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What Are Smartphones Doing to Our Kids?

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What Are Smartphones Doing to Our Kids?

Mobile technology in the hands of children and teens provides convenience, but we are beginning to discover it comes at a cost.

Learn the why behind the headlines.

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Seven-year-olds are doing what once was impossible. They can measure the height of the Burj Khalifa, calculate the average weight of a blue whale, snap studio-quality portraits, and stay in real-time communication with their friends—all without leaving their bedrooms.

Smartphones, which each have more computing power than all of NASA when it started sending astronauts to the moon, have landed in the hands of kids, and it did not take long.

The technology so quickly became a part of everyday life—the iPhone recently turned 10 years old—that even well-adjusted adults barely had time to pause and ask, “Will this be good for me?” Even more, for a parent, “Should I be handing such vast capability to my child?”

According to a 2016 study by Influence Central, 10.3 is now the average age of a child receiving their first cellphone. Parents are also relaxing online restrictions as nearly 25 percent of kids have private access to the internet from their bedrooms compared to 15 percent in 2012.

The study also revealed that 39 percent get their first social media account between ages 10 and 12, and another 11 percent before age 10.

Many parents are willing to give their adolescent and teenage children smartphones, but we are just beginning to understand the lasting impact of the decision.

Yes, cellphone use is universal. And kids remaining a phone call away does give parents peace of mind. And, fair enough, more and more teachers are integrating mobile devices into the classroom. These tiny bundles of wires, aluminum and glass can even be a welcome distraction for youth when “mommy needs some quiet time.”

But once you hand a shiny new mobile device to a child, there is no taking it back—at least not easily.

Smartphone usage by children has matured to the point where experts can confidently associate their use to a myriad of problems including cyberbullying, access to pornography, poor judgment with online privacy, and increased difficulty with face-to-face social interactions.

Yet the most significant cost of kids being connected 24/7 may be that kids are connected, well—24/7.

A four-year study of Australian teens between ages 13 and 16 found that late-night texting or calling was linked to a lack of quality sleep. This was subsequently connected to an increase in depressed moods and declines in self-esteem and coping ability (The Guardian). The study indicated that few teenagers stopped using their phones after lights out, with some admitting to “constantly texting into the night” and staying up as late as 3:00 a.m.

Lead researcher of the study, Lynette Vernon of Murdoch University in Perth, pointed to international research showing that 80 percent of young people have access to a mobile phone, many with unrestricted use. She said these devices are entrenched in the lives of young people and impacting their sleep.

“If you’re finding your son or daughter is more moody and not coping at school, you often put that down to adolescence,” Ms. Vernon said, “but it could be as simple as them not sleeping at night.”

In another article titled “‘I’ll Go to School on Two and a Half Hours’ Sleep’: Why British Children Aren’t Sleeping,” The Guardian pointed to a 2011 study identifying English students as the most sleep-deprived in Europe. It also reported how one United Kingdom hospital saw a tenfold increase in referrals over the lack of sleep during the last decade.

Britain’s National Health Service learned that hospital attendance for children under 14 with sleep disorders has tripled over the last 10 years.

The article tied these sharp increases in sleep problems for kids to the increased use of mobile devices. Two other factors underlining the issue, according to the article, are moms and dads constantly checking their own phones and “a more child-centered style of parenting.”

Phone Problems

A 2011 poll by the National Sleep Foundation found that mobile phone use, specifically texting and talking on the phone before bed, revealed a significant age gap. Fifty-six percent of Generation Z (ages 13 to 18) say they send, read or receive text messages every night or almost every night in the hour before bed. This is compared to 42 percent of ages 19 to 29 and 15 percent of those in the older age brackets.

About half of Generation Z, according to the poll, watches TV directly before going to bed, after which many of them use mobile phones to text and make or receive calls directly before closing their eyes.

The Guardian article on British children not getting enough sleep, referenced a young girl who “covers the bags under her eyes with thick makeup before heading off to school.” Owner of a phone and two iPads, she said she rarely gets to sleep before 2:30 in the morning despite going to bed at 9:00 p.m. the previous evening. She was the one who admitted to sometimes going to school on only two and a half hours of sleep.

Dr. Jean Twenge, Professor of Psychology at San Diego State University, examined the impact that social media is having on kids and sleep in the Atlantic magazine article “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”

In the piece, she described a 13-year-old Texas girl waking up to the smell of burning sheets due to her overheating cellphone. Surprised by the notion of someone sleeping in bed with a phone, Dr. Twenge queried her undergraduate students to determine if this behavior was unusual.

The professor learned that practically her entire class slept with their phones, many placing them under their pillows, on the mattress next to them, or within arm’s reach of the bed.

Students said that their phones were the last thing they saw before going to bed and the first thing they saw in the morning. Some felt guilty about their obsession with looking at their phones while in bed, with one female student saying, “I know I shouldn’t, but I just can’t help it.” Others said their phones were an extension of their body, adding, “Having my phone closer to me while I’m sleeping is a comfort.”

Though Dr. Twenge does not state a direct causation, she says smartphones are cutting into teen’s sleep and makes a case for the negative impact these devices have on the overall health of young people.

The psychologist and author explained that many teens sleep less than seven hours per night, well under the nine hours recommended by experts. She defines adolescents getting less than seven hours of sleep per night as being “significantly sleep deprived” and points to findings that 57 percent more youths were sleep deprived in 2015 than in 1991. There was a 22 percent spike in teens getting less than seven hours of sleep between 2012 and 2015, an increase “suspiciously timed,” said Dr. Twenge, around the time smartphones began making their way into the majority of teenagers’ hands.

Dr. Twenge’s research pointed to two national surveys that showed youths who spend three or more hours a day on electronic devices are 28 percent more likely to get less than seven hours of sleep compared with those who spend fewer than three hours on devices. Those who visit social media sites every day are 19 percent more likely to be sleep deprived.

Sleep deprivation brings on several associated health problems including compromised thinking and reasoning, susceptibility to illness, weight gain, and high blood pressure. Those who do not get enough sleep are also prone to depression and anxiety.

Between the daytime mimicking blue light emitted from electronic devices and the pull of staying connected via social media throughout the night, mobile devices have a strong ability to disrupt sleep and cause overall health problems.

No parent would knowingly subject their child to such perils. So, how did we get here?

Train Your Child

As with anytime our children are struggling, we as parents must be willing to look in the mirror and ask a tough question: “What could I be doing (or not doing), that is causing this?

Children do not have the means to acquire $600 cellphones with hefty data plans. They get them from their parents. So, when it becomes clear that these devices could pose a danger for our sons and daughters, we must stop and consider.

An argument against advances in technology is pointless. Civilization always progresses. There was a time before the printing press, light bulbs, cars and computers.

Society’s integration of mobile devices and the internet have fundamentally changed how we live. These modern niceties are how we do business, how we get our news, how we are entertained, and how we communicate. It is hard to imagine our world without this capability, and there is no turning back.

Yet just because something exists does not mean we—or our children—must be at the full mercy of society. Adults must decide for themselves and for the little people in their care what to do regarding smartphone usage.

There are undeniable benefits to kids having access to mobile devices and the internet. But going to bed with a cellphone is a long way from using it for homework. The technology has gone beyond practical uses and virtually mutated the DNA of our youth.

The degree to which many young people are incorporating smartphones into their lives is eroding legitimate benefits.

Let’s be frank. What is often framed as a “must have” with mobile devices and internet access is really just a want. Children feel they should decide how much this technology is in their lives and child-centered parenting is pressuring adults to comply.

Yet, not long ago, boys and girls had to “suffer” through going to the library to complete their homework. They had to wait a whole 24 hours to talk with their friends the following day at school. It is good to remind your son or daughter of these and other “ancient” practices from time to time.

In his book, Train Your Children God’s Way, David C. Pack spoke to how often parents cave under the pressure to please their kids.

“Millions of parents now routinely cater to their children. The ways in which they do this are practically endless. It is as though parents feel they must satisfy their child’s every whim—and do this on an almost minute-to-minute basis.”

This tendency by parents teaches children to grow up expecting to be catered to, which sets them up for a rude awakening later in life.

Parents have a natural tendency to run a popularity contest with their kids and take the easy path of smothering them with the best of everything. This is seen with children, some of them very young, being given the latest gadgets and expensive items they never truly earned.

When it comes to pampering kids, Mr. Pack is clear: “Parents, above all, do not spoil your children. Avoid this trap at all costs! If you do not, you are literally sentencing them to be stubborn, selfish, self-focused, ego-driven, rude and demanding, and almost entirely materialistic.”

The book states that “spoiling usually equals ruining” because these children are powerless to deny themselves their every want. It also means they grow up believing that life should always be fair and that they are entitled to what they have.

Children, Mr. Pack continues, must be taught that fair or not, there are some things in life they simply cannot have. They cannot always get what they want and life does not always deal them the hand they expect or feel they deserve.

Fathers and mothers who routinely give in to the demands of their children subject themselves to bouts of frustration and ongoing arguments from a whining child who does not get his way. This can leave some parents wanting to give up.

But fathers and mothers can increase their own happiness and the future happiness of their children by teaching them to be content with their circumstances.

Instead of being less involved and leaving kids to navigate social media and the web, Mr. Pack says parental control and involvement are crucial to their child’s success and “children tend to thrive in a more tightly managed routine.”

Parents, Mr. Pack said, must instill in their kids a set of core principles: “Repeat often to your children that they are no better than anybody else, and that the measure of their value and success is solely tied to regular contact with God, strength of character, pursuit of the right goals, willingness to overcome obstacles in their path, real achievement, how much they give versus get, the amount of honor extended to generations that have gone before them, and the volume of effort and sweat expended to earn what they have.”

The book summarizes the role of those seeking to raise their sons and daughters effectively: “All parents want their children to lead happy, abundant, successful lives. But this will not be achieved by accident. Children need specific guidance. Everyone recognizes that people are most influenced when they are young. This is why it is so important for parents to instill, beginning from a very early age, the proper focus and framework on which to base their lives.”

What Can Parents Do?

Parents must take a proactive role in raising their children including a deep consideration of smartphone and social media use.

A strong case can be made for teens and younger kids to have no phone at all, with their use of the internet wholly regulated and supervised. This may seem drastic, but many are choosing this path despite strange looks from other parents and objections from their children. For those taking such measures, avoiding the problems mobile devices can cause for their children is worth it.

Some parents are opting for a middle ground, choosing a phone for their kids with far fewer features and less access to the web. This trend toward “dumb phones,” those only allowing phone calls and simple texting, is having a positive impact on those willing to make the switch. It reemphasizes the use of a cellphone as a device for making phone calls, instead of a handheld computer with an assortment of flashy features.

A 22-year old university student expressed freedom after giving up his smartphone for a much simpler version: “When you’ve got a simpler phone you become more liberated by the fact you don’t have something consuming you all the time. You kind of forget about your phone sometimes” (The Sydney Morning Herald).

For those who see taking away their child’s phone or downgrading as an impossibility, there are still steps they can take to help their kids cope—and get a better night’s sleep.

The following are a few tips from various easy-to-find online sources:

  • Remind your child that having a smartphone is a privilege not a right.
  • Implement appropriate controls and filters on their device.
  • Talk to your child about social media and its use.
  • Enforce no screen activity in the hour before bed; no TVs, computers, phones or tablets.
  • Have a consistent routine that your child follows every evening in the hour before bedtime.
  • Have your child engage in activities involving hand-eye coordination to help the brain wind down before bed such as coloring in a book for young kids or working on a model or puzzle for older ones. Reading a physical book is another good option.
  • Have a common smartphone charging station outside the child’s bedroom.
  • Replace mobile phone alarms with traditional alarm clocks in the bedroom.
  • Have a set wake-up time for your child, even on weekends.
  • If you choose to allow the use of a cellphone in the bedroom, establish certain rules such as a usage curfew.

These are just a few recommendations. More are appearing as the problem of kids and smartphone use becomes more well-known. But, in the end, tips are only as good as the willingness for parents to implement them. Rearing children is difficult and no parent does it perfectly, but you can do it successfully if you have a strong desire to succeed and are armed with the right information.

For more on how to be an effective parent, read Train Your Children God’s Way in its entirety. It will provide practical advice on how to become the best parent possible.

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