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Are phones REALLY bad for our kids?

Are phones REALLY bad for our kids?

Kids Phones
Ugh... I know you're probably so sick of hearing this but the evidence is mounting, consistent and scary - phones are bad for our kids. (And for us - but that's for another website!)

Something happened around 6 years ago - I saw it myself in my practice, in the school with my TY students, in my friends' conversations about their kids. Something started going wrong.
Guidance counsellors that I know spoke to me about surging levels of anxiety in their students, self-harm became almost normal, cyberbullying became rife.

Research seems consistent: It's not the recession or remnants thereof, it's not increased academic pressure. There are a lot of things it's 'not'. We are better fed, better informed, better educated than ever - so what's up?

Smartphone ownership  - social media use - and child and teen depression are very strongly correlated.
I cannot overstate this. There is no mistake here. It's been observed here and internationally. Both anecdotally and under scientifically controlled and measured conditions. We are almost all addicted to our devices.
And it's worse for our kids. And just incase you are wondering are these teens using social media because they're more depressed - which by the way is an excellent question and one I pondered myself - well, researchers have covered that one too. And it seems not. The social media comes first, the depression and anxiety follows.
Just take a few moments to think about these differences:
Teens spend significantly less time interacting with each other in real life than their predecessors. You might argue, and you'd be right - that online contact is at least contact. But it's not real. There is no opportunity to negotiate things that arise in real life, there are lost opportunities to practice conversation, turn-taking, expression reading, physical contact, hugs, laughing - LOLs are great but are they the same?
Do we get the same endorphine, dopamine and oxytocin rush? It seems not! And perhaps this one reason why research is showing that teens who spend more time online are more likely to feel depressed.
Socialising online can have the unexpected and seemingly contradictory side effect of loneliness.
And just this week we heard a lot of talk about the effects of loneliness on our brain, body and mental health - with new research saying that feeling lonely can have as dangerous an effect on our health as a 15 a day habit!! There's a reason to think about your social life right there.

Another probable reason for this surge in teen depression is that teens sleep less than before, and the sleep they are getting isn't as good a quality as is needed for optimum physical and mental health. Why are they sleeping less?
I know teens who are online until 3am on school nights. And even if they aren't online quite that late, their brains are still coping with the blue light emitted from their devices up to the moment they decided to give sleepy time a go. I'm thinking I don't need to outline the effects of poor sleep to anyone reading this - most of you are parents and are all too aware of the wanting-to-die feeling when you haven't had enough sleep. Imagine believing that that's normal, and then facing into the classroom bully and exams with those feelings on board?! (Tip - check for your child's spare phone, the one you don't know about...)

And speaking of bullies - at least you and I could physically get away from them. That didn't mean though that their behaviour didn't affect us right? We might still ruminate, dread the next day at school, but at least, ideally, we'd have family time or time with our nice friends to hang out uninterrupted for a few intervening hours. And then get some refreshing and helpful sleep.
But that's not possible if you have a smart phone.

Imagine if your bully could walk home behind you, or sit on your lap in the school bus, whisper to you during mealtimes, interrupt your favourite TV show by reminding you that everyone thinks you're an ugly whore? What if you couldn't sleep because your bully is in the bed next to you telling you how thick and useless you are and that tomorrow you're going to get a beating?
And imagine if you need to talk to your parent but don't know how to ask so you wait until they notice you. But they're on Twitter or Facebook or dealing with their newly triggered body image issues thanks to Instagram so good luck getting their attention... none of us are immune.

That's what kids are dealing with. That and more.

And then there's what they see online. Kids are being disturbed by porn sites which teach them how to be sexist and have dissatisfying sex lives.
They LOVE sites that promote 'healthy living' that are in fact body image obsessed social media 'influencers', looking to earn money from Google and YouTube and succeeding because they know how to manipulate your kids. These people your kids adore are laughing all the way to the cyberbank while your tween is left frowning in the mirror disgusted by what they see.
BEFORE we panic - here's what we can do:
The length of time spent online is of course a factor. Some research shows teens who spend five or more hours a day online are 71% more likely than those who spend less than an hour a day to have at least one suicide risk factor (depression, thinking about suicide, making a suicide plan or attempting suicide). Overall, suicide risk factors rise significantly after two or more hours a day of time online.
Two, or more. How long does your child spend online?
  • Spend more time playing games with kids - actual proper fun games with real live people and laughing and mistakes and strategy and mess and snacks.
  • Have meals together. Ban phones during meals. Yours too.
  • Have TV nights. Ban phones during TV nights - yours too. Seriously. (Notice without judgement if you're resisting - that's normal, we're all phone mad!!)
  • Take the phone off them before they go to bed. No excuses.
  • Get them talking in the car. Don't fall for the 'connecting families with car wi-fi' bulls*%t - it's the opposite of connection. These people don't care about your kids - they want your money.
  • Don't use your phone in the car, even in traffic jams - this will teach them to do the same. The biggest killer on the road in the US is teens on phones!
  • When they or you get home let them see you put your phone away and ask them about their day.
  • Give them more housework. This increases responsibility, self esteem and whining. LOL - sorry about the last but that's just part of growing up. One we seem to have developed a sensitivity to and avoidance of. But that's not helpful, it will merely engender a sense of entitlement . And do we really want (more) entitled narcissists running the world in ten/twenty years? It's a kid's job to whine and it's an adult responsibility to not take that personally and teach them how to be  the kind of grown up you'd like to have a coffee with.
This stuff is new. Your parents or old parenting books cannot tell you from experience how this will go. But one thing hasn't changed in the last five years - you are in charge.
You're the parent. You decided on the boundaries and rules in your house. And yes, your child will rebel - that's healthy. And yes your child won't be happy if they don't have access to snapchat while all their friends do. But they'll get used to it, they won't be harmed and honestly you are doing them a favour.
You could ask your friends to do the same so all your kids are 'suffering' (ie being protected) equally.

When they've grown up, resilient, responsible  well socialised people they will thank you. Bet you a tenner.
But for now - the results are in - our choices are clear!
Please feel free to contact me if you want to read any of the research to which I've referred to here!
Written by
Sally O’Reilly is the Family Psychology Expert at Family Friendly HQ. She's a Psychologist, Psychotherapist & Clinical Supervisor in private practice in East Cork with twenty years’ full time experience. She has a special interest in working with teenagers. For more info contact her through her site or on Twitter @psychosal or Facebook at Sally O'Reilly Psychology & Psychotherapy.