Montgomery County public schools allow high school students to have cellphones on campus. Here, teens demonstrate a typical dismissal scene. Photo by Michael Ventura

For teens and their parents, it’s tough to gauge how much is too much when it comes to phone usage. Fifty percent of teens say they “feel addicted” to mobile devices, and 59 percent of their parents agree with that assessment, according to a poll released last year by Common Sense Media, a nonprofit dedicated to helping families make smart media choices. This so-called addiction often leads to conflicts at home, with 32 percent of teens and 36 percent of parents reporting that they argue about the devices daily, according to the survey, which polled children between the ages of 12 and 18 and their parents.

Families and mental health experts agree that the primary source of tension appears to be the smartphone. The device was a niche product more than a decade ago. But the advent of the BlackBerry in the business world (also known as the “Crackberry” for its addictive nature), the surge in social networking and the mass acquisition of smartphones revolutionized the way we live, especially after the 2007 launch of the Apple iPhone with its groundbreaking touchscreen technology. As the phones gained popularity with adults, many children ended up with their parents’ castoffs. For many teens, the smartphone is now a rite of passage. A poll released this year by the Pew Research Center found that 92 percent of children own a cellphone of some type before graduating from high school, and more than half own smartphones.

“It’s changing the way childhood looks,” says Edward Spector, a psychologist in Bethesda who specializes in the healthy use of technology. Teens are doing what teens have always done, learning by trial and error through social interactions at school and in public spaces, Spector says. For older generations, those spaces were shopping malls, football games or town centers. Now the spaces are online, and they’re massive. Parents want to help their teens cope, but moms and dads are navigating terrain that didn’t exist in their youth. “That’s at the heart of parental angst now,” Spector says. “The technology is changing so dramatically and quickly that we’re constantly in catch-up mode. Kids are the first responders.”

Research can’t keep up with the changes either, and the study of how technology affects the brain and social development remains in its infancy. The term “addiction” is used freely and often in that realm, particularly as it applies to the Internet. But Internet addiction is not officially recognized as a mental disorder in the United States, though there’s a robust debate on whether it should be. The American Psychiatric Association is considering a draft definition of video-gaming addiction to determine if it qualifies as a mental disorder. But experts are still trying to get their arms around how to define addiction in terms of phones, other mobile devices and the Internet itself. Some psychiatrists view the Internet merely as a vehicle for an underlying disorder. A recent article in The New Yorker summed up the thinking of these experts this way: “If you spend your time gambling online, maybe you have a gambling addiction, not an Internet addiction. If you spend your time shopping online, maybe it’s a shopping addiction.”

While researchers try to sort through these matters, parents are grappling with the practical issues, unsure of how to distinguish the normal from the problematic. Spector says the telltale signs of a serious problem are not subtle. In his practice, Spector sees patients—ranging from tweens to young adults—who are compulsively gaming or using the Internet via any technology they can get their hands on. Many of his patients are struggling at school and sabotaging their relationships because they can’t stay away from their screens, he says. They’re lying about their screen time. Some slip out of class to the bathroom just to play a game on their phones or watch porn, he says. They’re overweight or painfully thin, and they often suffer from a vitamin D deficiency because they’re rarely outdoors. Many pick fights online, where they post provocative comments on their perceived area of expertise, maybe gaming culture.

For the most part, these patients have significant mental illnesses that are intersecting with their use of technology, according to Spector. “They’re fleeing to technology as a way of escaping from their problems and doing so at the expense of their functioning,” Spector says. There’s a seasonal component to his workload. September, when students are just settling in at school, is quiet time, Spector says. Calls to his office ramp up when teachers start handing out test scores and report cards, or when they introduce Chromebooks into the classroom. That’s when impulse-control problems tend to surface. But the hair-on-fire calls begin in May, when private schools refuse to renew a student’s contract. They continue well into the summer, when college students confess to their parents that they’ve failed out of college because they were attached to their screens and didn’t show up for class. “They’re staying up until 5 in the morning, then collapsing,” he says.

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But these are the extreme clinical cases, Spector says. For teens who are immersed in technology but otherwise thriving, there’s a lot of room for staying calm and putting everything in perspective. “What parents bring to the table is a higher order of executive functioning skills that kids don’t have, and a whole lot of experience and wisdom,” Spector says. “What’s most important is that we teach our kids our values, which are not bound in a particular context. Those values can be transferred.”


Edward Spector, a Bethesda psychologist. Photo by Hilary Schwab