A recent survey by American non-profit Common Sense Media (CSM) suggests that 50% of teens consider themselves to be addicted to their mobile devices and that parents suspect the number is even higher. Perhaps equally alarming, the same study found that 27% of those same parents would describe themselves as being addicted to their devices too! The study asked over 1200 teens and parents about their use of and attitudes towards smartphones and other mobile devices.
The report recognises the ambiguity of the word ‘addiction’ and elsewhere CSM have noted the difference between natural ‘super engagement’ and genuine addiction, which might be characterised by poor “behavior, mood changes, falling grades, mounting bills, or a lack of human interaction”.
Even so, the report’s tone is largely cautionary, warning that internet addiction is potentially serious and requires additional study and that problematic media use can lead to reduced empathy and social-wellbeing as well as being a source of tension for many families.
One positive conclusion they draw is that use of technology may well enable teens to fulfill their natural needs to connect with and be validated by their peers in new ways.
What can we do about it?
This is all very well, but where does it leave us? Supposing I’ve recognised my own difficulty putting my phone down and see that my teens also need to change their device use habits both for their own wellbeing and for the sanity of their parents, what’s the next step?
Creating a more balanced attitude to technology in your home won’t happen overnight, but there are a number of clear steps that you can take to help manage the situation.
Explain – It may seem obvious to you that your teens excessive phone use is disruptive and is becoming a problem, but they might not see it that way. Make sure you talk with them about some of the potential downsides to their behaviour, including the negative effects multitasking can have on their focus and productivity and the risk constant social media use can have on their real life social skills. If they understand the problem they’ll be more motivated to join in with efforts to solve it.
Explaining how you see things to someone else (including your kids) can also help you to come up with your own, homemade solutions; it’s all very well to read an article like this about what you might do, but once you start discussing these ideas with other people you’ll find that it helps you to solidify your view and develop your own strategy for dealing with the problem.
Set boundaries – Creating set times or places that will be device free helps to establish some limits on device use. It’s crucial to provide opportunities for your family to communicate with each other without the distraction of their phones, tablets and other screens. If you need a hand getting the devices switched off, parental control apps can be a lifesaver, but their use always needs to be accompanied by clear explanation of why they’re being used and of any conditions you want to attach to their use (eg. Don’t arbitrarily turn the device off because it’s bugging you, first warn “If your homework’s not done by 6pm, your device will be locked for the rest of the evening”).
Lead the way – As the CSM survey suggests, this will be a real challenge for many of us. Dependence on technology is not just a teenage problem. The example set by parents is the fundamental guide for the behaviour of younger children and whilst teens may not be quite so quick to follow suit, they’ll certainly be hostile towards perceived hypocrisy on our part.
If you know it will be difficult for you to stop using your tablet at the dinner table or answering your phone in the car, think about practical ways you can place boundaries on your own device use too. This might include switching your phone to flight mode before you get in the car or even placing scheduled lockdowns on your own phone at mealtimes or bedtimes as a gentle reminder of the rules you’ve committed to.
Check in – Keep the conversation about technology use and media consumption with your kids ongoing. Ask them what sites, apps or games they’re spending time on, what they’re watching, what shows their friends talk about at school. Watch an episode together with them or have a go yourself at the games they’re playing to both understand the material better and show your willingness to engage with the technology and find compromise together. Ask them what they like and dislike about the media they watch and use and what message they think that media is sending them.
The hard slog
It’s not an easy task, in fact it’s a real challenge of modern parenting, but it’s a battle worth participating in for the sake of our kids. Use the resources available to you including the likes of CSM and other parenting services and forums as well as technological help from parental control software. Talk about the challenge with other parents you know, find out what they do and if there’s anything you could be doing together (eg. you take their kids for a (device free) day out one week, they yours the next). If you’ve got some advice from your own experience of fighting your family’s device addiction, tell us about it in the comments below.