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New research finds that nearly half of American teens say they are almost constantly on their phones, but how much is too much? Experts say to watch out for these signs. Getty Images
  • New research finds that 95% of teenagers in the United States have access to a smartphone, while 45% say they are “almost constantly” online.
  • Previous research has found that recreational screen time among teens doubled to nearly eight hours per day early in the pandemic.
  • Experts say there are several signs which parents should be aware of that may signal a child’s amount of screen time has become unhealthy.

Smartphones are a ubiquitous part of daily life. We use them for everything from checking our social feeds to looking up directions.

Perhaps no group embraces their devices more than adolescents.

The Pew Research Center reports that 95% of teenagers in the United States have access to a smartphone, while 45% say they are “almost constantly” online.

When does this device-fueled, constantly online behavior become unhealthy?

Some recent research has shed light on when smartphone use becomes addictive for early adolescents, or “tweens.” This has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, during which many young people, cut off from in-person social interactions, became more reliant on their screens than ever before.

Healthline spoke with experts about some of the warning signs that may signal that a young person is developing an addiction to their phone and how parents and guardians can help their kids relate to their screens in a healthier way.

Over the summer, research was published in the journal Pediatric Research that took a look at American tweens’ “problematic” screen use.

Researchers used data from the two-year follow-up to the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study, which was a longitudinal study of the health and cognitive development of 11,875 children across the U.S. surveyed from 2016 to 2018. The research team followed up with these young people (who ranged from 10 to 14 years old) between the years 2018 and 2020.

The young people who participated hailed from a broad range of socioeconomic, racial, and ethnic backgrounds, and were questioned about their social media, video game, and mobile phone use. The study shows just how wide-reaching a reliance on this technology is for young adolescents of all backgrounds.

They found some broad trends.

For instance, boys showed signs of higher “problematic video game use” while the girls surveyed showed a higher likelihood of problematic social media and cellphone use. Additionally, “Native American, Black, and Latinx adolescents reported higher scores across all problematic screen measures” compared to their white peers, the study reads.

When it came to socioeconomic factors, the researchers found that the tweens who came from households with unmarried or unpartnered parents were tied to “higher problematic social media use.

Potentially addictive video game use was lower in households of higher income statuses, but within that group, “these associations were weaker for Black than white adolescents.”

Zooming in on the data, lead study author Dr. Jason Nagata, assistant professor of pediatrics in the division of adolescent and young adult medicine at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), pointed to some eye-opening statistics.

Among them, 47.5% of teens say they lose track of how much they’re using their phones, 30.6% report they “interrupt whatever they’re doing” when contacted on their phone, and 11.3% said that being without a phone “makes me feel distressed.”

When putting this research in context, Nagata pointed to another of his studies that revealed recreational screen time among teens “doubled to nearly eight hours per day early in the pandemic.”

“This estimate excluded screen time spent on school or schoolwork, so total daily screen use was even higher. Teens were essentially spending most of their day on screens for school and then had the equivalent of a second school- or workday on screens for fun,” Nagata told Healthline.

In looking at some of the demographic differences, Nagata said boys tended to gravitate more toward playing video games and watching YouTube videos while girls were drawn to video chats, texting, and their social media feeds.

“Although girls spend more time on social media than boys overall, social media can still affect teen boys’ body image. Instagram use is linked to increased risk of meal skipping and disordered eating in teenage boys as well as muscle and height dissatisfaction,” he said. “Men using Instagram are more likely to think about using harmful muscle-enhancing products such as anabolic steroids. Boys who spend more time on social media can face constant comparisons to muscular bodies.”

When it came to racial disparities and economic disparities between young people of color and their white peers, as well as tweens from higher and lower-income households, the rates of overall screen addiction were elevated among Black adolescents and those young people from lower-income households.

“This may be due to structural and systemic factors, such as lack of financial resources to do other kinds of activities or lack of access to safe outdoor spaces,” Nagata explained. “In high-income households, there were greater disparities in video game addiction for Black compared to white adolescents, relative to low-income households. Higher socioeconomic status does not remove disparities between Black and white adolescents.”

What these statistics do is show a troubling reality: adolescents can’t seem to escape their phones.

When asked how prevalent this over-reliance on technology is for today’s young people, Tara Peris, PhD, a professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the UCLA Semel Institute, told Healthline that “a big issue for alltweens and teens is learning to develop a healthy relationship with digital technology.”

Peris, who is also the associate director of the Division of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, and co-director of the UCLA Child OCD, Anxiety, and Tic Disorders Program, explained that “Kids this age need to learn to make responsible choices and to create balance in their lives between their time with technology and their time spent with friends, family, and other in-person activities.”

“The big issue is really about educating them and helping them to observe their own habits and own emotional responses to smartphone/technology use,” added Peris, who is unaffiliated with Nagata’s research.

As with any addictive behavior, there are some common signs and symptoms of unhealthy reliance on one’s smartphone.

Nagata said that some common signs and symptoms to look out for include “when screens adversely affect a teen’s quality of life, relationships, and daily functioning.”

A teen in your life might be unable to curb or reduce their screen use, for instance. They also might lose interest in non-smartphone or technology-related activities.

For these young people, screen use might “preoccupy their thoughts,” he explained.

“Warning signs of smartphone addiction include if a person becomes distressed at the thought of being without their phone, thinks about their phone when not using it, interrupts whatever else they are doing when contacted on their phone, or has arguments with others due to phone use,” Nagata said.

Peris pointed out that teens and tweens are “some of the biggest users” of social media platforms and smartphones. As a result, “the total hours spent online may be less important than what they are doing with them and why.”

“Some of the hallmark signs of addiction are things like difficulty limiting use, significant interference (such as negative consequences at school, in friendships, family arguments, etc.), and irritability or anxiety when not using,” she stressed. “It can also be helpful to consider whether smartphone use is affecting sleep, as insufficient sleep can have a cascade of effects on mood, cognition, and relationships with others.”

In looking at that near-50% figure from Nagata’s study that shows these young people lose track of how much time they are spending on their phones, it’s hard not to wonder just how much that impacts their day-to-day lives.

If you are so caught up in your screen that you have lost sense of how much time you are spending scrolling through Instagram or texting with friends, what kind of impact does that have on your relationships and ability to carry out tasks at school or home?

“More passive screen time can impact teens’ mental health by displacing other important activities including being active outdoors, participating in sports, or socializing with friends,” Nagata said. “Some teens can develop addictions to their screens and feel unable to disconnect.”

Peris echoed those thoughts.

“When we think about interference from device use, we’re generally thinking about whether it affects things like schoolwork, friendships, daily routines, or family life. If you’re distracted in interactions because you need to check your phone, arguing a lot about cell phone use, or irritable when limits are set, those are signs it’s getting in the way,” she said.

Nagata explained that one’s “socialization through texting” or a messaging platform is very different from face-to-face interactions. Teens and tweens, in particular, might not develop the “important social and nonverbal cues, such as facial expressions, eye contact, and tone of voice when communicating via screens.”

Outside of interpersonal relationships, this technology addiction can take a toll on a young person’s mental health. At such an impressionable, often vulnerable age, tweens and teens can experience very tangible, harmful mental health symptoms from a compulsion to constantly be keyed into their screens.

“Although social media and video calls can be used to foster social connection, we found that teens reporting higher screen use felt less social support during the pandemic,” Nagata said. “More screen time was linked to poorer mental health and greater stress among teens.”

He also pointed to another study of his that revealed binge-watching television can lead to binge-eating behavior in tweens. Additionally, he said he and his team also “found that screen use is linked to disruptive behavior disorders in teens.”

“Constant comparison with unrealistic bodies on social media can lead to higher body dissatisfaction. More time on social media can lead to more comparisons to peers,” Nagata added. “This may also lead to more exposure to unattainable body ideals and higher dissatisfaction with their own bodies. Social media use is linked to higher risk of developing eating disorders.”

From her expertise, Peris stated that studies have shown that high levels of smartphone use can generate increased problems with anxiety, depression, and related mental health problems.

“Extreme use can also take away from the time spent on extracurriculars, exercise, sleep, and other healthy habits that protect against mental health problems. At the same time, research in this area is quite mixed. For most teens, smartphones are a major form of social connection, and they come with clear benefits. Most will tell you that they can stay connected with friends who move away, access support during difficult moments, and have a creative outlet with their phones,” she said.

“Sometimes they can even access mental health supports they wouldn’t be comfortable seeking out in person. Again, it’s important to consider what kids are doing online and why — if you’re on there to compare yourself to others, you may end up feeling worse after use. If you’re there for peer support or connection, it could be a different story,” Peris added.

Both Nagata and Peris pinpointed one resource these young people should be able to turn to for support if they are facing addictive behavior to their phones and devices: parents and guardians.

“Parents have a big role to play — from establishing structure and ground rules to modeling healthy behaviors. A good starting point is to have a conversation with your tween or teen about what they like to do online and why. Be curious, not judgmental,” Peris said. “These conversations open the door for asking about whether they’ve ever had a tough time online or whether it’s hard to step away.”

She explained that for kids who are just getting phones, it’s important parents have discussions right away about how that phone use and privilege will work. You have to set ground rules.

Peris pointed to Common Sense Media as a helpful resource to navigate these sometimes difficult conversations. It’s all about setting healthy, helpful, non-shame-based boundaries, which can be easier said than done.

“Finally, parents can model their own good practices by putting phones away during meals and conversations, being reflective about their own behavior, and showing how they create balance in their own lives,” Peris added.

Nagata asserted that “parents should act as role models for their children.”

This means modeling healthy behaviors around tech like smartphones and social media and regularly opening up channels of communication with a young person about screen time and developing “a family media use plan.”

In addition to limiting screen use during meals, Nagata pointed to encouraging tweens and teens to avoid using their devices before bed.

It could be helpful to encourage the young person in your life to turn off notifications and also keep the phone away from the nightstand next to the bed.

Another simple recommendation is to simply set specific “screen-free” times during the day. It shouldn’t feel like a chore, but rather, be framed as a break so that this addictive behavior doesn’t take root.

“If teens are finding that social media is causing more stress or anxiety than enjoyment, they may consider alternative activities that make them feel connected to others like seeing friends in person and joining clubs, and teams,” he added.

In a technology-saturated world, all of this can feel like an overwhelming burden, both for the young person and the adult. We can’t avoid technology altogether, but both Nagata and Peris agree there is a way to integrate it healthily into one’s life without letting it take over.


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