Should the Adults in Your Life Be Worried by How Much You Use Your Phone?

Should the Adults in Your Life Be Worried by How Much You Use Your Phone?

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How much time do you spend on your phone? Do you think of it as time well spent? Or, do you ever wish you were on it less?

Do your parents, or other adults in your life, try to control how much you use your phone? Are they worried that too much screen time is bad for you in some way? Are you worried?

In “Panicking About Your Kids’ Phones? New Research Says Don’t,” Nathaniel Popper writes about new research that challenges the belief that phones and social media lead to depression and anxiety in teenagers:

The latest research, published on Friday by two psychology professors, combs through about 40 studies that have examined the link between social media use and both depression and anxiety among adolescents. That link, according to the professors, is small and inconsistent.

“There doesn’t seem to be an evidence base that would explain the level of panic and consternation around these issues,” said Candice L. Odgers, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, and the lead author of the paper, which was published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.

The debate over the harm we — and especially our children — are doing to ourselves by staring into phones is generally predicated on the assumption that the machines we carry in our pockets pose a significant risk to our mental health.

Worries about smartphones have led Congress to pass legislation to examine the impact of heavy smartphone use and pushed investors to pressure big tech companies to change the way they approach young customers.

The article goes on to say:

But some researchers question whether those fears are justified. They are not arguing that intensive use of phones does not matter. Children who are on their phones too much can miss out on other valuable activities, like exercise. And research has shown that excessive phone use can exacerbate the problems of certain vulnerable groups, like children with mental health issues.

They are, however, challenging the widespread belief that screens are responsible for broad societal problems like the rising rates of anxiety and sleep deprivation among teenagers. In most cases, they say, the phone is just a mirror that reveals the problems a child would have even without the phone.

The researchers worry that the focus on keeping children away from screens is making it hard to have more productive conversations about topics like how to make phones more useful for low-income people, who tend to use them more, or how to protect the privacy of teenagers who share their lives online.

In 2011, the American Academy of Pediatrics published a paper that warned doctors about “Facebook depression,” but later revised its statement:

Megan Moreno, one of the lead authors of the revised statement, said the original statement had been a problem “because it created panic without a strong basis of evidence.”

Dr. Moreno, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin, said that in her own medical practice, she tends to be struck by the number of children with mental health problems who are helped by social media because of the resources and connections it provides.

Concern about the connection between smartphones and mental health has also been fed by high-profile works like a 2017 article in The Atlantic — and a related book — by the psychologist Jean Twenge, who argued that a recent rise in suicide and depression among teenagers was linked to the arrival of smartphones.

In her article, “Have Smartphones Ruined a Generation?,” Ms. Twenge attributed the sudden rise in reports of anxiety, depression and suicide from teens after 2012 to the spread of smartphones and social media.

Ms. Twenge’s critics argue that her work found a correlation between the appearance of smartphones and a real rise in reports of mental health issues, but that it did not establish that phones were the cause.

It could, researchers argue, just as easily be that the rise in depression led teenagers to excessive phone use at a time when there were many other potential explanations for depression and anxiety. What’s more, anxiety and suicide rates appear not to have risen in large parts of Europe, where phones have also become more prevalent.

“Why else might American kids be anxious other than telephones?” Mr. Hancock said. “How about climate change? How about income inequality? How about more student debt? There are so many big giant structural issues that have a huge impact on us but are invisible and that we aren’t looking at.”

Students, read the entire article, then tell us:

  • How much time do you spend on your phone on an average day? And, what do you typically do?

  • Does using your phone have a positive effect on your overall well-being? Does it help you build relationships, connect with resources and make you feel less isolated? What are the other positive benefits?

  • Does the way you use your phone have any negative effects? For example, does using it ever make you feel anxious, lonely, depressed or just sleep-deprived?

  • Are you ever worried that you spend too much time on your phone? Do you worry that it gets in the way of socializing with friends? With studying? With exercising? With spending time with family? Or with sleeping? Have you ever tried to spend less time on your phone?

  • Do your parents, or the adults in your life, worry about how much time you spend on your phone? How have they expressed these concerns? Have they ever tried to limit your screen time? How have you responded?

  • The article presents two sides of an argument: On the one hand, phones increase anxiety, depression and sleep deprivation among teenagers. On the other hand, the phone is “just a mirror that reveals the problems a child would have even without the phone.” Which argument do you find yourself agreeing with more? Why? There are numerous case studies presented in the article: Is there one that supports your point or best reflects your own experience with phones and mental health?

Students 13 and older are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.