With studies showing too much time on smartphones adversely affects children’s mental and social development, is it time for teens to be forced to disconnect – at least occasionally – from their online lives? By Cat Rodie.

Switching off the smartphone

For many children, screen time amounts to 32 hours a week.
For many children, screen time amounts to 32 hours a week.
Credit: Dmitrii Melnikov / Alamy

At 2am Gale Barr* gets out of her warm bed and fumbles her way to the bathroom. Passing her teenage daughter’s bedroom she notices a blue light through the crack in the door. Peering into the gloom Barr sees her daughter’s face, lit up by the eerie glow of her iPhone.

It’s a common scenario in the Barr household. “She says that she just loses track of time,” says Barr. “Maybe she does, but it worries me, you know?”

Barr is concerned that her daughter is addicted to her phone. She worries that all this late-night screen time is messing with her sleep – thus adding to mood swings during the day – and most of all she is worried about what her teenager is actually doing online. “You hear these stories about cyberbullying…” Barr says.

Parents around the world echo Barr’s fears, and perhaps they should. After all, there is no shortage of evidence that ever-increasing screen time is doing damage to our bodies and minds.

A study from Boston University School of Medicine found children who spend too much time on their devices are growing up with poor communication skills and a lack of empathy for others. Likewise, another study from Murdoch University in Perth found phone-addicted teens are likely to have sleep problems.

Research from the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne found that while almost all Australian teenagers have a phone or tablet, two in three primary-school students and more than one in three preschoolers have mobile devices. For many children, screen time amounts to 32 hours a week.

Dr Anthea Rhodes, who led the study, writes that the consequences of excessive screen time are starting to take their toll. “Every hour a child spends on a device is an hour they’re not doing something else,” she says. “So there is an opportunity cost where, if children spend an excessive amount of time on screens, they’re not getting enough physically active play or face-to-face social interaction with other individuals.”

Rhodes is also concerned about the psychological effects of replacing human interaction with digital interaction. “In young children, things like difficulty regulating their emotions or problems developing their language, and, in older children, problems with mood and issues around things like bullying,” she explains.

Similar findings in Britain, as well as concerns over other “online harms” such as spreading terrorist content, child sex abuse, revenge porn and hate crimes, have prompted the British government to take action. In April the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport proposed the establishment of an independent watchdog that will write a code of conduct for tech companies.

The code may include new measures for social media networks, such as turning off notifications at a set time and deactivating functionality that encourages children to use apps excessively – for example, the “streak” feature in Snapchat that rewards users for keeping up a string of consecutive messages.

But is it the government’s responsibility to dictate how citizens use their digital devices? Martine Oglethorpe is an educator and counsellor who regularly talks to parents and teenagers about developing healthy smartphone habits. She notes that while the intention of social media curfews is to keep kids safe online, a government-backed intervention is extremely problematic.

“[A curfew] seems like a knee-jerk reaction that will work only as a Band-Aid solution, rather than a preventative and proactive measure to ensure their positive online experiences,” she says.

The biggest problem, according to Oglethorpe, is that enforcing a curfew will do nothing to help teenagers use technology more effectively. “It’s important to protect kids when they are online,” she says. “But it’s also important to teach them the skills, critical thinking and behaviour to make good decisions about what they’re doing online.”

Oglethorpe does concede that social media platforms have a role to play in helping users develop healthy relationships with technology. But it’s more complex than programming functions to switch off at 9pm.

“Social media companies need to ensure their platforms are safe places with appropriate reporting mechanisms and procedures and with a range of options to make the experience safer or more age-appropriate for users,” says Oglethorpe.

“At the end of the day technology isn’t going to go away, so we need to ensure young people can use it in ways that are safe and smart – we can’t rely on the technology to protect them.”

While a social media curfew isn’t on the cards in Australia, a nationwide crackdown on mobile phone use in schools could be on the way. In March, New South Wales became the first Australian state to introduce a ban on mobile phones in public primary schools. Public high schools have the opportunity to “opt in”.

The ban follows a NSW government-commissioned review into mobile phones. The review, led by child psychologist Dr Michael Carr-Gregg, considered almost 14,000 survey responses and 80 written submissions. As well as finding that phones were a disruption, the review also uncovered cases of students sharing explicit images and, perhaps even more alarmingly, cases of predatory behaviour from strangers.

One argument against an outright ban is the possibility smartphones could be used as teaching devices. But while there are certainly many apps and functions that have an educational value, the first step is to master what psychologist Jocelyn Brewer calls “digital nutrition”.

“Digital nutrition is a more positive way to conceptualise our approach to the increased ubiquity of technology in our daily lives and in the classroom,” she says.

Brewer notes that technology has become an integral part of our lives so, rather than banning or limiting it, we need to teach kids how to become digitally savvy. This means actively teaching children healthy smartphone habits in school.

“My theory is that we have the most important piece of technology we need inside our skulls and our ability to remain human in a digital age is predicated on our ability to use social-emotional learning and emotional intelligence skills to carefully choose where technology and online worlds fit into our lives,” she explains.

Brewer believes that these crucial skills are beyond one-off sessions about cyber safety or digital footprints. “We need to meaningfully – in a relevant, practical and fear-free way – embed digital citizenship and digital literacy into all the key subject areas,” she says.

Given her stance that we can all learn to use smartphones in a healthy way, it is surprising that Brewer is in favour of a smartphone curfew. But while she supports the idea, she asserts that it’s something that should apply to all of us, not just teens and tweens.

“I think having a ‘digital sunset’ is quite important. It’s just like having a set bedtime. It’s valuable for us to be able to unplug and allow our nervous system to calm itself in preparation for sleep,” she explains.

“Being online right up until our head hits the pillow can mean it takes longer for our thoughts and cognitions to ‘power down’ for the night.”

One of the big benefits of a digital bedtime is mitigating one of the most common smartphone problems – the effect that screen time has on sleep. “Sleep is a crucial aspect of our wellbeing – especially for young people and their developing minds,” says Brewer.

“When we sleep, our brains are still very active and go about sorting out all the learning and experiences we’ve had and making sense of them, metaphorically filing the bits we need and ditching the parts we don’t. Getting enough good-quality sleep is essential, and device use can get in the way of this.”

For concerned parents such as Gale Barr, a curfew is appealing. But while she would like her 15-year-old daughter to put her phone down, she notes that when it comes to rules, teenagers are notorious for breaking them.

“As much as I’d love [my daughter’s] phone to switch itself off or for Snapchat and Instagram to automatically close down,” she says, “I know that it would just make her more determined to get online.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 1, 2019 as "Pulling the iPlug".

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