Are We Losing Our Kids to Social Media?

Smartphones have made it infinitely easier (and harder) to live in our world

When Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone on June 29, 2007, he couldn’t have anticipated the tidal wave he was about to unleash on the world.

To be sure, Jobs was a technological visionary. He recognized the potential power of combining into one device, an internet-connected cell phone with a mini-computer capable of hosting email, playing music, surfing the web and a crude digital camera that meant people could share selfies the instant they heard the shutter click. Perfect for the generation of instant gratification.

Jobs would have been hard-pressed to anticipate the raw power of something as compact as the smartphone and its long-term impact on society and human behavior. Particularly our kids.

Just the facts ma’am, just the facts

You’ll get no argument from me. Smartphones have made it infinitely easier to live in our world without being tethered to a PC at home or the office. Studies show:

  • 83% percent of adults occasionally use a smartphone, tablet or other mobile device
  • 54% of adults do not use any type of mobile technology.
  • 11% percent of adults report not going online at all.

But that’s not including the smartphone’s biggest users: our children.

According to the Pew Research Center[1], more than 77% of the American population goes online on a daily basis. While 11% of adults report that they go online several times a week, 26% admit that they’re online almost constantly. That figure is up 21% from the Center’s 2015 survey.

Compared to adults, younger smartphone users’ behavior is staggering. Nearly half of American teens[2]between 18 to 29 years of age confess to being online constantly. That’s double what it was three years ago. Pew Research interviewed 1,058 parents of teens between 13 to 17 years of age and 743 teens between March 7, to April 10, 2018. Between the parents’ and teens’ responses, they reported 45% were online almost constantly; up nearly 25% from their 2015 study. Use by adults aged 50–64 has risen slightly from 12% to 17%. But, American teens are another thing, altogether.

While their parents are away at the office monitoring their email and other business-related apps, 35% of teens say they spend most of their time on Snapchat and YouTube, with Instagram following a close third. Of those, 30% report that social media had a mostly positive impact on their lives. Twenty-four percent say the result has been mostly negative and 45% surveyed say that it had neither a positive, nor a negative effect on their life.

[1] Pew Research Center: About a quarter of U.S. adults say they are ‘almost constantly’ online, March 14, 2008

[2] Nearly half of American teens are online ‘almost constantly’: https://www.recode.net/2018/5/31/17406272/teen-constantly-online-half-america-pew-research-study

There is life without computers

Long before personal computers and smartphones, my family spent summers vacationing on the road. A dyed-in-the-wool fisherman, my dad packed up his family, house trailer, boat and tons of fishing equipment, heading for the great outdoors. Sometimes we’d drive more than 3,000 miles in search of sockeye salmon and steelhead trout. Sometimes we’d just go across town.

My brother and I were too young to be great fishermen, but those vacations still supplied us with infinite opportunities to learn about beaches, rivers, lakes, the wilderness and its inhabitants. Things we could never experience at home. We thoroughly enjoyed those experiences even without posting videos of ourselves on YouTube or sending selfies with our smartphone; largely because they hadn’t been invented yet. We wouldn’t see an iPhone or iPad for another 50 years.

Instead of focusing our attention on social media and wondering what our friends were doing at home, we had no choice but to live in the moment; that state of consciousness that requires you to open your eyes, breathe deep and take everything in. From the moment we stepped out of our tent, we were overcome by our surroundings: snow-capped mountains, rushing streams, incredible fragrances and the sounds of birds and wild animals on their way to work.

After a month in the wilderness, we’d pack up our belongings and head back home to the city, loaded with memories and experiences that we couldn’t wait to verbally share with our friends.

My brother and I were lucky enough to live in a loving, stable family that strived to provide their kids with positive experiences and parents that were always around. Other kids weren’t as fortunate.

The birth of a new type of family

When California Governor Ronald Reagan signed the nation’s first no-fault divorce bill in 1969, he eliminated the need for couples to fabricate creative excuses for fault-based divorce. Fifteen years later, virtually every state in the union followed suit.

From 1960 to 1980, divorce rates doubled. While less than 20% of couples that were married in 1950 resulted in divorce, more than 50% of couples married in 1970 ended prematurely. As divorce rates skyrocketed, latchkey kids with computers and internet access began creating their own alternative families using social media to take the place of their missing parents. Trapped at home with nowhere to go, kids began creating new social friends to take the place of the family they’d been denied. All without venturing from the comfort of their bedroom.

When the internet was unleashed to the masses on August 6, 1991, few anticipated the impact it would have on humanity; especially children. Kids left behind at home started to isolate in their bedrooms. Eventually, they began feeling more comfortable holed up by themselves, than anywhere else in the world. On the positive side, kids hanging out in their rooms are less likely to experiment with sex, drugs and alcohol or get injured in automobile accidents. But, studies have shown that isolating teens has caused rates of depression and suicide to skyrocket, causing the worst mental health crisis in years.

Baby boomers meet GenXers

As a baby boomer (kids born between the mid-1940s and 1964), I never had the choice whether or not to stay glued to my iPhone — I simply didn’t own one. Millennials (born between the early 1980s and mid-1990s), were the first generation to make conscious decisions about how to use the technology thrust into their hands. They were the first generation to live in the midst of idevices and the internet. Many had their own smartphones and Instagram accounts before they started high school and can’t remember a time when the internet wasn’t there.

Baby boomers experienced the same gravitational pull toward independence as their parents. For most, the allure of hanging out with friends — without their parents — was always present. Just the thrill of being able to party at the roller rink, cavorting, drinking and smoking cigarettes was enough. Every kid approaching the magic age of 16 hounded their parents for driving lessons and the keys to their mother’s Plymouth.

But, unlike previous generations, Generation Xers (those born between the early to mid-1960s to the early 1980s) and Millennials, the lure of independence held far less importance. Eighty-five percent of senior high school baby boomers went out on dates. Compare that with seniors graduating in 2015: less than 56% were interested in dating. They were more comfortable hanging out in their bedrooms, perusing social media than physically socializing with others. The same trend applies to sexual activity. There has been a 40% drop in sexually active teens since 1991.

Make no mistake. Kids do hang out together; just not in person. They’re more interested in maintaining virtual relationships through Snapchat, Facebook and Instagram than physical relationships. And, it comes with a price. Teens using social media apps are more aware of being left out of social circles. Forty-eight percent of young girls complain about being left out of social circles, compared to 27% for boys.

Teens complain about the prevalence of cyberbullying. There are even social media apps to provide a place for middle and high school-age girls to follow through with aggressive behavior, twenty-four hours a day. Behavior they might not have felt comfortable following through, face to face.

Across the board, the introduction of the smartphone has changed the way young people socialize with others. Irrespective of socio-economic or ethnic backgrounds, their decision to remain secluded, building online relationships will not only affect the rest of their lives, but also their families and co-workers.

The anatomy of an addict’s brain

While some parents might be inclined to simply chalk up this new phenomenon as just being a kid, there’s plenty of evidence to support that being constantly online physically damages children’s brains. Research has shown that continued use of smartphones and other smart devices permanently rewires the brain. Much like Pavlov’s dog, every time your smartphone pings, rings or vibrates, it reinforces a heightened sense of hypervigilance, stimulating the brain’s reward center, followed by a quick shot of dopamine.

Dopamine is the neurotransmitter responsible for transmitting signals between the neurons of the brain. It’s also the chemical associated with pleasure. Increased levels of dopamine can cause a variety of symptoms and neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, attention deficit disorder, psychosis, and schizophrenia. Drug addicts and alcoholics are intimately familiar with dopamine; it’s the chemical responsible for addiction.

Certain drugs and activities are known for stimulating dopamine production, reinforcing the body’s cravings for more. When the stimulus stops, it leaves the afflicted with a sense of depression, craving for more. The strength and duration of dopamine release stimulated by extended screen time causes major changes in the brain. It’s one reason why cocaine and methamphetamine addicts get hooked so quickly. Young children literally become addicted to their smart devices; even while playing so-called educational games that encourage kids to continue playing, long after they’ve lost interest in them.

Peter Whybrow, Director of the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA calls smart device use electronic cocaine, that fuels periods of mania, followed by stretches of depression.

“There’s just something about the medium that’s addictive,” says Elias Aboujaoude, director of the Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Clinic and Impulse Control Disorders Clinic. “I’ve seen plenty of patients who have no history of addictive behavior or substance abuse of any kind become addicted via the internet and these other technologies.”

Smart devices and chronic internet use has been linked to:

  • Lack of creativity
  • Impatience
  • Forgetfulness
  • Narcissism
  • Loneliness
  • Depression
  • Obsessive compulsive disorder
  • Anxiety
  • Addiction
  • Attention deficit disorder

We know from brain scans that people addicted (anyone who’s online more than 38 hours a week) to smart devices are affected in the same way as addicts.

The impact of smartphones

Use of smartphones is directly linked to insomnia and other sleep disorders. More than 60% of 18 to 29-year-olds report taking their smartphones to bed. Fifty-seven percent more teens reported being sleep deprived in 2015, compared to 1991 figures. Studies have shown that smart device use two-hours before bedtime significantly inhibits the release of melatonin — the hormone responsible for falling asleep. That, coupled with the light emitted from devices’ screens, can confuse the body into thinking that it’s not yet time for sleep. The resulting sleep deprivation can be linked to a variety of physical and psychological issues including compromised thought processes, reasoning, weight gain, high blood pressure and a preponderance to depression and anxiety.

The ease of asking Siri or Alexa, “What is the capitol of California?” is negatively impacting long and short-term memory loss. By depending on our smart devices to solve snap memory decisions, they limit our brain’s ability to sustain pathways responsible for decision making and learning.

Over time, repeated stimuli from the reward center in the brain diminishes the areas used for concentration, impulse control and empathy, effectively creating the brain of an addict. As a result, young children obsessed with screen time become angry, depressed and unmotivated, unable to focus on homework and social relationships with their families and other students at school.

The average teen sends and receives more than 3,700 text messages a month. That’s 123 messages a day. Most of these are associated with a ring, buzz or vibration that causes teens to be hypervigilant. Even when not notified of new incoming messages, teens often report phantom vibrations; events that don’t actually occur.

Chronic smart device use has finally made it into mainstream medicine. In 2012, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders listed constant use of smartphones as internet use disorder. “It’s this basic cultural recognition that people have a pathological relationship with their devices,” says Stanford University psychologist Kelly McGonigal. “People feel not just addicted, but trapped.”

Parents frequently complain that their children exist in a trance; commonly referred to as flow experience in psychology circles. But, it’s not unique to recent technology. It’s been observed for years in children who binge on television, play video games or get engrossed with their toys. The difference, however, is the way children experience playtime. With toys like blocks and Legos, the child makes a conscious decision when to stop playing. Contrast that with onscreen apps and video games, the game decides when play time is over. Tech companies are constantly on the prowl for ways to engage young users for longer periods of time, hoping that they’ll fall victim to online consumer advertising.

The negative impact of constantly being online isn’t simply relegated to compromised concentration. It’s significantly impacting the safety and welfare of our children. Child psychotherapist Julie Lynn Evans has blamed a radical increase in the number of child suicides on smartphone use. Back in the 1990s, she would typically deal with one or two suicides a year. These days, she deals with 4 a month. “There are difficult chat rooms, self-harming websites, anorexia websites, pornography, and a whole invisible world of dark places. In real life, we travel with our children. When they are connected via their smartphone to the web, they usually travel alone,” she says.

Social skills are noticeably missing by children who spend an inordinate amount of time on their smartphones. According to Dr. Jenny Radesky, a pediatrician who specializes in child development, “Children learn by watching us how to have a conversation, how to read other people’s facial expressions. If that’s not happening, children are missing out on important development milestones.”

What smartphones are doing to us

The message is clear. Teens who spend inordinate amounts of time online, focused on their smart devices, tend to be more removed from society and significantly unhappier, compared to their classmates. Eighth-graders captured by their smartphones are 56% more likely to be unhappy than those who choose not to engage social media.

But, it isn’t just the amount of time children spend online. Rather, it’s the quality of their experiences that’s responsible for declining happiness. Teens electing to engage in online friendships through social media, instead of physical relationships are responsible for them reporting, “A lot of times I feel lonely,” “I often feel left out of things,” or “I often wish I had more good friends.”

The amount of time that teens spend online is directly linked to symptoms of depression. Heavy usage of social media by teens increases their risk of depression by 27%, compared to their classmates who play sports, and other activities. Even doing homework.

There is a solution

Clearly, being the parent of children using cell phones and other smart media can be one the biggest challenges in parenting. On one hand, you want to have loving, caring relationships with your kids, but you are parents — not their friends. On the other hand, kids are now faced with FOMO: fear of missing out. Setting up realistic, mutually consensual agreements can make it easier for everyone.

Once upon a time, there were no cell phones, iPads or even the internet. Try sharing your experiences of those days with your children and emphasize how important it is to set aside time to socialize with family, friends and others at school — in person, offline. I’m not talking about forcing your kids to use the yellow pages instead of Google, but it’s important for them to learn that there are lots of way to navigate the world without smartphones.

One of the best resources for understanding appropriate use of smartphones is your child’s school. School administrators have been through this before and likely have dozens of great solutions for you. They’ll also be able to provide you with written instructions about school policies and cell phones. Take them home and be ready to produce them if your child tries to stretch their boundaries with their cell phone.

If you’re not sure how to go about setting up guidelines, try downloading a sample cell phone contract[1]. Make sure that both you and your child sign it, indicating that you both agree to the guidelines. It will make it easier when conflicts arise. Consider downloading and using apps like Moment that monitor your child’s app usage. Be sure to let them know ahead of time that you’re using it. If you try to install it without your child’s awareness, you’re opening the door for conflict from the start. Most cell phones have built-in GPS software. Make sure your child understands that you have the power to monitor their location, but you won’t use it unless absolutely necessary.

Consider installing Circle[2] or OurPact[3] to monitor how your child uses their cell phone. Again, be sure you’re above board by letting them know ahead of time you’re installing it.

Prudent families insist on spelling out specific cell phone usage hours; say between 7:00 am and 9:00 pm, with longer hours on the weekend. Outside those hours, their cell phone goes on a shelf for recharging. Be sure they turn off all alarms and alert messaging. Sending them off to bed without their cell phone solves two problems: it heads off potential sleep issues and shows kids there are alternative ways to do things — you know, like using an alarm clock instead of an app — just the way you woke up when you were their age.

One of the most important places to ban cell phone usage is at the dinner table; actually, all meals. The entire family, including parents, should be required to put their phone in a cell phone basket in another room. It spares your family from incessant interruptions and provides simple, quality time with your kids; something hard to find these days.

Mark Love, a woodworker who lives just outside of Austin, Texas, was frustrated with the amount of time his children spent online, so he created a be present box with three instructions. Instructions #1 and #2 are printed on the inside of the box: insert phone, close lid. On the outside of the lid, #3 reads, Be present.

Until your child understands basic use guidelines, you might want to consider purchasing a cell phone plan for them with limited usage. Just like money, they’ll learn how to budget their cell phone use and face the consequences when they go over. After they’ve demonstrated that they can follow your guidelines, consider having them purchase their own plan with their own money.

Encourage your kids to set aside no cell phone periods, during exercise, playing baseball, doing chores, going to movies and other times when access to cell phones might not be critical. It will help them understand that in most cases, there’s no downside to missing a call, text or email. They’ll still be there in an hour when they go back on line.

In closing

Ironically, Steve Jobs’ goal of being more connected with the world has left all of us, particularly teens, feeling more isolated. After spending more than 11 hours a day glued to their smartphones, teens are often more anxious and depressed than those who have managed to still do things the old-fashioned way.

The key to responsibly using smart technology begins by asking yourself, “How do I see technology working in my life? How can technology improve the quality of the relationships in my family?”

As my grandfather used to say, “That horse has already left the barn.” Cell phones and smart technology are here to stay. They’re likely to evolve into even smarter, more indispensable directions. As they do, it’s important that we discover mature ways to use them, instead of the other way around.

Allen Smith is an award-winning writer living in Oceanside, California and has published thousands of articles for print, the web and social media.