Question: “My tween spends most of her time on her smartphone and has no interest in hanging out with her family. Even when she is sitting with us, she is constantly scrolling through her phone and doesn’t engage. When we take away her phone so that she can have supper with us, she cannot sit still, gets agitated, constantly stares at the clock waiting for the one hour to be up to go back to her phone. She has even voiced being suicidal, got into fights with us, and told us that she doesn’t love us and wants to run away when we take away her phone. What is happening to our 12-year-old? Her grades dropped. Her constant argument is, “Mom, dad, you don’t know what it’s like being 12 years old and phoneless! It is a death sentence!”
Answer: You have every reason to be alarmed. These devices are quickly changing childhood. You are not the only parents feeling helpless in the face of technology and the negative impacts it is having on your daughter. But you can do something about it.
- Smartphones are Addictive
Smartphones are intentionally designed to target the reward area in the brain and its chemical messenger pathways which affect decisions and sensations. When someone experiences something rewarding (or uses an addictive substance), neurons in the principal dopamine producing areas in the brain are activated and dopamine levels rise. Thus, the brain receives a “reward” and associates the drug or activity with positive reinforcement.
When an individual gets a notification, the brain receives a rush of dopamine and sends it along the reward pathway causing the person to feel pleasure. The more notifications the person gets, the brain gets rewired to seek more similar stimulus and thus positive reinforcement to recreate the same pleasurable feeling. To further complicate matters, the brain reward center is most active when people are talking about themselves. And thus in social media, people post about themselves, what they are thinking or doing, perpetuating the cycle.
Another tool that social media uses to encourage constant engagement and to promote behavior that will reinforce engagement is “infinite scrolling.” As the user continues to scroll down, new content shows up and the user doesn’t take a break from it, and perpetually continues to scroll down and is constantly bombarded with new content that he/she keeps scrolling through without an innate ability or awareness to break the cycle and take a break from it. If the person does take a break from scrolling down, then this may result in anxiety that is known as “Fear of Missing out” (FOMO), which is likely what your daughter deals with during dinner time when you take away her phone from her.
You may have noticed the automatic reels that play on your Facebook page or Instagram. That is another way of engaging the reward center in the brain. Let’s just say that the “autoplay” feature shows you videos that you are not interested in watching. You are forced to engage with it, because you have to pay attention to it in order to stop it. If the autoplay feature didn’t exist, you wouldn’t have to stop and go out of your way to avoid engaging with the content.
- The Impact of Social Media on Mental and Physical Health
About 27% of children who spend three hours or more a day on social media show symptoms of poor mental health. Excessive social media is correlated with anxiety, depression, impulsivity, and ADHD. People, and especially children, tend to become psychologically dependent on social media, similar to how people become physically dependent on substances. Adolescents who habitually use social media have severely stunted social interaction skills. Despite adolescents interacting with each other online, this doesn’t translate well to the real world. In fact, such adolescents tend to have worsening social anxiety in groups, higher rates of low self-esteem, negative body-image, and lower levels of empathy and compassion towards others. The constant bombardment of perfect filtered photos also leads to disordered eating. The constant competition for attention of likes can also result in cyber bullying.
In a study done by the National Institute of Health, children who spend an excessive amount of screen time have premature thinning of the cortex, which processes information relayed through the five senses. Furthermore, smart phones impact the quality and quantity of sleep. Children and adolescents are restless when they don’t have access to messages at night and so may not sleep through the night or may wake up at night to check their smartphones. Disrupted sleep results in poor health outcomes, such as obesity, a weakened immune system, and stunted growth.
- The Impact on Relationships and Academics
Learning how to manage time, projects, and homework are skills that children learn. Having distractions, such as social media, hinders them from learning these skills and thus impacts their academic performance. Relaying on social media, along with being distracted by it, results in poor ability in language reasoning and thinking.
Relationships also suffer as a result of social media use, especially between parents and their children. Children also shift their attention to online and become less interested in investing in personal relationships with friends in real life.
- A Digital Detox
Consider doing what is known as a “digital detox.” It doesn’t have to be completely stopping using social media, but rather being intentional about creating a break from it for a certain amount of time. That being said, consider starting a conversation with your adolescent about what they think of their social media use. In addition, lead by example, by reflecting on your social media use, and the length and type of break you are willing to take from social media use.
Some questions you may ask your teen are:
How is their sleep impacted after they look at their screen? And talk about how lack of sleep impacts anyone in general, but also you and your teen specifically.
How have their relationships been impacted by constant social media use? How do they feel when they are with a friend who is constantly on their screen?
What are they missing out in real life by constantly being on social media?
Do they feel in control of their online activity? If they feel like their use is too much and they want to decrease it, you may talk to them about deleting certain apps or switching off their notifications. You may also encourage them to use a timer, so that when the designated time to use the internet is up, the timer goes off, then they start working on their other tasks. They may also consider putting their phone on do not disturb mode.
As you embark on this journey with your teen, remember to be a role model and reward your teen for any tech free moments. You are helping rewire their brain and create a different reward pathway.
Reset Your Child’s Brain
By Nesrin Abu Ata