SLF Richard Graham Blog

Teens and tech: how to live well with smartphones


In a guest blog to coincide with Place2Be’s School Leaders Forum, Dr Richard Graham explores the role that smartphones play in the lives of young people and how we can support them to ‘live well’ alongside new technology. 

For every wide-eyed teen who was desperate for the new iPhone X as it was launched last week, there were at least as many parents or teachers troubled by the power the smartphone wields. For almost 10 years now the smartphone has become the must-have object for any young person, and replaced the car as the symbol of independence. But for many adults this attraction stirs concern and raises the question ‘are smartphones addictive?’

We can understand how an addiction, like that to drugs and alcohol, can occur with machines when we think about video games. In 2013, following studies of video gamers, experts in the USA introduced a diagnosis “Internet Gaming Disorder”. This was a first step to recognising that some gamers were missing out on life’s opportunities because they could not stop playing. But should we be worried about the smartphone in the same way?

This question is not easy to answer since we can use a smartphone for so many different activities, including casual gaming, messaging, social media updates, reading, watching a Netflix boxset, shopping, listening to music, photographing your breakfast etc. Heavy use could be productive for a journalist reporting live or a YouTuber earning a good income from their regular vlogs. So, without knowing more about the context, can we understand if a line has been crossed between positive use and something unhealthy? I think we can, through understanding our psychological and biological needs better, as well as seeing if opportunities are being missed because of heavy use. But first, we need to understand more about why young people love their devices.

In a future filled with smart, connected devices around us, upon us and even within us, and of robots taking on much of the burden of work, knowing how to be ready for that is not easy. Some young people look to YouTube and social media for ideas about how to succeed in a digital economy. Yet others may be so immersed in the problem solving of online games that they risk withdrawal symptoms when they emerge. Others scan more anxiously for ideas and tips on how to succeed, but get lost in fascination with terrible news that keeps them glued to their screens, unable to look away. So simple models of addiction do not completely address the many and complex processes that immersive smartphones now draw us into.

So how can we live well with technology? Thinking in this way will certainly engage young people and improve their wellbeing more than restricting use and talking about the negative aspects of heavy use. We can focus on how use might interfere with those essential activities that we know make us happy and healthy, like a good night’s sleep, a healthy diet and a good amount of physical activity. It might even be effective to think about this in ways that young people will relate to – e.g. the ‘beauty sleep’ that will improve your Instagram profile picture. The emphasis is on how you build your happiness and health, with less emphasis on what you are losing out on.

Conversation, negotiation and growing self-control can help us guide young people in our troubled times. Each young person may find a different route and use devices to improve their lives, whilst always being mindful that those who have lost control need support. Many have already begun to increasingly question an ‘attention economy’ that is more concerned with maximum screentime and not their wellbeing.

Lastly we should remember that young people are allergic to adult hypocrisy and being patronised. Before any course of action question how much you depend upon your smartphone!

Dr Richard Graham is an Adolescent Consultant Psychiatrist, Clinical Director at Big White Wall and Technology Addiction Lead at Nightingale Hospital.

This blog was written by Dr Richard Graham in a personal capacity and does not necessarily reflect the view of the organisation.

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