Moderating Children's Tech Use In A Digital World

Last year Mandy Saligari, a Harley Street Addiction expert, claimed that giving a child a smartphone was as bad as giving them a gram of cocaine. First reaction? That’s a bit extreme. But when children as young as 13 are being treated for tech addictions, and a third of 12-15-year-olds in Britain admit they have a poor balance between their screen use and other activities it might be time to wonder.

As we recognise Children’s Mental Health Week (5-11 February) with a host of events, a guest appearance by the Duchess of Cambridge, and articles on the mental wellbeing – or otherwise – of today’s children, it is a poignant opportunity to recall the pitfalls of the ever-present smartphone (the device you are statistically most likely to be reading this article on) and the challenges of moderating children’s tech use in digital world.

The Debate

2017 saw renewed waves of studies voicing contrasting opinions on the dangers and benefits of smartphone use amongst children and teenagers. The studies span many socio-economic, ethnic, gender and cultural backgrounds and found consistent patterns throughout.

2018 may only just be getting off the ground, but it started with a bang. Two of Apple Inc.’s key investors called for the company to take responsibility for use of its technology by children in an open letter to the Apple Inc. Board of Directors. It is well documented that Apple Inc. founder Steve Jobs restricted his own children’s access to his (and all) technology as they were growing up.

The correlation versus causation debate on smartphone use and mental health issues and amongst children and teenagers continues to rage, but the concerns and links explored are so persistent that we should probably take note.

So according to recent studies, what are the risks?

(As it is Children’s Mental Health Week, the mental health issues primarily affecting children will be the focus of the article. This is not to say that the same or similar risks do not apply to adult members of the population, or that there are only mental health risks to the exclusion of all other types of risk in smartphone usage.)

Isolation

With greater ability to communicate via phone across a range of social media platforms and messaging apps, the perceived need to meet face-to-face is reduced. As children come to rely on these interactions as a substitute for meeting up in person, the desire to meet up reduces. Often interactions that do take place in person are still crowded out by the use of smartphones, with monosyllabic utterances breaking the silence as they message other friends who aren’t present.
FOMO, which was a challenge for children and adolescents keen to find their group long before it had a catchy acronym, is exacerbated as Instagram-ed photos of brunch dates with handles for all those who were invited only remind you that you weren’t. Meanwhile, photos and statuses that project peers having a great time only make you feel miserable about the time you’re having, even if moments before you were having fun.

Sleep Deprivation

A recent study by the University College London examined the link between screen use and reduced sleep in babies and toddlers and discovered a possible link between screen time and sleep loss, amounting to 16 minutes sleep loss for every hour of screen time. It also appeared to take longer for babies and toddlers who used smartphones and handheld devices to fall asleep.

Sleep deprivation amongst children, adolescents and young adults is on the rise. It can contribute to shortened attention spans, experiences of loneliness, anxiety and depression, obesity and other health complications, and there is a probable link with late-night phone use through extended usage, exposure to blue light and interruption to natural sleep cycles.

Imagine the joy of a 9 hour sleep, or even a 7 hour sleep…*bliss*

Bullying

The Royal Society for Public Health released a report on social media usage amongst teens and young adults. Amongst its findings was that Instagram, the platform championing self-expression and individuality through photo feeds, was the worst social media platform for mental health. It rated highly for bullying, fear of missing out (FOMO) and depression, with the worst scores of any of the platforms studied for body-image and anxiety. Of the five social media platforms rated (in order of rating: YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram) the only one not to rate negatively anxiety and depression was YouTube but all ranked negatively for body image, bullying and FOMO.

Depression

Economists at the University of Sheffield found that just one hour of social media and messaging by children per day could reduce their chance of feeling totally happy with their life by 14% (three times higher than the perceived adverse effects of a child growing up in a single-parent family). Conversely, they reported being happier in their friendships.

A Korean study at the University of Seoul last year discovered a chemical imbalance in teenagers diagnosed with addiction to their smartphones. It was discovered that the ‘addicted’ participants (studied alongside a healthy control group) had an increased concentration of gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) which is linked to tiredness and anxiety, as well as the participants reporting significantly higher rates of depression, insomnia and impulsivity.

According to a national survey of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, between 2010 and 2016, there was a 60% leap in the number of children and adolescents having at least one serious depressive episode.

Teens who spend 5 or more hours per day on their phones are 71% more likely to rank for at least one suicide risk factor, and suicide attempts increased 23% between 2010 and 2015, while there was a 31% increase in the number of 13-18 year-olds committing suicide.

What the experts recommend (gathered from articles and academic studies, condensed just for you):

Cap screen time to a maximum of 2 hours

For the record, we’re not suggesting anyone goes cold turkey on tech (unless they want to, in which case, be our guest) but responsible use is a key factor in minimising the risks of smartphone use.

According to Dr Jean Twenge, “half an hour, an hour a day, that seemed to be the sweet spot for teen mental health in terms of electronic devices…at two hours a day there was only a slightly elevated risk. And then three hours a day and beyond is where you saw the more pronounced increase in those who had at least one suicide risk factor.”

Lead by example

If parents, teachers and other responsible adults are telling children to curb their screen time but failing to do the same for their own screen use, the message is confused and often lost in a fury of tantrums, frustration and subterfuge. Instead, establish screen-free times whether at home or at school. Set clear boundaries that everyone can understand and follow. Try using a physical barrier to help enforce this new habit, and come up with analogue ways to spend time.

Be conscious of social media usage

The BBC found that over three-quarters of 10-12-year olds in the UK have at least one social media account.

The Institute of Happiness in Denmark conducted a study of 1095 people, inviting the treatment group to not use Facebook for a week, while the control group would continue to use the social media platform at their usual rate. At the end of the week, those who had taken the detox reported a significantly higher level of life satisfaction and were less lonely and sad than the control group. They also reported improved concentration and less stress than the control group.

Conversely, another study found that ‘bonding capital’ was increased and loneliness decreased amongst college students who used Facebook.

So maybe don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater…

Put away smartphones at night

Buy an old-fashioned basic alarm clock. No one needs to be scrolling through social media in bed and texting until the early hours.

At the end of the day, nobody is perfect. There are pros and cons for tech use and social media engagement. We’re all going to screw up and have binge days on our tech sometimes. So long as we’re aware of the risks and most of the time we make an effort to get out and about, to meet friends and family face-to-face with tech safely stowed away, we’re on the right track.

The alarm clock though? You know you want one…