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American teens are sick of their phone addictions

Picture a typical teen. Did you imagine them hunched over, with their head buried in a smartphone? Or perhaps you pictured them seated, with their eyes fixated on a laptop screen?

If so, roughly 50 per cent of the time, you’d be correct. Recent American research suggests nearly half of teens are online constantly. Rates are similar in Australia.

There’s been much fuss over the potential negative effects of this screen time, including depression and anxiety.

What is now known, however, is that teens are equally uneasy about their smartphone ‘addictions‘.

British teen blogger Astrid, aka hideaway girl, is one example. “Social media can get too much,” she wrote in a January 2018 post. ” …Recently, I have been turning my phone off to avoid people and just not have to deal with the constant poking of people on the internet.”

Two-thirds of teens have tried to cut down on phone time. But not all have Astrid’s self-control. For many, cutting down can be hard, as they’re in the habit of ‘cycling’ – repeatedly checking apps for new notifications.

These insights were provided by Screen Education, an Ohio, US-based, anti-screen addiction body. In its Teen Smartphone Addiction National Survey 2018, it further found that a majority (67 per cent) of surveyed teens attend schools with smartphone bans. Of this cohort, over half are thankful for it. Nearly the same proportion believe smartphones are hurting their grades.

Many wish parents and/or teachers would impose stricter limits on their smartphone use.

This is pertinent to Australia: NSW Education Minister Rob Stokes proposed a smartphone ban in public schools just last week, while schools like McKinnon Secondary College (in Victoria) have already imposed such bans.

Dr Sharon Horwood researches smartphone use at Deakin University. She says while there’s no empirical, Australian evidence on teens’ and children’s use yet (her studies on this are in the pipeline), anecdotally, schools that have banned smartphones have seen positive results.

Horwood contends teens find it particularly difficult to reduce their phone use for several reasons: the social pressure to constantly communicate with their peers via this medium; the in-built, competitive element of apps like Snapchat, which show how long a person has been ‘snapping’; their propensity for dopamine surges when they receive notifications, which hooks them into a cycle of anticipation and rewards; and their lack of self-control due to immaturity.

Therefore, she thinks schools will do well to curtail it. “If the reason for not being online [on their phones] can be taken away from teens, at least they can save face with their friends, and they don’t have to say it’s their decision,” she said.

She thinks parents, too, have a role to play. A 2017 Royal Children’s Hospital survey found that only 20 per cent of parents are using parental control apps to manage their children’s device use. “This probably means they’re either arguing with their kids about screen time daily or simply giving up. It’s worrying,” she said.

But that doesn’t mean she believes caregivers should resort to extremes, like denying access to smartphones altogether: “For teens, the horse has bolted. It’s now a matter of managing it.”

Horwood will soon be seeking feedback for her upcoming research. If you are interested, please click here.  

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