Could my teen be addicted to her smartphone?

DEAR DOCTOR K:

My teenage daughter jokingly said she’s “addicted” to her smartphone. I didn’t find her remark funny because there’s too much truth to what she said. Do I have a valid cause for concern?

DEAR READER:

Real addiction — such as to narcotics — causes changes in brain chemistry. I’m not aware that such changes have been shown for smartphones. But regular users of smartphones (of any age) surely can become very dependent on their phones — and very anxious when they are not able to use their phones for even a few hours.

Since your question is about your teenager, I turned to my colleague Dr. Claire McCarthy, assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. We discussed a report recently released by Common Sense Media, based on a survey it did on 620 parent-child pairs. The organization reported that:

  • 50 percent of teens feel that they are addicted to their mobile devices;
  • 59 percent of parents think their teens are addicted to their mobile devices;
  • 66 percent of parents feel that their teens spend too much time on their mobile devices — and 52 percent of the teens agree with them!

This is pretty powerful. Parents and teens agree that their devices have a hold on them. That doesn’t mean that constantly checking Instagram is the same as having a drug addiction. But there is real cause for concern.

Why? Because smartphones compete for our time and attention and constantly distract us. We have only so much time, and can be only partially attentive when we are multitasking. When you pay less attention, there can be consequences.

For teens, these consequences may affect social relationships. It’s hard to build or maintain them, and to hone social skills, when you are on your phone. It’s true that smartphones allow teens to “meet” many people they may never meet in person, and to communicate frequently with true friends. But to the extent that smartphone time with friends starts to substitute for face-to-face time, it likely threatens the quality of those friendships.

There’s also a concern that constant smartphone use may adversely affect a teen’s ability to learn. The most obvious basis for concern is simply from the distraction posed by smartphones. It’s hard to lay down new memories and learn new material when you are distracted.

A theoretical concern is that constant multitasking by teens (whose brains are still not fully formed) may adversely affect their ability to focus and think deeply in the future. That is, some experts fear that constant multitasking, particularly in the developing brain, may “re-wire” the brain in unhealthy ways.

Smartphones used under the covers after teens go to bed can cause inadequate sleep time and quality. This, in turn, can have an adverse impact on both mental and physical health.

And obviously, obsessively checking the smartphone at times when full attention must be directed elsewhere — while driving or crossing the street, for example — is a great threat to health.

The bottom line is that these devices need to be used thoughtfully. Talk about this issue as a family and make some ground rules.