We have one within ten minutes of waking up. Some of us before we’ve even gotten out of bed. It’s the last thing we do before we go to sleep. We use it as a break from work. We use it as a way to step away from a social gathering for a minute or to enter a new social group. It gives us something to do with our hands. It gives us a dopamine rush. If we go too long without it, we panic. We feel off. And, for teenagers, the sentiment is, if you’re not doing it, you’re not cool.
They may not leave an unpleasant odor on our clothes or increase our risk for lung cancer, but smart phones do act a lot like cigarettes in a lot of other significant ways. But the biggest difference between cigarettes and smart phones is that smart phones might be literally impossible to quit.
Everybody’s Doing It
According to the PEW Research Center, 92% of Americans own some kind of mobile phone. 68% own a smart phone. In the 18-29 age group, smart phone ownership is at 86%. For teens, smart phone ownership is practically ubiquitous, considered a necessity. 20% of Americans today are “smartphone only” internet users, meaning they access the internet using only their smart phone, foregoing a traditional broadband service.
A 2016 report issued by Common Sense Media found that 50% of teens felt “addicted” to mobile devices, and 59% of their parents agreed their kids were addicted. Parents and children alike admitted concern for the effects mobile device use had on their daily lives, from doing homework, to driving, to interacting with the family, and over a third said they argued about it daily. 72% of teens reported they felt the need to immediately respond to texts or other notifications, and 78% of teens said they check their device at least hourly.
Like smoking, overuse of smart phones can come with a host of emotional and physical problems. Prolonged staring at a screen can cause eye and neck pain, body fatigue, and insomnia. Spending too much time on phones has been said to lead to anxiety, depression, and even to cause problems in relationships. Cyberbullying is a huge concern, as is texting and driving.
A New Way of Life
But this technology isn’t going away. So what does smart phone addiction mean for our kids’ futures? In her book iGen, Jean Twenge analyzes our newest adult generation—those born 1995 or later—and their unique place in history as the first generation never to have known life without a smart phone.
It isn’t simply that young people are obsessed with their phones. It’s that phones, and the paradoxical distance-based connectedness that come with them, are reshaping society as we know it. Today’s youth are more connected than ever before without necessarily having to leave the house to get that connection. They have full access to the entire history of our world as well as current events to the second, an information database so expansive and user-friendly it puts our old trusty card catalog to shame.
Because of this connectivity, the iGen generation spends their time differently, behaves differently, and believes differently than previous generations. Their entire belief system rests upon a never-ending, white-water river of information shaped by algorithms, ads, and what their friends post in their feeds.
This new generation might be picking up their phones even more frequently than previous generations picked up a smoke, but no one ever inhaled information from a cigarette. This generation’s minds are open. They value tolerance and equality, reject arbitrary social rules, and ask more from religion, sexuality, and politics. And Twenge says iGen is not in as big a hurry to grow up as previous generations—today’s 18-year-olds are like 15-year-olds in the ‘90s, and teens are driving later than they used to. This doesn’t sound too awful.
Going With The Flow
As parents, we can worry ourselves silly about the dangers of smart phone usage and whether or not our kids are “addicted.” We can implement limits and apply consequences when those limits aren’t followed. There is absolutely something to be said for moderation. No one wants their kid to be addicted to anything.
But the truth is, smart phones—and whatever technology succeeds them—are here to stay. If we want to remain as connected as possible to our kids, we have no choice but to come along for the ride. In addition to setting reasonable limits, parents can make sure their teens know to avoid common pitfalls that come with constant connectivity. Learn to check sources so as to recognize fake news. Remember that the person on the other end of that phone is (usually) another human being with feelings. Know that once it’s on the internet, it can’t be deleted.
And never forget, no matter how advanced the technology, a phone can never substitute real, face-to-face human interaction.
Kristen Mae is a proud indie novelist with three books published, all of which hit bestseller on Amazon. She blogs infrequently at Abandoning Pretense and writes for various media outlets about parenthood, relationships, and current events.