A Digital Diet  

First, Apple introduced the smartphone in 2007. Five years later, over half of Americans owned a smartphone. Now, 2.5 billion worldwide own a smartphone. The real crux: More than 95 percent of Americans teenagers own a smartphone, with 45 percent of teens claiming to be online almost constantly.

Teenagers with smartphones are like a donut to a dieter: very tempting and hard to put down. Do today’s teens need a digital diet in today’s digital revolution?  

Since smartphones and social media have become constants in a teenager’s life, numerous studies have linked increased use with a decline in a teen’s well-being. A recent study at San Diego State University reviewed data from roughly 1.1 million U.S. teens to determine why previous long term rises in happiness and well-being among teens suddenly shifted in 2012, then declined after that. The reason? Internet Use Disorder.  

Currently, U.S. Diagnostic Standards Manual for Mental Disorders does not list internet addiction as a disorder, so treatment options can be limited. But research is now examining why kids can’t get off their cellphones, how it’s impacting their daily lives and if it is, in fact, an addiction disorder.  

Dr. Chris Tuell, clinical director of addiction services at Linder Center of HOPE in Mason, says that three factors define internet use disorder: A loss of control, compulsive behavior and whether the person continues the behavior despite resulting negative consequences.  

“We are finding it more problematic with young people, especially if there are co-occurring mental health issues like anxiety or depression because of this increased access,” Tuell says.  

The SDSU study also showed that kids who are heavy social media users were found to have a 27 percent increased depression risk, and 35 percent increased the risk of suicide. Teenagers who hung out with friends decreased by more than 40 percent due to technology. Twenty-two percent of teens who spend more time on their phones got less than seven hours of sleep per night. For parents, this can be distressing. So, what should they do with a teen who may be teetering on the brink of addiction? 

Parents need to remember that most teens can’t recall a time when this technology wasn’t in their lives, so the lines between media used for communication, school work and entertainment are blurrier and more fluid. “Our focus is to help parents manage it and identify the triggers that might put their teen on the path for overusing these devices,” Tuell says. One good start is to look inward.  

Often, parents spend too much time on their phones. So, parents should role model setting limits, not only for themselves but for their child, says Anya Kamenetz, author of The Art of Screen Time: How Your Family Can Balance Digital Media and Real Life. A parent’s job is more than just saying “no.”  

“We also need to model positive uses of technology for creativity, connecting with friends and family, learning and discovery, and even for pure enjoyment,” Kamenetz says.

Parents can begin by replacing smartphone with family time or time with friends, Tuell says, or they can remove a TV or game system from their teen’s room. Parents can also encourage their teens to take part in activities that get them moving, like a sport, biking or volunteer work.  

More importantly, the key is learning to listen to your teens. Parents can start that conversation by using the American Pediatrics Association’s recommendations on screen time and their APA’s Family Media Plan.  

By completing the APA’s Family Media Plan, families can establish media-free zones in their homes, set time limits for screen time, plus address safety and digital citizenship considerations, and revisit it when the need calls for it. As a result, parents can be a part of the process where media can be used to connect, learn and create instead of simply consumed. 

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