Have Changed: What Every Parent (and Educator) Should Know About the Student Mental Health and Substance Misuse Crisis and founder of the William Magee Institute for Student Wellbeing and the William Magee Center for AOD and Wellness Education at the University of Mississippi. “These devices are the gateway to your child’s weak spots. Over time they steal their joy and set them up for problems they aren’t equipped to handle.”

They rob children of vital sleep. Smartphone use disrupts sleep in many ways, yet children routinely sacrifice a good night’s rest so they can scroll. One study showed that use of electronic screens before bedtime results in longer time to fall asleep and decreased evening sleepiness, reduced melatonin secretion, circadian clock delay, reduced amount and delay in rapid eye movement sleep, and reduced next-morning alertness. Further, a Stanford University study concluded that once asleep, more than 60 percent of teens keep their smartphone on and within reach, and by 2019 more than one-third were waking up at night to check their device.

 

“Lack of sleep creates a domino effect,” says Magee. “Children and teens who don’t sleep are more at risk for symptoms of ADHD, rollercoaster emotions and impulses, increased anxiety and depression, and angry outbursts. This can lead to use of prescription medications when in fact, what is needed is more routine quality sleep.”

 

Smartphones stunt children’s social skills. As children and teens opt to spend more time online and less time engaging in face-to-face interactions, their budding social skills suffer. There’s even a name—“phubbing”—to describe the act of ignoring the person one is with to look at one’s smartphone. One study showed that even the presence of phones on a table caused participants to feel more distracted and have lower enjoyment during social interactions compared with those who put their phones away.

 

Social media apps fuel body image issues and disordered eating—particularly among girls. Social media portrays an idealized version of life that most people cannot live up to (often including the influencers putting their too perfect to be real lives on display). Apps like Instagram feature filters that change the appearance of influencers and lead young people to have an unrealistic perception of what normal bodies look like. This can fuel disordered eating and body dissatisfaction. A systematic review of 20 studies showed that social media use was associated with disordered eating and body image concerns.


“In my extended family, several battle or have battled eating disorders and body image,” says Magee. “Each can talk for hours about triggers and negative feelings they get from social media. It’s also safe to say that every female in my extended family has expressed significant anxiety related to social media, Instagram in particular, at one point or another. That’s not to suggest it’s a female-only issue. Of course not. But there’s no denying females suffer more.”

 

For young males, eating disorders can be harder to detect because they might involve getting too thin, but it’s frequently about achieving a “perfect sculpted body.” The Child Mind Institute calls this manifestation “reverse anorexia” or “bigorexia.”


READ MORE: What to do if technology is affecting your kids’ sleep

 

Smartphones have become the primary tools for purchasing substances…Those searching for or even glancing at drug-related content show up in recommended follows to the pushers, thanks to the algorithm, and the pushers send chats in response. It’s not what they asked for, but that’s how social media takes advantage of users—one’s curiosity can gain unintended momentum.

 

From there, children can purchase drugs at the push of a button. It works like this: The drug dealer and prospective client exchange messages on platforms like WhatsApp or Snapchat. The buyer “orders” their preferred substances and the dealer instructs the buyer to make a food order through a delivery app such as Door Dash. Their food delivery arrives along with the buyer’s drug of choice.

 

…And for viewing pornography. They often initially discover it accidentally—often at a far younger age than most parents would hope—and then become frequent viewers. (Some studies show teens to be the most significant consumers of online porn in America.)

 

This news may sound grim, but don’t despair, says Magee. Parents can work with their child to find a happy medium surrounding their smartphone and social media use. Read on for some advice on helping your children keep their texting, chatting, and scrolling in check.


Delay getting your child their first phone as long as possible. There is no “right” age recommendation for giving a child their first smartphone. Only you know your child’s maturity level, what they can handle, and what’s right for them. But Magee and other experts recommend holding off as long as possible. For example, the non-profit Wait Until 8th urges parents to wait until children are in the eighth grade before giving them a smartphone.

 

Work with your children to set reasonable limits on phone use. Have an open and honest conversation with your child to figure out how much access they can have to their smartphones. Also establish times the whole family will “unplug” to enjoy time together, for example at mealtimes or during a weekly “family night.”


READ MORE: You can get your kids’ screen habits under control

 

Keep the phone away from the bed. Instead of preaching and pressuring your child to “get off the phone and go to sleep,” engage them in a conversation about the importance of sleep and its benefits. Help them recognize that smartphone use is an obstacle to a good night’s rest, and that bed is not for homework or social time, but for sleeping.

 

Silence nonessential notifications. No one can focus near a smartphone that’s constantly beeping or vibrating. Remind your children to silence the notifications on their social media apps so incoming messages are less distracting while they are doing other activities. 

 

Set a good example by checking your own smartphone use. One study reveals that four in 10 children worry their parents are addicted to their devices. If this sounds like you, it’s time to make some changes around your own phone use. Remember, your children are watching and learning from you.

 

Help your child embrace their life in the “real world.” When your child’s life is full of healthy activities and strong relationships, they will be less tempted to escape into their social media apps.

 

“With the right support, your children can build a healthy relationship with their smartphones and social media feeds,” concludes Magee. “After all, there are benefits to being able to connect with friends and family and having access to a world of information. Keep the conversation going around responsible use of their devices as they grow. Soon they will be making their own smart decisions that you can be proud of.” 

David Magee is the best-selling author of "Things Have Changed: What Every Parent (and Educator) Should Know About the Student Mental Health and Substance Misuse Crisis" and "Dear William: A Father’s Memoir of Addiction, Recovery, Love, and Loss"—a Publisher’s Weekly bestseller, named a Best Book of the South, and featured on CBS Mornings—and other nonfiction books. A changemaker in student and family mental health and substance misuse, he’s a creator of the William Magee Institute for Student Wellbeing at the University of Mississippi and a frequent K–12 and university educational and motivational speaker, helping students and parents find and keep their joy. Learn more at www.daviddmagee.com.


"Things Have Changed: What Every Parent (and Educator) Should Know About the Student Mental Health and Substance Misuse Crisis" (Matt Holt, August 2023, ISBN: 978-1-6377439-6-6, $22.00) is available at bookstores nationwide and from major online booksellers.



Other articles by HVP News Reporters


  • Residential refresh

    Personalized touches for your home

    Your home is an expression of you, your personality, and your lifestyle. When it comes to personalizing your home’s aesthetic, try leaning into your senses to inspire change within your space. read more »
  • An elevated sandwich for any occasion

    Your family is going to love this

    They might not be the fanciest of foods, but when you eat a filling, protein-packed sandwich, you are usually left satisfied and full of energy. From ham and turkey to mayo and mustard, the possibilities are nearly endless when sandwiches are on the menu. read more »
  • Graduation party planning

    5 tips to make yours awesome

    Graduation marks the end of one chapter and the beginning of another, a significant milestone worth celebrating. However, planning a graduation party can be overwhelming. read more »
  • Know as they grow

    How birth defects affect each stage of life

    Birth defects, structural changes that affect one or more parts of the body, are the leading cause of infant mortality. A baby is born with a birth defect every 4.5 minutes, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC). read more »
  • Almost two-thirds of home fires are due to human error

    Here's how to prepare

    The threat of a home fire is greater than most people think. 40% of people believe they are more likely to win the lottery or get struck by lightning than experience a home fire, yet residential fires are the most common disaster people face in the United States, according to the American Red Cross. read more »
  • How to erase negative self-talk and feel better

    Writing can help

    It’s been four years since the collective trauma of the pandemic created widespread grief, anxiety, and isolation, but the psychological wounds of this period have not fully healed. read more »
  • 7 ways to reduce energy bills during summer heat

    Don't let your budget get smoked during a heat wave

    With temperatures forecasted to run at least 2 degrees higher than historical averages across more than half the country, according to projections from AccuWeather, heat waves may lead to soaring air-conditioning bills this summer. read more »
  • Celebrate Father's Day with exciting outdoor activities

    5 ideas for a day of fun for the special guy in your life

    A thoughtful card or personalized gift can go a long way on Father’s Day, but what many dads (and grandpas) want on their special day is time spent with loved ones. read more »
  • Preparing for your first pet

    5 tips for new pet owners

    Welcoming a new pet into your family can be an exciting addition, but preparation is required to provide a loving home and enjoy the unconditional love of a four-legged family member. read more »
  • Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy 101

    What every student-athlete should know

    Heart conditions may be more often associated with older individuals, but you might be surprised to learn hypertrophic cardiomyopathy is the most common condition responsible for sudden cardiac death in young athletes. In fact, it’s the cause of 40% of sudden cardiac death cases. read more »