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How Smartphone Use Affects Teens’ Mental Health

by Carissa Andrews  -  January 8th, 2018

How Smartphone Use Affects Teens’ Mental Health

Did you know the average age for a child to get their first smartphone is just ten-years-old? While ages for acquiring personal technology are dropping, rates of teen depression and suicide are rising. New studies are showing a direct correlation between smartphone usage and teen depression. It’s important to take note of these links and make changes, or take action, before it’s too late. Young minds are still developing and highly susceptible to the addiction of cellphone and internet use. Without deliberate parental guidance, teenagers are left floundering, and often succumbing to negative emotions.

Technology and Teen Depression

As grown up as teens may like to believe they are—or may even seem to be—the truth of the matter is they still need guidance. As of 2015, a whopping 73% of teens had access to a smartphone, and 15% more had a basic phone. In this tech-driven world, smartphones and social media aren’t likely to go away, so it becomes a parent’s job to learn how best to be the example and guiding force. When we don’t take the time to understand the pitfalls of this double-edged sword known as technology, our children’s mental health and self-esteem can suffer.

A scary reality: since 2011, the rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed, and much of the problem can be directly correlated back to smartphone and social media use.

Part of the problem stems from teen’s underdeveloped impulse control and empathy for others, as their brain continues to grow. Not only do kids become more addicted to the dopamine uptick from smartphone use, they’re also more likely to become highly distracted, and be highly irritable when they’re separated from their device. For those teens without limits placed upon them, this cellphone addiction can also lead to chronic sleep deprivation. All of this when combined together can become a volatile mix pointing a teen straight toward depressive thoughts and attitudes.

According to an article in the Atlantic, between the years of 2012 and 2015, female teen depression rose 50%, and male teen depression rose 21%. Scarier yet, the rates of suicide for both teenage boys and girls has risen, as well. Unless we start taking a closer look at the potential pitfalls of smartphone usage with our teens, the data suggests these trends aren’t likely to go away.

Recommendations for Teen Tech

Protecting your children from the dangers of depression, suicide, and even cyber-bulling is every parent’s job—and challenge. Searching for ways to keep your teens safe, while still granting them the freedom to experiment with who they are in this digital world means digging deep. Here are a few tips to consider that will help to protect their mental health:

1.Set limits early and adjust often

Ideally, as soon as your child has a smartphone or other device in-hand, you’ll want to discuss with them the limits you’ll be placing upon the device. This includes “off-times” – for instance, when the device is not to be touched at night, and when it can be picked back up in the morning. Also talk about new app downloads, purchasing limits, and/or procedures you expect them to follow.

2.Talk about the hard stuff

It’s never too early to talk to your kids about the dangers of depression, suicide, and cyberbullying—as well as how they relate to too much electronic time. While you’re at it, talk about sexting, sending inappropriate photos, or looking at them, too. Giving them the tools to be able to understand these darker aspects and potential downfalls of this privilege may give them the heads up on how to avoid it for themselves. If nothing else, it gives them a basic understanding and a vocabulary for how they’re feeling and what’s happening in their lives.

3.Give them critical thinking tools

One of the biggest stumbling blocks for not just teens, but humans in general, is not having a basic understanding of how to think critically. When we arm ourselves and our children to question everything—and not just blindly follow, we’re already halfway to overcoming the power of peer-pressure and falling into dysfunctional thinking.

4.Layout clear consequences

Limits aside, it’s also important to talk to your teens about what will happen if they break the rules you’ve laid out. Give them reasonable, but actionable consequences both of you can live with. If you don’t think you can follow through, you’ll need to ask yourself why not, and perhaps, do some soul searching on how to have a more confident core.

5.Set an example

One of the best ways to increase the chances your kids will follow your rules is to lead by example. Set your phone aside when you’re having a conversation, eating dinner, or having family time. Teach them what it means to be present so they know how to do so even when you’re not around.

Having Limits Keep Kids Safe

Teens may not know it, and they may not even admit it—but they do appreciate the limits parents set on technology (as well as other privileges). Some of the most notable reasons they don’t actually mind include:

Breaks feel good

Having limits on tech time that are out of the control of the teen gives them a socially acceptable “out” for when they no longer want to engage. Often times, without this in place, cellphone addiction takes hold and they don’t know how to stop engaging—even if the engagement doesn’t feel good. Kids who take frequent breaks or have regular “off” times for their technology report their happiness and contentment levels as being far higher than their constantly “plugged-in” counterparts.

Teaches self-regulation

As we discussed, teen brains aren’t fully developed and one of the issues this generation is facing is a lack of focus. Without limits, teens are inundated with distractions and constantly multitasking. This impacts their brain to the point of dysregulation. With clear rules and guidelines in place, parents are helping to develop their growing brains to be able to focus, as well as teach self-regulation when you’re no longer there to look over their shoulder.

Teaches confident core

It’s easy to give in to a child and allow them to do whatever they think they want—but it takes a stronger center to set limits and stick to them. When we, as parents set limits and hold our ground, it teaches our kids how to be confident in their decisions. This in turn minimizes the impact of peer-pressure and helps them find their own inner confident core.

As times progress, every new teenage generation will take on characteristics or have things about them their parents, or older generations don’t understand. This generation of teens is growing up with technology like no other generation before it, and without guidance, it’s undoubtedly affecting their mental health. Parents need to be open to discussing the pitfalls and perils to successfully guide them through their teenage years in one piece. Smartphones have arguably made this more difficult—but it doesn’t have to be that way. Talk with your kids, give them the tools they need to grow mentally healthy—now, and in the future. They’ll look back and thank you for it.


Carissa Andrews is a freelance writer, graphic designer, and author. You can learn more about her at her website.

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