Is your child a phone addict? Picture: Pexels
On the heels of two large Apple investors urging the company to address kids’ phone addiction, many parents may be wondering: How do I know if my child is addicted to his or her smartphone? And how can I prevent problematic overuse? 

 A 2016 survey from Common Sense Media found that half of teenagers felt addicted to their devices, with 78 percent checking their devices at least hourly and 72 percent felt pressured to respond immediately to notifications. 
A 2015 Pew Research Centre report found that 73% of 13- to 17-year-olds had their own smartphones or had access to one, and 24% said they were online “almost constantly.”

Many parents are conflicted about their teens’ smartphone use. They appreciate the convenience of having access to their children and the potential safety benefits. In an age of social media, teenagers use messaging apps to stay in touch with friends and make social plans, some of which can be positive.

Instead of becoming overly fixated on teens’ smartphone use in general, it is important to think about “what are the applications on the smartphone and how is your child using the applications on that smartphone,” said Katie Davis, assistant professor at the University of Washington and co-director of the UW Digital Youth Lab, whose research explores the role of new media technologies in young people’s personal, social and academic lives. 
Parents trying to monitor use can have difficulty distinguishing abusive behavior from appropriate use, especially since teens use their devices for both schoolwork and free time, often simultaneously.

For some teens, the constant potential feedback loop from notifications and messaging might create a fear of missing out, or FOMO. And although there is currently no official medical recognition of “smartphone addiction” as a disease or disorder, the term refers to obsessive behaviors that disturb the course of daily activities in a way that mirrors patterns similar to substance abuse.

Here are some questions to ask: 
  • Does your teenager’s mood suddenly change and become intensely anxious, irritable, angry or even violent when the phone is taken away or unavailable for use? 
  • Does your teen skip or not participate in social events because of time spent on the phone? Another red flag is spending so much time on a smartphone that it affects personal hygiene and normal daily activities (most notably, sleep). 
  • Lying, hiding and breaking family rules to spend more time on a smartphone can be cause for alarm, said Hilarie Cash, a psychotherapist and the chief clinical officer at reSTART, an internet addiction rehabilitation program outside of Seattle.
In my work with students, I’ve found that even teenagers who want to curb their phone use may find it difficult to self-regulate without parental guidance. Creating daily and weekly offline time as part of the family routine is helpful, and finding a way to have a once- or twice-yearly extended period of time off may provide the reset teens need to break negative habits.

Just as kids learn to ride bikes with training wheels or get junior licenses when they learn to drive, kids shouldn’t be expected to manage their first smartphones all by themselves. Fortunately, there are ways to manage use and help kids develop better tendencies, and much of it requires a delicate balance of parental modeling and involvement.

MAKE A PLAN
Taking the time to discuss appropriate use, establish guidelines and come up with a family agreement before kids get a phone is ideal, because it can be harder to put rules in place afterward. Family agreements can include rules about when and how the phone may be used, and potential consequences for broken rules. Agreements are more likely to be successful if they are followed consistently and revisited frequently as kids grow older and new apps become available.

MONITOR USE
For parents of teens who have smartphones, making the effort to understand how, where and why kids are spending time on their phone is critical.
It can be helpful to think about imbalances over a span of time rather than on a single evening or weekend. After all, binge-watching a television series on a smartphone while feeling sick or heartbroken isn’t the same as lying about phone use over an extended period of time. There are many apps available that can help track usage.

TAKE A TIME OUT
Apple’s Family Sharing and Google Play have settings to help parents monitor use, and most phone carriers have their own parental control options. The psychologist Larry Rosen, who has researched technology and the brain and is a co-author of “The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World,” said one of the most important steps is to remove the phone from the bedroom at night.

BE A ROLE MODEL
Parents trying to set healthy guidelines for smartphone use may themselves be struggling with similar issues: The 2015 Pew survey found that 46% of American adults believed they could not live without their smartphones. Teens aren’t the only ones we need to worry about when it comes to smartphone addiction — adults should consider their habits as well.

New York Times