Two teens looking at a mobile phone together.

Why Smartphone Addiction Is a Greater Risk for Teens Than Adults

by Screen Time Team on 13/06/2018
Group of people sitting around a table using their mobile phones.

We all love our phones but are teens too attached?

What Is Smartphone Addiction?

Again, we need to qualify the term “addiction” here. If you take away a teen’s smartphone, they won’t go through a Hollywood-style medical withdrawal. The addiction we’re talking about here is more like the phenomenon called a Skinner box.

We all know the experiments of B.F. Skinner. He’s the psychologist who taught rats to ring a bell and get a pellet. What people often forget is that Skinner found that if the rat got a pellet every time, it would lose interest. But if it got the pellets at random, it would hammer the bell until it broke. It was the potential for reward, not the reward itself, that made the rat hooked.

Many smartphone apps, such as messaging apps and social media apps, operate, sometimes intentionally, on the same principles. They offer a dose of validation, of attention, or achievement, but not always, so you find yourself checking again and again. It’s an easy pattern to fall into, in part because our phones make it so easy to do. But teens are particularly susceptible to this because they both don’t understand how they’re being manipulated and their brains, particularly with understanding risk and reward, are still growing and changing in certain specific ways. If the habit forms early, it can harden into a problem much more difficult to break.

Two teens looking at a mobile phone together.

How do we encourage healthy smartphone use?

How Do We Prevent Smartphone Addiction?

The good news is that smartphone addiction is easily prevented with a three-pronged approach. The first is parental control apps. These apps will allow you to limit how much time your teen spends on their phone in the first place, control which apps are downloaded and used and when, and will allow you to block the re-installation of apps you’ve decided your teen needs to delete.

The second prong is education. Teens get hooked in part because they don’t understand how this feedback loop works. Once you grasp how it functions, it becomes much easier to shake it off. So, talk to your teens about these apps, their motivations, and how they need to approach them as products, not ignore what they can do to them and their friends.

The final prong is communication. You should talk with your teen about how they’re using their phones, concerns they might have about things they’ve found on the internet, problems they may be having with friends or bullies online, and any other issues they may have with their time online. They may not ask for help directly, but leaving the door open to help can often be a powerful tool.

Still, it’s best to trust but verify with your teen. To learn more about parental control apps like Screen Time, click here. 

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