Are Smartphones Hurting Our Kids?
by Edna King
Science fiction movies have been scaring us about the potential evils of technology for years, but can technology actually be evil? Maybe technology is really more like what they used to say about computers- garbage in garbage out. Technology is not evil, it’s part of God’s creation, but people may use technology in ways that leads to harm.
I know you’re hoping I’m about to launch into a bit about those threatening, evil, robot overlords, but we have enough real technology right in our pockets and purses to keep us busy today.
Psychologist Jean Twenge has recently argued that smartphones cause dramatic increases in rates of depression and anxiety in teenagers. Using simple charts with shocking statistics, she demonstrates in The Atlantic that rates of anxiety and depression have both skyrocketed among our youth just about the time they all got smartphones.
If your teen is whining for one, saying that everyone else has one, they’re right. 92% of teens have a smartphone. Only 18% of teens who are still in high school have jobs which may help pay for that smartphone, but that’s another issue. Or is it? One of the issues raised by Twenge is that fewer teens work. Currently, our teens are less employed, less likely to date, more likely to postpone driving a car, and much more likely to spend time with their friends online instead of in person.
While texting or snapchatting, teens tune out their families and give absent minded answers without making eye contact. We too often let them do this, maybe because the implications are so scary. They are showing us how little impact we suddenly have on them and it’s frightening to some parents to have to compete with Snapchat- much easier to push that thought aside and go with the flow. It seems easier to ignore smartphone overuse until you look at some cold hard facts:
There it is. Homework really is better for your teen than Snapchat. But seriously, it makes sense when you consider that studies show that adults who use Facebook are more likely to be depressed. We feel jealous of our friend on the beach, left out of the party our friend didn’t invite us to, and suddenly distanced from that guy whose politics we can’t stand, even though in person we think he’s witty and kind. If adults can be so negatively affected by social media, how much more vulnerable are our teens? If adults can feel like they need to compulsively check Facebook, how much more controlling are Snap streaks for our kids? Like virtual chain letters, Snap streaks are when kids send a stream of selfies (or other photos) that everyone must contribute to over and over again. We might roll our eyes, but the kids who do this really want to keep these streaks going.
Is social media a kind of robot overlord? It seems that way when studies show that Americans spend about 5 hours a day online- and half of that time is on social media. Are we and our kids just somehow addicted to phones? In surveys, about 70% of teens have shown signs of being addicted to their phones. Using the phone might increase anxiety and depression, but we keep going back to it like an old bottle of rum.
We keep going back to social media, hoping to relieve the angst we feel, but it only increases. Approximately 1/3 of college students report having anxiety issues and depression is higher among our youth than it was during World War II. How can our youth be so anxious and depressed? Maybe it’s partly because our families have become frail, faith has become less common, and social media has left us increasingly feeling not social but isolated. As our families spend less time together and more time liking a total stranger’s amusing posts, even in stable appearing homes our relationships weaken. Anxiety can come from feeling fear and a lack of control. Anxiety often doesn’t seem to have a direct cause, but living in a society that has forgotten its Creator is stressful in and of itself.
Knowing that teens, and maybe some of us, are so negatively affected by overusing smartphones, but also knowing that even if I make my kids use a flip phone ( I did, but that’s another story), the other 91.9% will still have their smartphones- how can we fight such a rising tide? Do not feel helpless, accept the challenge and do this:
Remember that technology is created by God. I began with a quote from Bishop Nikolai which reminds us God’s creation and presence have inspired our technological achievements. Our family is currently reading two books about how engineers are inspired by God’s creation. That concept puts the robot overlord fear back in its childhood place- under the bed with the other scary things. Technology works because it’s using foundational elements created by our loving God who is in control of all things.
We can use technology with wisdom by intentionally creating boundaries so that it doesn’t dominate our lives. Teens should give their parents their cell phones in the evening and get them back in the morning. Many teens are truly sleep deprived because they Snapchat and text so much at crazy hours. This is one of the factors in depression, yet it’s easily fixed. No cell phones at the table while eating meals is another simple way we set boundaries.
Parents need to be watchful. We all need to guard our hearts and minds from evil influences, but now that we have the internet, those evil influences are right here, clamoring at our front door. Set up rules and protections for your kids and for yourself. Be bold about telling them “no” when you know that something might harm their soul. Be alert for signs that your teen is experiencing anxiety or depression. It’s so common, we all need to be watchful for things like lack of interest in activities, sadness, volatility, and withdrawl.
Replace some of the time spent on social media with time spent having a quiet time with God. Our kids need to be guided to pray, read the Bible, and keep a prayer journal. Our kids need this, but so do we. Set aside 20-30 minutes a day for reading, prayer and conversation. Those things will help them have the inner strength and confident faith to protect them from the temptations of this world, especially the virtual world. It also opens the door for you to find out some of the deeper things that are going on with them.
In conclusion, technology is not the problem, the problem is that we’ve had to adapt to it at such a fast pace that as a society, we have a bit of a learning curve. We’ve also allowed our baser sides to overrule our better sides. Remember that God has created all things and that even the most intricate and confusing technology is only possible within the parameters of His creation. Place boundaries to keep human interaction a vital part of each day. Be watchful for signs your kids are becoming anxious, depressed, or overusing their smartphones. Take some of those five hours we spend on the smartphone and use it to have a quiet time with God. In the end, how we love others, ourselves, and our love for God are what will define our lives, and technology can help us towards being closer to God or hinder us – it’s our choice.
Comfort, Ray and Jeffery Seto, Made in Heaven, Green Forest, Arizona: Master Books, 2012
DeYoung, Donald and Derik Hobbs, Discovery Design: Searching Out the Creator’s Secrets, Green Forest, Arizona: Master Books, 2009