Good Digital Parenting
Blog | March 10, 2020

Smartphones and Mental Health

Founder, Turning Life On

A few weeks ago, the NYT published an article about mental health and smartphones. It assured parents to stop panicking because smartphones are not responsible for the recent decline in mental health. 

Many of us who work on the frontlines with kids and families are not panicked about tech, but concerned. And rightly so. As both the Founder of Turning Life On and a parent, I read endless research studies, regularly interact with struggling parents and kids, and share information with professionals in the field. I have yet to meet someone who isn't concerned about the negative impacts of digital media use, especially on children and teens.

Where are all the kids?

Societal issues are rarely one-dimensional. Many things are contributing to the mental health crisis, including our society's obsession with “success." Tweens and teens, those who account for the most dramatic increases in anxiety, depression, suicide ideation and suicide (an increase which coincides with the release of the iPhone), are focused on their own little bubbles. But let's put this into perspective. Multiple research studies reveal that kids spend north of 6 hours per day online. Not only are their little bubbles floating around in cyberspace, they also aren't developmentally prepared to shift attention to real life happening around them. Can we responsibly say this isn't affecting their ability to truly connect or their resilience, both of which impact mental health? Of course not. Most likely it is, to varying degrees.

Connection and Resilience

To look at this from a simple psychological perspective, the cognitive behavioral therapy treatments for depression and anxiety are connection and exposure, respectively. Are screens not interfering with true human connection? What about exposure to uncomfortable experiences? Kids use their smartphones quite often to avoid situations - at the bus stop, in the school cafeteria, when breaking up. They aren't learning that they can handle discomfort, confrontation, boredom. Many kids complain that their friends are always staring at a device; “it’s annoying…no one talks to each other...it makes me sad.” We don’t need research to show us this. We just need to look around.

Kids don't need more time on screens. They need connection, sleep, discovery of the physical world, unstructured time, and downtime for optimal development. They need to cultivate tolerance to being bored, disappointed and uncomfortable because that is the basis of resilience. We have to find a way to balance technology so kids can get what they need.

Given that survey data continue to report more screen use and at increasingly younger ages, we should be concerned. We need to give kids clear messages about their choices. 

5 Simple Tips You Can Implement Today

  1. Start an Ongoing Conversation. We have to include our kids in this conversation. Show interest in how they're using digital media - what games do they play, what memes are funny, who are they following on social media, what shows are they binging? Ask how digital media makes them feel. Encourage them to self-reflect - were all the kids on their phones after school? How did that make them feel? How does it feel to disconnect? If it makes them anxious, talk about that. Give them tools so they can disconnect, especially if digital media makes them feel sad, anxious, or frustrated.
  2. Protect Sleep. Power down at least 1-2 hours before bed to protect sleep, and to ensure your teen is getting the break he or she needs from the pressure to be connected. Help your student prioritize homework so online work is done first. Support your student by setting the expectation with teachers that your child will complete homework on paper if it’s too late to be online. You have the right to “opt-out” of online work in support of your child’s physical and mental health. All devices should be stored outside of bedrooms, especially at night.
  3. Establish a “People Come First” rule around device use in your home and car. Create a “Cell Motel” and collect devices during events in your home. Make it a priority to turn off gaming consoles and TVs. Face-to-face interactions that are free of digital distractions improve feelings of well-being and mental health. Encourage screen-free activities. For suggestions, click here. If all families could implement this rule, the positive impact would be profound.
  4. Take Healthy Risks. Encourage kids to speak to people in your community that they may not know - in the doctor’s office, in restaurants, at school. Challenge them to keep their phones tucked away at the bus stop and in the cafeteria. Discuss how important it is to sit in silence and look around every once in a while. Talk with them about being kind online and avoiding confrontations, except in person. This includes breaking up with someone or confronting a friend about an issue. If things heat up online, walk away.
  5. Support Each Other. We need to support each other, share ideas and information and be empathetic. Parenting in the digital world is complicated. We parent better when we parent together.

TurningLifeOn.org is loaded with suggestions for parents. Visit our Empower section for more ideas. Encourage your friends, colleagues and community leaders to join the movement! Follow the links for more information about protecting sleep, establishing a people come first rule, or how to support each other. For expert reactions to the NYT article, follow for thoughts from Jean Twenge, PhD and Jonathan Haidt, PhD.