What if something happened on Facebook and I wasn’t there to see it? Would I miss invitations or important updates from friends? My basic cell phone, which had never been online, had served me well, but I found that I was the only one in my class without constant access to the internet at my fingertips. I was so worried about missing out that I caved and bought a brand new smartphone so I could go online. And I’m in graduate school. I can only imagine what the pressure is like for teens, for whom social connections are paramount. However, I’m going to take a stance infrequently championed by Millennials: smartphones aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Evidence suggests that the risks of carrying around a phone that can go online outweigh the benefits, especially for teens under 16.
According to a 2015 survey by Pew Research Center, almost 75% of teens aged 13 to 17 either own their own smartphone or can regularly use a family one. Of these, over 90% use the phone to browse the internet daily, some “almost constantly,” gaining access to Facebook, Instagram, and other social media sites, forums such as Reddit, and anonymous messaging services like YikYak.
Constant connection to the internet in this way can affect mental health. In a survey, CNN found that eighth graders checked their phones as many as 100 times a day, even during school hours. Many felt compelled to monitor not only their own social media accounts, but those of their friends and enemies, to make sure nothing bad was being said about them.
Keeping up with social enemies also exposed the students to typical online vitriol – swearing, insults, and death threats. Exposure to cyberbullying from classmates almost doubles the risk of suicide in middle school students, according to Dr. Sameer Hinduja and Dr. Justin Patchin of the Cyberbullying Resource Center. More than a tenth of students also reported receiving unsolicited adult photos on social media. Some also reported experiencing revenge porn, where an ex’s nudes or private photos were dumped online for everyone to see. Revenge porn is not yet illegal in most U.S. States, but a minors’ private photos, even if taken by the minor, violate federal child pornography law.
Even on its own, the obsessive online checking could be dangerous. Researchers at Kent State University have theorized that constantly accessing social media is motivated by feelings of social obligation, and the behavior is linked to increased anxiety and decreased satisfaction in life in college students. Eighth graders in the CNN study did report feeling more anxious the more they used social media. Social anxiety, the fear of interacting with people, is associated in teens with the extensive use of social media instead of interacting face to face, although it’s probably a two-way street.
Parent monitoring can mitigate some of the risks of using a smartphone. In the CNN study, researchers reported that teens whose parents oversaw their social media use saw less negative impact from online fighting with peers. Parents can also have a hand in making sure smartphone usage at home doesn’t interfere with sleep, which is another huge issue. Research on sleep and screens has shown that the blue light produced by phones and tablets can lengthen the time it takes to fall asleep and disrupts the circadian rhythm. Keep your teen’s smartphone out of their bedroom. If they use it as an alarm, buy them an alarm clock.
A 2010 study by Pew showed that most parents got their teen a phone so they could always be reached, which made parents and teens feel safer. This connection can be as easily accomplished through calling and texting on a basic phone as on a smartphone. GPS apps such as Google Maps are incredibly useful… but may not be worth the price tag of a smartphone until your teen can drive and is traveling more. And it is still cheaper to buy a basic cell phone: all of of the basic phones Verizon sells retail for under $200, while only two of the 25 smartphones do.
Let’s bring back the basic cell phone for young teens. Constant connection on social media is bad for their health, increasing social anxiety and exposure to the dark side of the internet, and leading to disrupted sleep. Sleep deprivation in teens can lead to social and cognitive problems, as well as lower grades. Most teens have access to a laptop or tablet at home as well as a phone, so they can still use the internet and interact with friends online – just not all the time. It might not be easy to convince a teen that a basic phone is better than the latest iPhone, but it’s a decision well worth the effort.