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How To Break Your Teen’s Phone Addiction – And Improve Their Mental Health

As parents, we tend to have a love/hate relationship with our kids’ screens; alternately feeling thankful for the distraction they create when we’re busy but then despising the draw they have over our kids and the subsequent battles it takes for them to disconnect.

Pre-pandemic, it was already bad. 39 per cent of five to 16 year-olds questioned in a study by Childwise in January 2020 said they couldn’t live without their phone, and with porn becoming more easily accessible, who knew what damage this was wreaking on our kids? Numerous lockdowns and enforced periods of online schooling later and our children’s obsessions with their phones is out of control and the consequences are disastrous for their mental health.

The biggest hit comes from the unrealistic images children get from their online experience.

‘Social media experiences are based on comparison and seeking popularity – it’s a 24/7 report card,’ says psychologist and educator Dr Alex J. Packer. ‘Likes, shares and follows are a measure of your popularity. When children compare they lives, homes, holidays and clothes they come out feeling uncool and inferior and this can translate into depression, moodiness and a feeling that they’re less than.’

With phones routinely kept in bedrooms overnight, there is no let up. A longitudinal study of 1,101 Australian high school students aged between 13 and 16 in 2017 found poor-quality sleep associated with late night texting and calling, which was linked to a decline in mental health, such as depressed moods and declines in self-esteem and coping ability.

Government legislation is finally tackling the porn issue and this week it was announced internet laws are currently being drafted to ensure that users will now have to pass verification checks to prove they’re at least 18, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg, says Dr Alex J. Packer. In his new book, Slaying Digital Dragons: Tips and Tools for Protecting Your Body, Brain, Psyche, and Thumbs from the Digital Dark Side, Dr Packer addresses the dangerous hold that ‘Big Tech’ increasingly has over our children’s lives.

‘Digital technology is a miracle and it’s incredible what we can do with it,’ he explains. ‘But as much as it’s a miracle it’s also a monster with 40 to 50 per cent of teens now saying they feel addicted to their phones.’

Being sucked into the vortex of the small screen for hours on end is damaging our children’s social skills as well as mental health. ‘Kids spend far more time on screens than they do in real life conversations especially with parents and siblings so more and more teens are feeling awkward in real life social situations and are uncomfortable with eye-to-eye contact,’ says Dr Packer. ‘A lot of studies on average teens today say they’re more sheltered, less independent and their street smarts are less developed. They’re also less likely to date, go out on Saturday nights, do volunteer work and they’ll get their driving licence at later ages. They’re growing up more slowly because of the powerful force being exerted on them in these crucial years of growth.’

Research has shown that even having a phone in the vicinity while they talk is damaging.

‘The mere presence of a phone even if it’s turned off has been shown to reduce empathy and feelings of closeness, trust and emotional connection,’ says Dr Packer. ‘The phone is like a significant other and just seeing it there represents things you’re missing out on – what are your friends up to, did you get any likes on social media.’

Excessive phone time impacts brain development too. ‘Roughly every 19 seconds children are switching tasks and going from one type of content to another,’ says Dr Packer. ‘During adolescence we want to be building up the pre-frontal cortex area of the brain, which is the problem solving, learning, memory and focus area. Instead, your phone is assaulting you every few seconds with sounds and notifications and instead of building up the higher functions, it’s triggering the primitive fight or flight response which keeps your brain in a state of continual arousal which can lead to chronic stress.’

As a result of this ‘assault’ children are becoming increasingly forgetful, distracted and have difficulty concentrating and finishing tasks, which can lead to frustration and lower self esteem.

While Packer understands that adolescence is a time for obsession and passion, the difference between children spending hours buried in comic books and spending hours on screens is the active agent of ‘Big Tech’.

‘Big Tech companies are actively seeking to manipulate, influence, predict and addict the behaviour of teens,’ claims Dr Packer. ‘They’re an active, stealthy force that have the most sophisticated understand of neurology and human nature and they use that to get their claws into every part of their lives.’

Having family rules – like no phones at the dinner table or phones off an hour before bed – may help when children are younger but ultimately, Dr Packer explains, you want to pass the responsibility of screen time usage over to your teen.

‘Don’t focus on the amount of screen time – that’s a losing battle because it means you assume responsibility for your child’s screen time and the child doesn’t,’ says Dr Packer. ‘You want to build a partnership not a power struggle and maintain a dialogue and a non-judgmental climate for discussion. We want them to lead an examined digital life so encourage them to look at the apps they use and take note of how they feel before going online, how they feel after and what their screen time triggers are.

Do they come off feeling happy, connected and proud? Or lonely, anxious and inadequate? They may want to do an ‘app-andectomy’ and get rid of the ones that feel toxic. Talk to them about Big Tech. Explain how these companies are rummaging around in their most private areas and knows more about them than they can ever imagine. Teens especially won’t like that and will want to push back.’

Encourage your child to think of their digital life in terms of balance. ‘How they’re spending their screen time will affect how many potential negative consequences they may be experiencing – are they creating or vegetating? Are they passive spectators or active learners? Is there a healthy balance of friend chat, videos and homework or are they spending 8 hours on Fortnite or solely sending snaps? The minute they start going off in any single direction, that’s where the threat level increases.’

Naturally, bringing in more real life is crucial. ‘With your child’s input, create family limits, rules and rituals that support more real-life interaction and fun outside of screen time,’ advises Dr Packer. ‘And role model what you want to see from your teen. Take breaks from your own screen time, remove your phone from sight when you interact and leave it out of your bedroom at night.’

Ultimately, the best approach to almost any issue as children get older is allowing them to experience their own autonomy and judgement, with your guidance.

‘You’ll still get sighs and eye rolls – that’s built into adolescent DNA – but know they’re still listening to you,’ says Dr Packer. This way, their internal desire to lead a healthy life, have great relationships and do good in the world should win out.

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