Research identifies harmful side effects of too much tech on teens with alarming regularity. But a new report from the Pew Research Center suggests parents are just as compromised by our portable screens. In “How Teens and Parents Navigate Screen Time and Device Distractions,” researchers not only compiled data on the behavior of tech-addled kids (they’re on their phones from the moment they wake up!) or the concerns of hand-wringing parents (what do we do about the fact they’re on their phones from the moment they wake up!), but on the behavior of parents, too.
Every member of the family unit struggles to maintain a healthy relationship with their favorite device, according to the report. Fifty-one percent of teens say their parents are “sometimes” distracted by phones during conversation, while 14 percent say their parents are “often” guilty of this behavior. What’s more, moms and dads are more likely than teens to report being distracted by their phones outside of the home; 15 percent of them say they often get sidetracked by their cell phone at work—just 8 percent of teens say their device often pulls them away at school. But are our devices and social media platforms really bad for kids?
Adolescent health experts like Sam Miller, a teen life coach at the Parenting Teenagers Academy, are hardly surprised by the data. Interactions with parents and young adults in the clinic have provided anecdotal evidence of this phenomenon for years. “The fact you’ve got a young person who’s vulnerable and influenceable, and then you’ve got all of the expertise of the technology sector making all of these technologies as addictive as they can possibly make them—so much so that adults are struggling with regulation—means we really need to have a conversation about this,” he says.
“Kids brains are still being wired and when you understand how dopamine and motivation work, you can easily see that many sites such as Instagram and Facebook are hijacking kids brains with their feedback loops because they know they seek validation, which is causing a great deal of harm to children’s brains. Kids have not developed a strong sense of self yet, nor have they established their own identity and independence which means these platforms are tapping into their insecurities and fears and exploiting them” says Miller.
But Miller hopes Pew’s report may finally make space for a wider dialogue about addictive design, adolescent development, and healthy parent-child relationships.
We can form nasty habits at any age, but teenagers are uniquely susceptible to adopting problematic behaviors, like smoking, drinking, or scrolling away the hours. As kids prepare to leave the nest, their developing brains are biased for experimentation and risk-taking. This predisposition allows them to explore new facets of their identity and learn to make healthy decisions for themselves. Otherwise, Miller told PopSci in February, “they would just become a carbon copy of their parents.”
The downside of open-mindedness is that makes teens especially susceptible to mobile-device overuse. “The things that they have always been interested in (making social connections with peers, exploring issues to do with identity and sexuality) are really facilitated by online social network,” Miller says. Young people today are able to find new information and sources of support and community with ease. But, at the same time, they are also exposed to cyberbullying and radicalization, and often experience severe disruptions to their sleep schedule, which can have cognitive, emotional, and physical consequences.
“At many of the schools I speak at, I can see this first hand” says Kristy Rose, a leading youth speaker. “So many kids are glued to their phone and social media and are constantly thinking about not only what they can do to get more likes, but they are petrified about what others might say about them in the public environment which is causing a great deal of psychological harm.”
As the Pew data shows, though, no one is immune to products designed to short circuit our self-control. Social media companies like Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter have poured billions of dollars into designing addictive experiences. Using a bevy of behavioral psychology tricks, they’re able to keep us scrolling, liking, and uploading our own content—even when we don’t really want to.