The Damage Screens Can Do: Teens and Screen Addiction

As tough as our teen years were, today’s teens face challenges we never did. While we could turn our bedrooms into sanctuaries from the social pressures of school, bullies can now follow teenagers everywhere they take their smartphones, including and especially at home. While our parents worried about how much and what kind of television we watched, we worry over what our teens can access online, including video games so compelling they can play them for days without talking to anyone. We struggle to be good models for our teens as we battle our own screen addictions.

Of course, not everything about the smartphone age is negative. It’s easier for us to track each other down, stay in touch, and share images and videos of special moments. We’re much less likely to get lost or spend years puzzling over the answer to a basic question. We can connect to people around the world who share our interests and passions—something that can go a long way to alleviate teens’ feelings of alienation and loneliness. Still, we can sense that something has been lost, that technology has changed us in ways we wouldn’t have chosen consciously.

Parents are calling me more and more often with concerns about screen addiction. Their teens get irritable and agitated in ways that don’t seem normal. They can’t calm down when they lose screen access or control their screen use even as negative consequences pile up. Some parents refer teenagers to me after they start failing classes at school. Others have become socially isolated and withdrawn. By the time his mother called me, one client had racked up over $15,000 on her credit card buying “skins” and other upgrades for an online game.

This isn’t just “being a teenager”—this is something different.

I’ve read the research, and the news isn’t good. Screens are hurting our teens in more ways than we realize. Frequent access to social media makes teenagers more depressed. Simply having a smartphone around increases anxiety and reduces cognitive capacity. Teenagers who use smartphones frequently are twice as likely to have symptoms of ADHD and almost twice as likely to think about suicide. Phone-addicted teens have higher levels of anxiety, insomnia, and impulsive behavior. At least eight percent of American teenagers play video games in ways that have pathological effects on their school performance, mood, and attention.

While mental health professionals continue to debate using the term “addiction” to refer to compulsive screen use, evidence is mounting that technology use and drug use have similar effects on the brain. Both gaming and smartphone use affect the same reward pathways, increasing levels of dopamine and glutamate and triggering a cycle of craving that causes people to make harmful choices. The classic symptoms of addiction are all there—tolerance, withdrawal, and difficulty stopping or controlling screen use despite escalating consequences. In 2018, the World Health Organization added “gaming disorder” to the eleventh edition of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), and other countries are recognizing internet addiction as a growing problem.

Excessive screen use isn’t just a problem for teens who exhibit symptoms of addiction. Even teens who are doing well in school often struggle to tune into their senses and connect to the present moment. Smartphone use is eroding interpersonal skills, including our capacity to enjoy and navigate face-to-face interactions. It’s making us less empathetic and less satisfied with our lives. Smartphones make us feel less connected to each other and to a sense of meaning.

The worst addictions put people at risk of losing the most important things in their lives—their health, their closest relationships, and their careers. But even those of us who are holding on to those things are losing a certain quality of depth and connection to ourselves, to one another, and to the world.

Screen use is making it harder to be fully human. We are struggling to be in the world in ways that used to come easily and naturally to us. This is the world we’re passing on to our teens.

I like the way Mark Griffiths, a behavior addiction professor at Nottingham Trent University, puts it: “Healthy enthusiasms add to life and addictions take away from it. Addiction is something that just completely compromises everything you do in your life.” While technology adds some enthusiasms, and allows us to channel others, I fear that screen use does a lot more to compromise the quality of our lives. When was the last time you or your teen enjoyed a walk in the woods or more than a few minutes of conversation without checking your phones?

What can you do about screen addiction—yours and your teen’s? The first and most important thing your teen needs from you is for you to be real. Acknowledge that it’s tough for everyone, and maybe even talk about the research that shows how screens have changed us. Tell them you struggle with putting down your phone, too, and that you miss things you used to enjoy more when you couldn’t reach for a phone. You might inspire them to experiment with the things you miss—things your teen has never known.

Of course, it’s important to set boundaries and expectations with your teen. You have to tell them “No,” even when it’s hard. But as I’ve written before, “No” isn’t always the right answer. Encourage and say “Yes” to the passions that naturally draw your teen away from screens and to the ways your teen uses technology in a healthy or life-enhancing way.

It’s important to know your own limits. It’s one thing to talk to a teen who is struggling with the same screen-enabled disconnection that plagues all of us, another to try to take on a growing addiction that’s affecting your teen’s grades, moods, and relationships. There are more options for professional help to address behavioral addictions than ever, and connecting your teen with a counselor or a recovery program can make a huge difference.

Just like any other addiction, screen addiction can be overcome. Smartphones aren’t going away, but with conscious effort, we can empower our teens to connect less to their phones and more to the world and each other.

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