During the last decade, we have all grown accustomed to being online virtually 24/7 – using smartphones and tablets to browse social media, share ideas and gossip and more. It’s fun but is it healthy? A mounting body of evidence says ‘no’ and shows that adults and especially kids are at risk from significant side effects from prolonged use: issues include stress, anxiety, sleep issues, lowered self-esteem, cyberbullying and even a distorted view of reality.
The culprit here turns out to be the addictive designs used by tech giants such as Apple, Google, and Facebook to keep you and your kids riveted to the screen for as long as possible. Why? Because your attention is a valuable commodity that is being resold to advertisers to the tune of several hundred billion pounds annually.
Addictive design uses the same methods casinos use when designing slot machines –– an avalanche of notifications, emojis, buzzers, likes, scrolls, comparisons etc all carefully designed to keep you browsing by injecting itself into your cognitive system below your conscious level.
Largest social experiment ever undertaken
Most people don’t realise just how much impact smartphones and social media has had over the past 10 years, but the fact is that more than half of the world’s population now use social media. The resulting economy from sales of smartphones, tablets and not least the sale of your and your children’s attention to advertisers rivals the economy of mid-sized countries like Sweden or Holland. In essence, it is the largest social experiment ever undertaken and we have no clear idea where it will take us.
Rewiring of children’s brains
What we do know is that extensive use of smartphones and social media causes rewiring of children’s brains (a phenomenon known as neuroplasticity) and that the list of possible side effect includes stress, lowered self-esteem, FOMO (fear of missing out), decision fatigue, problems focusing and concentrating, sleep disturbances, cognitive dissonance, digital tribalism, lowered empathy and cyber-bullying.
Obviously, not every child using a smartphone is going to get hit by every single possible side effect but here are some signs that are worth watching out for:
Side effects of smartphone use
- Mood swings – especially anger and frustration if you try and limit your children’s access to smartphones and social media.
- Changes in sleep patterns – having a hard time falling asleep or waking up in the middle of the night (to check their phone).
- Trouble concentrating – difficulty managing school work on time and having a hard time getting started in on homework (the phone is more fun).
- Being secretive – refusing to share information with you on what they do online or who they interact with.
- Being more online than offline – the situation where the phone or tablet and social media exerts more pull than friends, sports, family, hobbies etc.
What can you do if you begin observing some of these symptoms? It’s pretty simple, really (albeit not easy, mind you).
- Be present and focused. Spend time with your kids interacting with them and stay focused on them: What they are doing, what they are excited about, what they would like to do. Being there for them with your full attention makes a huge difference.
- Be a role model. Remember, kids don’t do what you say, they do what they see you do. So put the phone away when you are with your kids and interact with them instead.
- Make their phones less addictive. Get your kids to turn off notifications on their phones and in their social media feeds. This way the pull of the phone or tablets gets less and your children will have an easier time pulling away as needed.
- Put screen time on a schedule. Make an online schedule with your kids, could be after homework is done, or between 5 pm and 7 pm or after dinner or whatever works in your setting. But make sure you stick to what you have agreed.
- Introduce alternatives. Try out some of the many good alternatives to being online. Play board games, solve puzzles, read a book, draw, learn to play the piano 😉 The real gold here is doing it together instead of being off on your own.
Yes, children are at risk but there is plenty you can do about it. It requires being observant and takes discipline on your part as well. But it is all well worth it because what you get in return is not just saving your kids from smartphone burnout but also spending more quality time with them. What’s not to like about that!
By Soren Kenner and Imran Rashid
Soren Kenner and Dr. Imran Rashid’s new book OFFLINE: Free your mind from smartphone and social media stress is out now, priced £12.99.