Do you have a child or a student who has a hard time putting away his or her phone? You are not alone. Phones provide constant contact with people, and easy access to videos, news, music, and games. The proximity of smartphones is so rewarding, that many young people feel anxious when separated from their phones. There is even a term for this feeling—– Nomophobia—an abbreviation for “no-mobile-phone phobia,” which refers to smartphone dependency.
Adolescents care about staying connected. Their brain sends them reward signals every time online friends share enjoyable information or ‘Like’ their posts.
The American Psychological Association has not yet classified the excessive use of smartphones as a mental disorder. However, it does list the most common symptoms of addiction, which can apply to the use of smartphones:
- An excessive use at the cost of jeopardizing relationships, recreational experiences such as physical exercise and outdoor activities, and school success
- Sleep deprivation and changes in mood due to excessive use
- Progressively increased time and different types of use
- Failure to significantly reduce or stop use despite multiple efforts
Smartphone addiction can harm teens’ physical and mental health. It can reduce their hours of sleep and distract them from homework. Using cell phones while crossing the street, biking, or driving can put the teen and others in danger. Moreover, constant cell phone use increases exposure to inappropriate online content and cyberbullying. A four-year study by the Australian researcher Joseph Ciarrochi found that excessive messaging, use of social media, and gaming in eighth grade predicted mental health problems in the same students four years later.
Parents and schools can install website blockers and take away mobile phones. However, teens can always find new ways to bypass restrictions. There are no internet use controls that are 100 percent foolproof.
What Can Parents and Teachers Do?
A better way for parents and teachers to curtail excessive phone use is to address three social and emotional competencies as part of character education: Self-awareness, self-management, and responsible decision-making.
- Self-awareness enables teens to recognize “time wasters’ – the online applications they spend more time on than intended and the messages they find particularly distracting. Importantly, self-awareness helps teens understand why they find these so compelling and how they can replace internet use with productive and healthy alternatives.
- Self-management enables teens to regulate their use of smartphones. For example, teens need to accept that they sometimes need to set their phone on airplane mode, turn off notifications, or use the “do not disturb” setting on social media. Importantly, self-management enables teens to avoid looking at their cell phones while crossing the street, biking, and
- Responsible decision-making skills enable teens to identify situations that call for prudence and kindness. For example, by correctly recognizing internet trolls—users who instigate off-topic and conflictual interactions—teens can avoid toxic and time-consuming interactions. Social responsibility helps teens analyze online interactions, identify cyberbullying, and find ways to protect themselves and others. According to a research review by Wilmer, Sherman, and Chein, smartphones impede our ability to focus our attention on cognitive tasks as well as be mindful of our environment. By teaching teens responsible decision-making, we can better prepare them to be smart consumers of smartphones and internet applications.
Just like comfort food, the internet provides an immediate sense of gratification. We know too much of it is bad for us, and yet we find it hard to resist. Social and emotional learning can help fight temptations and instead build healthier, more productive ways to experience joy and fulfillment in life.