Today’s teens are the first generation to grow up with electronics. Most have never known a time when computers, tablets, cell phones, and video games weren’t a part of their lives.
Many are concerned about this always-connected lifestyle. Parents, educators, child psychologists–even teens themselves.
So, how serious is the problem? What are the facts and what are fears? And more importantly, what can we do about it?
Too Much Tech
According to a Common Sense Media report, teens spend an average of nine hours a day using technology, excluding work for school. A full 45% of teens in one study admit they are online “almost constantly”.
Even before diving into the research, common sense tells us this can’t be a good thing.
Too much time with technology can interfere with school, relationships, family time, and sleep habits. It has been linked to stress, loneliness, depression, poor physical health, obesity, family conflict, and delayed launch in young adults.
Even teens themselves recognize the problem. 54% of U.S. teens in a Pew Research study reported that they think they spend too much time on their phones. 56% said they felt anxious or upset without them. And a full 9 out of 10 believe that spending too much time using technology is a serious problem facing their generation.
Mental Health Impact
As we’ve discussed here before, our kids are not OK. One in five youth between the ages of nine and 17 struggle with a mental health disorder. Anxiety, depression, and suicide attempts are at all-time highs.
This decline has mirrored the increased use of smartphones and other tech, and it would be foolish to discount the correlation between the two, according to SDSU Professor Jean Twenge, author of iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood — and What That Means for the Rest of Us.
Practitioners who work with teens report a myriad of negative mental health impacts from technology use, such as dysregulation, hyper-arousal, mood disorders, increased ADHD, anxiety, depression, and loneliness. Often, multiple conditions appear together.
A systematic review of current research found that the more teens use social media, the more likely they are to experience isolation and poor mental health. Understandably, those who had more negative social interactions online experienced the highest levels of depression and anxiety. Teens who already struggle with comparison, self-esteem, and making connections are the most vulnerable.
Physical Health Impact
Carpal tunnel and tendonitis in the thumb are caused by overusing the hand to swipe, type, and click.
The blue light emitted by screens seriously disturb the body’s natural circadian rhythm, which can lead to insomnia, slower information processing and mental fog.
Probably the biggest health effect of technology use is the increase in sedentary lifestyles. Not only are teens not getting the needed amount of physical movement required to stay healthy, but they are reaping the consequences of sitting too long. Sitting has been dubbed the “new smoking”, and for good reason.
Sitting for extended periods slows the metabolism by 90%, impairs calorie-burning and insulin processing. Good cholesterol drops 20% after just two hours of sitting still. Weight problems are the obvious result, but so are hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes, and other illnesses.
Addiction or Not?
“Technology addiction” (also referred to as Internet addiction, media use disorder or Internet use disorder, among other things) is a broad term used to describe any obsessive tech-related behavior—be that gaming, watching Youtube, scrolling social media, online shopping, and the like.
Whether excessive technology use rises to the level of an actual addiction is cause for some controversy.
Some experts say it does, pointing to the reports that gaming and social media have the same effect on the brain as cocaine and other drugs. The argument is, repeatedly experiencing this “high” may bring on chemical changes in the brain, including changes to the brain’s white matter, disrupting neural pathways related to emotions, decision-making, and self control
But technology addiction differs from traditional addictions in significant ways.
True addiction leads to chemical changes which create dependency, requiring more and more of the drug of choice in order to be able to function.
Teens, even those who consume technology nearly constantly, can put down the phone and walk away, even if they don’t want to.
While it’s true that using technology activates the same pleasure centers of the brain that drugs do, so do other pleasurable—and perfectly healthy—activities, such as running, eating, and kissing.
Some experts point to the possibility that an unhealthy obsession with video games may be a sign of an underlying mental health issue or ADHD, rather than being an addiction.
Others point to the positive benefits technology use. Teens who struggle making friends in real life often use social media and digital platforms to make connections and find a sense of belonging.
Even the Common Sense Media study concluded, “What looks like excessive use and distraction is actually a reflection of new ways of maintaining peer relations and engaging in communities that are relevant to them.” Another expert cautioned against “pathologizing normal adolescent behavior.”
Regardless of whether the overuse of technology rises to the level of an “addiction” in the clinical sense, and acknowledging the positive side to smart phones and the Internet, the use and overuse of technology can be deeply problematic. The stakes are too high and the data too damning to ignore.
In our next blog, we’ll offer strategies curb technology use, and to help the whole family develop healthier media habits.