Katie Millar Wirig, M.A.
Are Smartphones hurting our kids?
The landscape sped beside me. Thousands of dead bushes wizzing by. Through the glass I tapped on the window and said to myself “This would be the perfect for a small family, especially if you enjoy farming.” A whole conversation happened in my mind. I imagined I was a real estate agent trying to sell the only house we had seen in 10 miles. I tapped my fingers on the cup holder of our old Chrysler van pretending it was a key board. Did I want to be a real estate agent? Not really. But what else do you do when you are on a 7 hour drive through central Idaho? We were on our way to visit grandparents. I was crammed between my 5 other siblings, but I don’t remember complaining because I had a window seat. If you have driven through central Idaho you know there is not much to look at. It was 1994, I was 8 years old. There was no such thing as a iPad, iPhone, or even a DVD player. When we made the trek to grandmas house twice a year, the best we could hope for was a herd of cows to break up the landscape.
Fast forward almost 20 years and my experience in that Chrysler minivan is all but unrecognizable to most youth of this generation. Rarely will you find a child on a 15 minute drive from school, let a lone a 7 hour road trip, without some sort of entertainment. If their little hands are empty and their eyes looking at a landscape for too long, the parent is sure to be berated with statements of boredom. So the question that everyone is asking is, are we better or worse because of it? Is technology helping or hurting our kids?
Recent studies have shown that the average age for a child to get a smart phone is 10.3 years. This means that there is a percentage of children as young as 8 that have unfettered access to the internet, online gaming, and streaming. Gone are the days of true boredom. Any child with a phone in hand has access to more information and entertainment in one day than most of us did in a month. Remember, if we wanted to watch a movie, we had to convince a parent to drive to blockbuster to rent a VHS. With this abundance of information at our fingertips there are many casualties parents and children will experience for giving our time and energy to the tiny block in our hands. Here are some negative effects we are already seeing:
- Our kids are less likely to make idle conversation when in waiting rooms, cars, or at home.
- It is normalized for a child or teenager to avoid eye contact. Instead, they look at a screen during conversations.
- Parents and educators seeing an increase in emotional dysregulation immediately following screen use.
- Deep and hard conversations are happening over text messages instead of face to face; depriving youth of critical conversation skills.
These are just a few of the many changes in how our youth interact because of smartphones. However, even more concerning is what these devices are doing to a very important chemical in the brain called dopamine. Dopamine is responsible for much of our normal functioning. Many people know that it is responsible for feelings of pleasure, however, it is also responsible for motivation. Researchers have found that the act of swiping on your phone, playing simple games, and even scrolling through social media produce dopamine. The concern is that the more an act produces dopamine, the more likely you are to do it. Yet, the misuse of dopamine can really mess up the brains equilibrium. Meaning that after you spend hours on the phone in a dopamine bath you don’t end up happier, you actually can become more depressed and lose motivation. Does this sound familiar? Think about how you felt after playing Candy Crush for 3 hours. Did you walk away feeling rejuvenated, happier and energized? Nope. You probably felt the exact opposite, tired, depressed and worn out. Motivation was likely at an all time low. What started as a 15 minute break escalated into an all evening activity. Now imagine a teenagers brain, which is growing and immature, trying to come out of this dopamine fog. It is pretty bleak. Luckily, parents have more control than they think. Here are some things you can do to help combat it:
- Delay giving a smart phone until they show that they can be responsible. Many experts recommend waiting till 8th grade.
- Put restrictions on the internet and gaming. Install parental controls on all devices.
- Institute screen fasts and periods of the day when screens are not aloud.
- Have time limits on screen time. The American Association of Pediatrics recommends only 2 hours a day.
- Never allow a child to take a device into their rooms at night. Have family charging stations in the main area of the house.
In the coming years technology will become even more accessible than it is now. Smart phones and devices are here to stay. Although they have the power to harm our children, parents, educators, guardians and caregivers can take back control and choose how these devices will be used in their homes and schools. Although we will never get back to the days of blockbuster and true boredom without screens, we can simulate this environment for our children. In monitoring how much access our children have to devices, parents can prevent their children from becoming a casualty to the adverse effects of too much screens.