Teens & Smartphones, The Downside

It’s not an unfamiliar scene. Teens huddled in groups tenaciously clutching their smart phones while checking social media sites and appearing to be mesmerized by Instagram, Facebook and thousands of other apps. Teens have replaced conversation at family meals with smart phone use; some of them following the lead of their parents. The source of the compulsion to spend up to nine hours per day with smart phones or tablets is a psychological study unto itself. The effects are another. The purpose of this article is to examine proven and speculated effects.

Most people will not question the practical advantages of being connected via smart phones. Smart phones have become a body appendage feeding us with news, weather, driving directions, traffic reports, instant communication via text or email not to mention thousands of quite useful apps. Few would argue with these practical benefits. However, practical benefits aside, how do parents respond when cell phone abuse begins to negatively affect teens physical, emotional and mental health.

Sleep Deprivation: Many argue that cell phone use has become an addiction for many teens. They feel social pressure to remain constantly available to receive and reply to text messages and other communication. This pressure created by cell phone addiction increases stress, anxiety and sleep deprivation for many teens. Extended sleep deprivation may lead to drowsiness, irritability, fatigue and poor performance at school. One study showed that for each ten minutes later a teen went to sleep, there was a 6% chance they’d used drugs or alcohol in the past six months. If you notice your teen is sleeping with their cell phone on, try to instill a habit of turning off the phone before bed to allow for a full uninterrupted night’s sleep.

Brain Chemistry: Dopamine is an important chemical substance created by our bodies. Because of dopamine we are able to experience pleasure and reward. If dopamine production is interfered with due to addiction (even addiction to smart phones), the parts of our brains that impact executive control and emotion processing are impacted. Science has noted that teens (and adults) addicted to smart phones have a reduced amount of dopamine receptions in their brains. In order to experience continued pleasure, more cell phone use is required such as downloading new apps or receiving more notifications from various platforms.

Reduced Physical Activity and Mobility: If on average teens spend nine hours per day on their smart phone that means they are spending less time engaged in physical activity. Nine hours per day spent in a particular stationary position negatively affects physical development, back and spine pain and stiffness as well as soreness in wrists, fingers and elbows. There are now terms to described wrist, finger and elbow pain from habitual texting; “text claw” and “cell phone elbow”.

Cancer Risk: Cell phones do emit radio-frequency energy or electromagnetic radiation. This energy is absorbed by human tissues where the phone is held. However, there is no conclusive research or evidence that cell phones cause cancer. Speculation is a different matter. It is speculated (not proven) that if cell phone use causes cancer, it is likely to be more probable with people who begin cell phone use in their teens. Younger people are speculated to be at greater risk since their nervous systems and brains are still in a developmental stage. Making your child aware of this risk and encouraging cell phone use of no more than twenty minutes daily may help mitigate the risk. Further, using a land line for longer conversations could be helpful.

If parental intervention does not help curb the use of cell phones with your teen, and if you believe the use of cell phones has become abusive or addictive, the help and guidance from a professional certified psychologists trained in teen behavior may help.

Colin B. Denney, Ph.D., is the Director of the Pacific Psychology Services Center in Honolulu, Hawaii, he is a Child Psychologist Honolulu.