Teen addiction of any kind — even when it seems harmless compared to something like opioid abuse — can be a problem for mental and social development as well as daily functioning. Here's a look at teen smartphone addiction and when, as a parent, you should take action.
Is Smartphone Addiction Really a Thing?
Some people aren't sure yet whether smartphone addiction is actually a thing, but the truth is that the brain can react to almost anything with the same pleasure response that's related to addiction to drugs or alcohol. In fact, science is on the side of this one: brain scans of people who use cell phones and other devices to the point of appearing addicted show a lot of the same markers as people who abuse or are addicted to drugs and alcohol.
Anecdotally, there's evidence for cell phone addiction too. More than half of teens polled admitted feeling addicted to their mobile device, and slightly more parents agreed that their teens had a problem giving up smartphone use.
Signs of Smartphone Addiction
Parents who believe teens might be addicted to their tech can look for some of the same signs that might indicate drug or alcohol addiction: changes in sleep, appetite and performance at school or work can be signs that a teen is unable to put down their device. Some other signs can include:
- A need to use the device for increasing amounts of time
- Dangerous preoccupation with the device — such as using it at times that are risky, including driving, while walking in crowded areas or in dangerous places
- Losing a sense of time or place when using the device
- Turning to the smartphone when dealing with stress, anxiety, depression or other difficult emotional or mental issues
- Putting relationships — romantic, friend or family — on hold or behind cell phone use
- Symptoms of withdrawal when forced to spend time away from a device, including anger, depression, tension or restlessness
The Good, Bad and Ugly of Device Addiction in Teens
Some experts are crediting the rise of mobile devices with helping the curb teen drug abuse and addiction. In 2017, the National Institute on Drug Abuse director even signaled that she would gather researchers to study this possible phenomena. According to statistics, teen drug abuse has trended downward at the same time cell phone use has trended up: researchers aren't yet saying the two findings are related, but some parents might let overboard smartphone use slide because it's better than a teen using heroin.
At the same time, device addiction in teens has numerous downsides. First, it is an addiction. The fact that it might seem harmless or that cell phone use is legal doesn't mean that addictive behavior is healthy. Research published by the National Institutes of Health notes that cell phone addiction might be associated with behavioral and health factors, including:
- Sleep issues and insomnia
- Poor impulse control
- Self-image issues
The same study found a coexistence between possibly addictive mobile phone use and substance abuse.
Health problems that might be associated with problematic smartphone use can include:
- Eye strain or fatigue from staring at a backlit screen for hours
- Blurred or compromised vision
- Text neck, which is neck pain or stiffness associated with looking down at a device constantly
- Increased instances of general illnesses due to the amount of germs found on mobile devices
What Should Parents Do?
Cell phones present a unique case when dealing with possible addictive behavior. Unlike drugs and alcohol, which often (and certainly in the case of teen use) must be cut completely out of a person's life, mobile phones have become a necessary tool for many modern lifestyles. Parents rely on them for communicating with children, they provide some safety for teens who are out alone and they're even being used for school and work.
Instead of forbidding devices altogether, parents can take steps to help teens develop healthier relationships with their tech. Some steps might include:
- Making a no-devices rule for meal-times (include adults in the rule to set a good example and encourage face-to-face interactions at the table)
- Set daily, weekly or monthly limits on data and text use
- Invest in inexpensive software that lets you block internet or device use during certain hours, such as late evenings or overnight
Remember, as a parent, whether or not your teen has a device at all often depends on you, and you can make and enforce rules about balanced use.
If you feel like your teen's mobile device addiction is treading on dangerous ground — especially if it's led to mental health or drug use — don't hesitate to reach out for professional help. You can call the Teen Treatment Center at (844)319-5239 to speak with a caring, knowledgeable counselor about treatment for substance abuse disorder and mental health issues.