Battling ’Tween Cell Phone Addiction

This year my biggest parenting regret has been getting a smartphone for my 11-year-old son. The move created a lot of conflict in my house, and while at times it serves as an entertaining “babysitter,” the reality is I’ve learned that cell phone use can easily spiral out of control, especially if parents don’t set firm guidelines.

We spoke with Wendy Hart, a founding member of HeadsUp Rivertowns, a group of Rivertown parents who advocate delaying the age of when children first get a smartphone and Amber daSilva, an Irvington-based social worker and therapist who counsels kids addicted to their smartphones. They both offer helpful advice for families to tackle the problem of ‘tween cell phone addiction.

The gift of delaying smartphone usage

With 10 being the average age that children in the U.S. obtain a smartphone, former CEO of Microsoft Bill Gates made a flurry of headlines when he told reporters back in 2017 that his kids did not get a smartphone until they turned 14. “The biggest gift parents can give their children is to wait until they are older to get a smartphone,” explains Hart. “Kid’s brains are not mature enough to handle things that come with smartphone use such as social media, YouTube and games.”

Echoing that sentiment, daSilva explains how smartphones can become quickly addictive to youngsters. “Practically every kid that comes into my office says they are addicted to their phones. The colors on the screen, the push notifications or social media likes, these all send a dopamine rush to the brain. Big tech is designing these technologies to hit the exact same receptors that drugs and alcohol stimulate. With children’s brains not being fully developed, they are much more susceptible to this addiction.”

The effects on the growing brain

According to the Pew Research Center, the average 8- to 10-year-old is spending approximately eight hours a day on various screens including their smartphones. One has to wonder what the long-term effects of this are and research is starting to show how over-use of smartphones affects cognition in children. A National Institute of Health study showed that kids who spent more than seven hours a day on a screen exhibited prefrontal cortex thinning which may lead to a loss of learning capacity. In addition, the mere presence of a child’s smartphone either on a desk or in a bookbag nearby was shown to reduce the brain’s cognitive capacity due to distraction.

It’s no secret that rates of childhood and ‘tween anxiety and depression are also increasing. “It is difficult to pinpoint smartphones as the cause of this,” comments daSilva but experts do believe there is a correlation. She counsels a lot of children who are addicted to playing Fortnite on their phone or are constantly checking their SnapChat. “These kids might not be addicted to the actual phone, but they are addicted to apps on it.” She sees a lot of girls addicted to social media and boys addicted to games. “The addiction is real and with a smartphone all of this is so much more accessible,” daSilva notes. In fact, the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) now lists video game addiction as a mental health condition and behavior disorder. Many of daSilva’s patients who take a break from their smartphones at sleepaway camp report that they are happier and less anxious without them but that they’d never admit that to their parents. Children say they feel more connected to their friends when the interactions happen face-to-face rather than through a device, she adds.

Signs and symptoms of addiction

If you are worried that your ‘tween is addicted to their smartphone, daSilva suggests that parents be mindful of the following symptoms. Many of these signs can mimic just regular stages of ‘tween development, so if you are concerned about your child it is best to discuss this with a mental health professional:

•Withdrawal/isolation from family and friends
•Weight gain/loss (some kids are so addicted they forget to eat or eat mindlessly while on a device)
•Loss of cognitive function
•Higher levels of hostility/anger
•Trouble sleeping

Setting guidelines

Both Hart and daSilva offer tips for parents seeking advice on how to set guidelines for smartphone usage. “I think many parents just give their old cell phones to their kids when they get an upgrade,” says Hart. If you do this she suggests deleting any apps or games on that phone so that the phone just functions as a calling and texting device until your child is ready for a fully functioning smartphone. “Children should feel the that the smartphone is on loan,” says daSilva. “Tell them that you, as their parent, are allowed to have access to it anytime you wish,” she continues. This isn’t to say that you should constantly be snooping on them but this can serve as a warning so that they do not send inappropriate texts or look at adult content.

Other tips are:

•No phones in the bedroom. Eight of 10 kids with smartphones fall asleep with them in their hand, under the pillow or on the nightstand.
•No phones at mealtimes.
•No phones in the car. Hart says that traveling in the car with her kids and their friends helped her get a lot of information that she wouldn’t get otherwise.
•Only one screen at a time. Kids shouldn’t be on multiple devices simultaneously.
•Decide what apps are allowed and when and where.
•Model good smartphone behavior as a parent. Don’t walk around the house with it. Keep it in the kitchen to charge and teach children not to use it when they are walking.
•Consider turning your child’s phone to grayscale suggests Hart as this may make the phone less appealing and addictive.
“Like everything else, kids are always watching what their parents do. It is hard for them to follow these rules, if you yourself are addicted to your smartphone,” sums up daSilva.

Stacey Pfeffer is a writer and editor based in Chappaqua.

For more information about HeadsUp Rivertowns including tips to help combat cell phone addiction, links to articles providing additional information, and initiatives you can explore with your children, see headsuprivertowns.com.