Teen Cell Phone Use: Addiction or Integration?

By Tracey Dowdy

It’s no surprise when I say we’re a tech-addicted society. Things that we didn’t know existed 10 years ago are now a fundamental part of our daily lives. Case in point: our smartphones. According to a recent study, we check our smartphones an average of 110 times a day.

It’s also no surprise when I say the group most prone to this behavior is teens. This is the generation that really doesn’t remember a time before cell phones much the way my generation can’t imagine life without cable TV. (Yes, I had to go that far back for a technological innovation. Stop judging.)

How do you know if your teen’s attachment to his or her phone goes beyond the norm? At what point should you be concerned? Ira E. Hyman, Jr., Ph.D., Professor of Psychology at Western Washington University suggests applying the standard definition of addiction to cell phone use: “Tolerance (decreased value requiring more use to get the same effect); Withdrawal, (symptoms if you don’t have access to your addiction); Increased use; Inability to cut back on use; Reduction of competing behaviors; Engaging in the behavior despite risks and negative consequences.”

With this definition in mind, does your child:

Sleep with her phone?

Of those surveyed, 75% said their phone is never more than 5 feet from them at any given time. Fear Of Missing Out (or “FOMO”) is a big part of this. At an age when peer acceptance is at a premium, failure to respond to a text or phone call in the middle of the night can be a very big deal.

Experience anxiety if she is separated from her phone?

Let’s be honest, “Nomophobia” or the fear of “no mobile phone” affects more than just teens. Anyone would – or should – feel uncomfortable if their phone is lost, as we have so much personal information stored on our devices. But if being unable to check your phone for short periods of time leaves you feeling nervous or uneasy and leaves you unable to focus on the task at hand, there may be cause for concern.

Feel an overwhelming urge to respond to calls or texts immediately?

This is one is a little tricky. My husband is incapable of letting a phone ring or receiving a text without checking it. It goes against his personality and his nature as a therapist – “What if someone really needs me?” If your teen sees her phone as the priority at all times – regardless of circumstances – or her preoccupation with her phone keeps her from engaging with people or situations, it may be time for a conversation about boundaries.

It is important for us as parents to remember that what may seem over the top to us may be perfectly within reason to the next generation. While we struggle with a work/life balance and lament that work follows us home through our smartphones, our kids are growing up in a world where that will become a work/life integration. Technology seamlessly runs through their lives ostensibly without interruption.

This is not to say that there is no need for balance. Everyone needs to disconnect at some point. If your teen isn’t getting enough sleep or her grades are being affected, again, it’s time for a conversation. Any behavior that is having a negative effect needs to be addressed. Teaching our kids responsible cell phone use is part of teaching them self-care – it’s common sense parenting.

Remind them that no matter what is considered “normal,” there are times when using your phone is not okay – texting and driving for example. And as Hyman points out, a little more consideration for others when using a phone would be nice too. We’ve all been stuck near someone having a carefree conversation, oblivious to the fact the rest of us don’t want to hear about their bunion surgery, children’s potty training mishaps, or TPS reports.

Maybe that’s just me showing my age again. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go yell at some kids to get off my lawn.

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Toronto, ON. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances and researches on subjects from family and education to pop culture and trends in technology.

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