Half Of Teens Say They Feel Addicted To Their Devices

And it's up to parents to set the tone.
Both parents and teens admit to having an unhealthy attachment to their phones.
Robert Daly via Getty Images
Both parents and teens admit to having an unhealthy attachment to their phones.

Research is still emerging about whether technology addiction fits the classic definition of an addiction disorder, but many people certainly feel addicted, according to a new survey.

Half of all teens reported feeling addicted to their mobile devices, and 28 percent said their parents are addicted too, according to a nationally representative survey of 1,200 parents and children conducted by the non-profit media advocacy organization Common Sense Media. From the parents’ perspective, 59 percent of them feel that their teens are addicted to their mobile devices, and 27 percent feel that they themselves are addicted, too.

This perceived unhealthy relationship with devices is frequently a source of family tension, the survey suggests, as 77 percent of parents feel that their teens get distracted by their devices and don’t pay attention when parent and child are together, and 44 percent of teens feel the same way about their parents. Approximately a third of both parents and teens agreed that personal device use causes daily conflict in their families.

Devices also appear to be putting families in physical danger, at least when it comes to distracted driving. More than half of teens (51 percent) say they’ve seen their parents using their phones while driving, and 56 percent of parents admit to it.

At the very least, this unhealthy engagement with personal devices appears to go two ways; children feel ignored by their parents in favor of devices, and vice versa. So what can parents do to set a new tone about device use -- not just for their kids but for themselves?

Check out what three experts suggest for those who want to be more mindful about the hours they spend in front of a screen:

1. Dr. Michael Rich: 'Forget about time limits.'

Time limits could backfire by making devices "forbidden fruit."
Milenko Bokan via Getty Images
Time limits could backfire by making devices "forbidden fruit."

There’s no use in pretending that computers, phones and other tools aren’t an integral part of modern life, said Rich, director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital. He calls specific time limits a holdover from the days when all screens did was deliver passive entertainment. Now, children are expected to do homework, socialize and express themselves creatively using technology.

What’s more, setting strict time limits will only make devices “forbidden fruit,” according to Rich. That’s backed up by recent research from Lebanon that found, unfortunately, that children whose parents used screen time to discipline them had significantly more of it compared to kids whose parents didn’t use screen time to punish or reward.

Instead of pointing the finger at computer games as a mindless time-suck, help your child fill the time another way: Ask your kids to help you come up with a list of responsibilities and expectations and figure out what your child really wants to accomplish. Now that it’s summer time, that list may include sleeping eight hours every night, having a family dinner and hanging out with friends at the beach. Afterwards, figure out how much time they realistically have left over to veg out in front of a computer screen -- and then let them have it, Rich advised.

“What you’re doing is re-prioritizing their life, and reminding them that they have a number of things that not only they need to do, but that they want to do in the space of a day,” said Rich. “Screen media can sometimes seduce them away from all that.”

2. James A. Roberts: 'Take a look at yourself.'

Parents set an example for their kids, especially when it comes to device use.
Jamie Grill via Getty Images
Parents set an example for their kids, especially when it comes to device use.

Roberts is a firm believer in tech-free zones of the house and times of the day -- for everyone. He’s a proponent of keeping devices out of bedrooms, off the dining table and away during family activities. He’s also attuned to the signs of problematic technology use. If, for example, a parent has ever tried to set limits on tech use and then finds their child secretly texting in the bathroom, there’s a problem.

Counterintuitively, Roberts espouses a tactic for tech monitoring that he calls “Hair Of The Dog.” To help you and your children monitor and restrict time on your smartphones, use certain apps that keep a record of how long you scrolled that day, or apps that let parents restrict the amount of time a child spends on their phone.

But most importantly, he concluded, parents who are disturbed at the way their kids are using tech had better take a long look at themselves before trying to lay down some rules.

3. Jamie Howard: 'Get to the root of the issue.'

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"Day to day in my practice, I see a lot of kids who have trouble tolerating separation from social media, but it’s not their primary problem,” said Howard. “Usually their primary problem is anxiety, depression or bullying.”

She brought up the example of parents who came to her, incensed that their teen daughter couldn’t spend 20 minutes without her phone. It turned out that a group of girls had been bullying the daughter and posting mean things about her online, which is why she was checking every few minutes to keep track of what they said.

Even though these three different experts suggest different tactics for re-gaining control over technology use in your families, there seems to be one common thread running through it all: Listen to your kids. Draw them into consensus that there’s more to life than what they can see on the screen, and get their buy-in for limits for themselves and the whole family.

Letting your kids help set the tone for what constitutes the “correct” way to use tech in the home is a way to cross the generational divide about use, and it’s also a sobering opportunity to hear how they feel when you ignore them in favor of work e-mails and late-night Twitter scrolling. It’s easier said than done, but it sure beats the alternative: daily battles between parent and child, or worse -- silence on the issue.

A previous version of this article appeared in July 2015.

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