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Cathy Majtenyi: Smartphone addiction puts youth mental health at risk

  • June 21, 2018

On June 1, the Boys and Girls Clubs of Canada held a national event that many of today’s young people would find highly challenging: spending one hour away from their smartphones.

Children and teens participating in Unplug to Connect played board games, kicked around a soccer ball and built birdhouses among the many activities held in communities across Canada.

It’s heartwarming to see photos of the excited faces of kids being kids, having fun as they interact with the world around them while calling attention to a serious and growing problem.

“We need to work together to protect ourselves, and future generations, from the effect of technology on mental health,” four members of Boys and Girls Clubs of Canada’s National Youth Council said in their Toronto Star  article describing the inaugural initiative.

Mental health issues are rising among Canada’s youth. A 2017 Ipsos poll showed 63 per cent of millennials are at “high risk” for mental health challenges, up from 53 per cent in 2015. 

The Canadian Mental Health Association estimates that up to 20 per cent of Canadian youth are affected by a mental disorder or illness, while “the total number of 12-19-year-olds in Canada at risk for developing depression is a staggering 3.2 million.” A January 2017 Statistics Canada report estimates 14 per cent of 15- to 24-year-olds reported having had suicidal thoughts at some point. 

But what does the worsening of mental health among youth have to do with the ubiquitous smartphone? 

Jean Twenge has been researching generational differences for 25 years. The American psychologist describes how, in 2012, she started to notice dramatic shifts in a wide range of adolescent attitudes and behaviours.

Thinking at first these shifts were a “blip,” Twenge eventually determined that “iGen’ers”  — those born from 1995 onward — are vastly different than previous generations in 10 key areas she outlines in her 2017 book, iGen. 

These include spending an average of six hours a day texting and online, and replacing in-person contact with electronic interaction, resulting in feelings of intense isolation, loneliness and less developed social skills. 

Twenge pinpointed 2012 as being “exactly the moment when the proportion of Americans who owned a smartphone surpassed 50 per cent.” In Canada, 76 per cent of Canadians owned a smartphone in 2016; of this, 94 per cent of 15- to 34-year-olds surveyed reported owning one. The smartphone has become the primary gateway to internet and social media use as well as texting and calling.

In a study she published in late 2017, Twenge found that adolescents who spent more time on new media were more likely to report mental health issues while those teens who spent more time on “non-screen activities” — sports, being with friends, attending church services — were less likely to struggle with mental health challenges. 

Experts explain why this may be so. Frequent screen interactions increase the release of a brain chemical called dopamine, which affects emotions and sensations of pleasure and pain. The result is that, over time, it takes more stimulation to feel happy in everyday life and users literally become addicted to their devices. 

Smartphone use near bedtime also interferes with sleep patterns. One U.S. study showed that more teens are sleeping less than seven hours a night compared to 2009 because of electronic device and social media use. Shorter sleep is linked to physical illnesses as well as depression and drug use. 

Facebook can bring about “FOMO” — Fear of Missing Out — which adds stress to teens struggling to be popular and fit in with their peers. Many young people feel less happy and fulfilled when they compare their lives to other peoples’ idealized versions presented on Facebook. And youth are vulnerable to cyberbullying. 

In his 2015 World Communications Day message, Pope Francis calls modern media a “hinderance” to communication within and between families if those media “become a way to avoid listening to others, to evade physical contact, to fill up every moment of silence and rest.”

He urges parents and the wider Christian community to educate their youth on the wise use of communication technologies. And above all: “The great challenge facing us today is to learn once again how to talk to one another, not simply how to generate and consume information.” The family dinner table is a great place to start, Pope Francis said in his Nov. 11, 2015 address. 

Parents can use a number of strategies to protect their youth. There are ways to wean children off smartphones. Parents and youth can sign a TeenSafe Smartphone Contract. A Huffpost blog lists 10 powerful methods to help kids use cellphones wisely.

(Majtenyi is a public relations officer who specializes in research at an Ontario university.)

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