Pediatric Associates of the NW Blogs

The Battle at Home: Smartphones and Your Kids’ Mental Health

Shannon Odell, PsyD
February 01, 2018 03:00PM

I’m going to start off this blog with a scary fact. Anxiety and depression rates in our children are the highest they’ve ever been.  The CDC says that 20% of children between the ages of 3-19 years old have a diagnosable mental health condition, and the numbers are only going up. A new study revealed that the percentage of children and teens hospitalized for suicidal thoughts between 2008 and 2015 doubled since the last period studied. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention data cites suicide as the second-leading cause of death nationally for people between the ages of 10 and 24 years old; rates in particular are on the rise among girls ages 10-14 years old.

You’re probably wondering the same thing I am. Why? How could that be? Even in the 15 years I’ve been in this field, I’ve seen a marked increase in the frequency and intensity of these symptoms in tweens and teens. It turns out some experts have identified that around 2012, something started going wrong in the lives of teens. The number of U.S. teens demonstrating classic depression symptoms “surged” by 33% in national surveys. The number of 13 to 18-year-olds who committed suicide had jumped by 31%.  What could account for this steep incline in the rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide in the nation’s teens? I have a feeling the most likely culprit won’t surprise you.

Let’s look at the data. Smartphones crossed the 50% threshold in late 2012, meaning more than half of teenagers owned or had access to a smartphone—right when teen depression and suicide began to increase.  A study recently published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science supports this theory. Data highlighted in the study include:

• Teens’ use of electronic devices, including smartphones, for at least five hours daily more than doubled from 8% in 2009 to 19% in 2015. These teens were 70% more likely to have suicidal thoughts or actions than those who reported one hour of daily use.

• In 2015, 36% of all teens reported feeling desperately sad or hopeless, or thinking about, planning or attempting suicide — up from 32% in 2009. For girls, the rates were higher — 45% in 2015 versus 40% in 2009.

• In 2009, 58% of 12th grade girls used social media every day or nearly every day; by 2015, 87% used social media every day or nearly every day. They were 14% more likely to be depressed than those who used social media less frequently.

Certainly there are other factors that contribute to onset of anxiety or depression, including genetic predisposition, family environments, bullying and trauma.  However, based on the staggering rates of these symptoms, it is also possible that teens who would otherwise not have had mental health issues may have slipped into depression because of too much screen time, not enough face-to-face social interaction, inadequate sleep because the device comes to bed with the teen, or a combination of all three. As humans, we are social animals. Neurologically, our brains are wired for connection. And while social media is certainly a way to connect, it is not in the way our brains need. In-person connection, feeling a strong sense of community, physical contact, and proximity to others protects us from the risks of loneliness and isolation. The truth of the matter is, we don’t truly feel connected with others when we’re staring at a screen filled with words and pictures, and this generation of teenagers is showing us how important in-person interaction truly is for our emotional well-being. 

We also really need sleep. Certain school districts in our area have moved start times to accommodate the sleep habits of teens. But starting school an hour or two later doesn’t really make the hoped for difference when teens are up all night on their phones. And regardless of whether they’re actually using their phones all night, research has shown that having a phone by their bedside functions for teens much the same way baby monitors do for new mothers. Their brain is always listening out for the alert, and so their sleep isn’t as deep as it should be.

The dilemma of many parents today is whether they should allow their kids to have a smart phone or not. If so, how and to what extent? How do I limit a device that can be like oxygen to my child? Is this a battle I should fight? One parent interviewed in a recent Wall Street Journal article likened monitoring her child’s smartphone use to teaching her child to use crack in moderation.  Once the screen has been introduced, it’s really hard to turn back. And I’ve heard countless stories from parents of how angry their children become when it’s time to turn off the device. Oxygen or crack, whichever analogy you choose, it’s clear this is a battle that’s becoming increasingly hard to fight the more reliant our kids become on their screens. But based on what the research says, and what I hear day in and day out, this battle isn’t really about screens. It’s about something much bigger than that. It’s a fight for your child’s mental health.

So please, limit your child’s smartphone use. There’s another great Wall Street Journal article about how tech moguls monitor their child’s social media use, and it’s full of good advice. https://www.wsj.com/articles/is-your-child-social-media-savvy-1516111365 .  If you have little ones, start making a plan for how you’re going to approach introducing this technology into their lives and try to limit their access to 2 hours per day. Teach them from the start that they should have zero expectations of privacy regarding their screen use and that making good choices is a requirement for having access to screens. Make sure your child is connecting with others in person, and give them permission to turn off their phones. They don’t need to respond to every text, or every snapchat, and they certainly don’t need to look at the endless highlight reels of their hundreds of “friends” on their preferred social media platforms.  Encourage them to keep their followers and the accounts they follow on social media to a smaller number of people. Social media is more beneficial when you’re engaged with people you actually care about, rather than following people like your friend’s friend’s boyfriend’s friend for the sake of having a higher number of followers.  Don’t let them spend all day alone in their room with their phone. Take away their phone or device at night so they can get good quality sleep. Talk to them about their day, and don’t be afraid to ask them if they’re feeling down or anxious. Kids can be pretty frank when you ask them frank questions. And contact your pediatrician or one of our behavioral health psychologists if you have any concerns.