The epidemic is real—here’s how to know when it’s a problem, and what you can do to help.

By Erika Janes
January 16, 2018
Dean Belcher/Getty Images

If you feel like your teen’s eyes—and thumbs—are constantly glued to his or her phone, you’re probably right. “Phones are a social lifeline for many teens,” says Ana Homayoun, author of Social Media Wellness: Helping Tweens and Teens Thrive in an Unbalanced Digital World, and relationships pretty much live and die online these days. Add in FOMO (fear of missing out) and the inherently addictive nature of social media (hello, Snapchat streaks!) and it’s no wonder your teen is never far from her phone.

But is your kid’s device devotion problematic? A report by the non-profit Common Sense Media may give you reason for concern: in a survey of more than 1,200 parents and kids, a whopping 50 percent of teens reported feeling addicted to their device, and 59 percent of parents felt their kids were addicted. What’s more, 72 percent of teens felt compelled to respond to notifications right away, and 78 percent admitted to checking their devices at least hourly. This is also why Apple announced last week that it will be introducing new features in the future to address teen phone addiction.

Of course, “there’s no clinical diagnosis for smartphone addiction, or even technology addiction, so when we say ‘addicted’ we’re really talking about compulsive or generally problematic behavior,” says Caroline Knorr, Common Sense Media’s Senior Parenting Editor.

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So what are some warning signs? According to Knorr and Homayoun, you should look out for the following:

  • Lying about phone use.
  • Secretive behavior. When you walk in the room, does the phone go away?
  • Violating rules around phone use—at home, school, or any time they’re not supposed to have it.
  • Withdrawal symptoms when the phone goes away. “Without a phone, do they have trouble focusing, or feel a sense of panic?” Homayoun asks. “Is your son unable to turn off his phone or put it in a different room to do homework or go to bed?”
  • Foregoing social events to be on their phone.
  • Emotional extremes around phone use. Are they only happy (or always miserable) when they’re using their phone?
  • Neglecting homework or other responsibilities.

If you’ve noticed any of these red flags, there are ways you can help. “We can’t blame teens—they’re using technology that’s designed to be addicting,” Knorr says. “But there are a lot of ways parents can help their teens be more mindful about their smartphone use, rather than banning the phone and fighting about it.”

For starters, model healthy phone use. “It can be hard for parents to help their kids have healthier habits when they themselves are dealing with the same things,” Homayoun says. So think about what behaviors of yours need to change, and how you can set a good example.

Then, talk to your teen. Ask her to think about when and why she picks up her phone, and help her identify what’s energizing and draining about her phone use, Homayoun says. Downloading the Moment app for iOS, which tracks usage, can help. As part of that discussion, talk to your kids about how some social media apps are actually designed to keep users hooked, Knorr advises.

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It can also be helpful to have conversations with other parents in your kid’s circle of friends and try to set group boundaries, Knorr says; doing so can make it easier for kids to adhere to a designated device curfew.

Finally, don’t be afraid to talk about the limits you think are important—such as having device-free dinners, or shutting off notifications—but be mindful of your approach.

“We need to come from a place of empathy, compassion, and understanding, rather than fear, anger and frustration,” Homayoun says. “It can be so easy to get frustrated, but we need to take a step back and think about the underlying causes contributing to the addiction.”

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