3 signs your kid has a smartphone addiction

February 23, 2017 Providence Health Team

Have you heard of FOMO? You should, says Providence child and adolescent psychiatrist Heather Jones, M.D., especially if you're wondering how smartphones are affecting kids today.

FOMO is short for "fear of missing out." It refers to feelings of anxiety teenagers experience when they’re cut off from their phones and social media.

Being jumpy over a missed notification or text may be a sign of a bigger problem, however. According to Dr. Jones, who treats inpatient and outpatient adolescents at St. Vincent Medical Center in Portland, Ore., an estimated 15 percent of teens today meet the criteria for being addicted to their smartphones.

What are the signs?

One way to predict if a teen may develop a smartphone addiction is how old they are when they first get one. Kids under 13 who start using smartphones prove to be more susceptible to developing a problem.

If you’re considering getting your child a phone, wait until they’re at least 13, Dr. Jones suggests. For kids under 13, simple mobile phones for calls only are available if they need to reach you.

If your kid has a smartphone, be aware of these warning signs:

  • Using the devices in dangerous or prohibited situations: Does your teen use their phone while driving? It's illegal for a reason. Do they use the phone in school and text in class?

    Sneaking use of the phone in their room at 2 a.m. when it's been forbidden is another unhealthy sign. In fact, a recent study in the Journal of Youth Studies suggests that 1 in 5 young people between the ages of 12 and 15 lose vital sleep for this very reason.
  • Social conflicts escalate over the phone: Arguments that are normally resolved by talking can erupt into a war over the phone because teens may prefer smartphone communication to face-to-face contact. Studies show that as rates of social media use increase, social skills decrease.
  • Your kid is less interested in other activities: Avid readers who don't read as much or kids who were once more interested in art or other activities may be spending too much time on their smartphones. There’s a connection between the time kids spend on smartphones and an increased need for affirmation, which has a negative impact on self-esteem.

“Ultimately, this can lead to depression,” Dr. Jones says. Everything teens do, they do online and it all gets posted for everyone to see. "It can turn into a constant reminder of not being good enough," she says.

Another warning sign to be aware of is when teens continue to use their smartphones despite having reported headaches or lack of sleep.

Helping them manage

Aside from waiting to give your son or daughter a phone until they're 13 years old, there are practical approaches for parents who see a problem today.

  • Develop a contract for you and your child and treat it like any other contract with real consequences. The contract should cover time of use: two hours of golden time per day for the teen to determine how to use. All at once, when they get home from school or spread throughout the day and evening? It's up to them. Just make sure there are no phones involved during family activities such as dinner, Dr. Jones says.
  • Make sure your child understands that the phone is not "their" property. It's yours. This helps them understand it’s a privilege to be able to use one, rather than a right. Don't believe it's easy, Dr. Jones adds, but be firm with consequences when rules are broken. "Their job as teens is to bargain," she says.
  • Know all of their passwords and logins and write that agreement into the contract. Check their online accounts. There should be nothing to hide. Inappropriate use is real and occurs more frequently among girls. You'll want to know if a 25-year-old adult is sending private messages to your teen.

Cell phone addiction may not be taken as seriously as other addictions because it’s nontoxic and generally viewed as entertainment. Also, Dr. Jones says, recognizing it in our children means taking a look at our own behavior. Are we using our phones at work when we shouldn’t? When we’re driving? When we’re on a date?

As adults, sometimes all it takes is a simple question. Ask yourself, Dr. Jones says, "What would happen if I didn't use it?"

Terms you should know

  • Nomophobia: "No mobile phone" fear (phobia). Clinical term for smartphone addiction.
  • FOMO: "Fear of missing out." Used to describe an impulse related to smartphone addiction.
  • Communifaking: Pretending to be in a conversation on a mobile phone for the purpose of avoiding social contact with others. A behavior symptom of smartphone addiction.

If you’re concerned about your kid’s smartphone use and want advice, talk to your pediatrician or therapist.  

Do you have a story about how you curbed your kid’s smartphone use?

Tell us in the comments section.

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