FosterWiki Opinion Piece

Young People and Smartphones – Addiction and Harm

Author: Jane Adams

As a foster carer for teenagers, I experience the realities of smartphones and “over-exposure” on a daily basis.

I observe the obsessive need to have a smartphone to hand at all times including visiting the toilet, the compulsion to involve themselves in other people’s affairs, being misinformed by world events, experiencing lack of sleep, refusing to eat at mealtimes because leaving the smartphone for half an hour is too much to bear, constantly being aggravated by being ignored and not replied to

All this comes at a cost and on a daily basis, it can often be difficult to communicate effectively with the young person resulting in unnecessary conflict or disagreements simply because there are generally three people in the room but only two present!

I am given to understand that a pre-requisite of providing a placement within Durham County Council is that the young people I foster will have access to free Wi-Fi. They also have access to free Wi-Fi at thousands of public places, restaurants, pubs, fast food outlets, gyms, and other people’s homes. The issue is that most of these places provide “unsecured” networks. This leaves us all open to being scammed/hacked/harmed in one way or another. I have noted more recently that the ‘establishments’ are now automatically logging users onto the free Wi-Fi which I find very disconcerting.

So many areas of our young people’s lives are posted on Tik Tok, Facebook, Twitter, Snap Chat, and Instagram that they simply cannot imagine a life without social media. However, for all of its innovation, psychologists warn that social media has been shown to be addictive.

While social media can prove to be an invaluable tool, living a virtual life can harm the users’ healthy state of mind. Heavy social media dependence has been linked to emotional issues like negative well-being, low self-esteem, experiencing feelings of depression, suicide, inappropriate risky behaviour, disturbed sleep patterns, and an impaired attention span. Bothering yourself with the feelings of thousands of your social media followers can indeed make the user feel anxious. It is a common sight to witness young people constantly scrolling their phones

We need to be mindful of this activity since it tends to keep the brain on high alert, averting the young person from falling asleep and can destroy the release of melatonin, a hormone that makes us feel tired. We must ensure to shorten the time spent on virtual mediums by engaging the user in mind-boosting activities like concentration games, breathing exercises, physical exercise, time in natural daylight and fresh air and brain-body coordination workouts. A pause in social media usage can help them connect with their real life, making them emotionally happier and healthier

Research carried out by the Chicago Booth School of Business already indicated five years ago that Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms can be more addictive than tobacco and alcohol because, among other things, access to them is simple and free.

But what do we really mean by addiction? An addiction is a dependence on substances or activities that are harmful to health or psychological equilibrium. These activities include, for example, playing video games, already classed as an illness by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the excessive use of smartphones and social media.

What constitutes addiction? The boundaries are blurred, but there are some indicators that give a good idea as to the existence or otherwise of that dependence on social media, although the final word always rests with medical professionals. The usual giveaways are;

  • Feel unsettled when there is no access to the internet, the social network is down, or it is slower than usual.
  • Checking social media first thing in the morning and the last thing at night.
  • Refusing to hand their smartphone over at night.
  • Feeling stressed when the phone isn’t to hand.
  • Using social media while walking.
  • Feeling bad when not getting likes, retweets or views.
  • Using social media when driving.
  • Preferring to communicate with friends and family through social media rather than face-to-face.
  • Feeling the need to share everyday things all the time and over-sharing.
  • Thinking that everyone else’s life is better than theirs, depending on what they see on the networks.
  • Checking in wherever they go.

Research on young people and their smartphones and screens suggests that the average young person is online for nine hours each day, this excludes schoolwork. Putting this into perspective the various studies suggest that two plus hours of use a day is linked to a seven times greater risk of ADHD. If users are trying to pay attention to a task, some research suggests having their smartphones nearby reduces cognitive capacity and the ability to focus.

In fact, if the father of the iPad, iPod and iPhone himself, Steve Jobs, wouldn’t allow his kids to get too tied up with technology (he restricted their usage time), he probably had some idea of how social media was going to affect our children and young people!