Screen Addiction: We are on the brink of a smartphone health crisis

By
August 17, 2017 11:40

While Twenge writes mainly about teenagers, a survey by Common Sense Media found that it’s not teens spending the most time in front of screens – it’s their parents.

4 minute read.



smartphone

Smartphone.. (photo credit:REUTERS)

Israeli rocker Shalom Hanoch was at his best. Performing in an intimate concert at the state-ofthe- art theater at the Elma Arts Complex Luxury Hotel in Zichron Ya’acov, Hanoch crooned for over two hours, reinterpreting 50 years of hits on acoustic guitar with just Moshe Levi on piano accompanying him.

At 71 years old, Hanoch is a bundle of white-haired, lean-bodied energy. The audience, who’d paid top shekel, should have been sitting, clapping or dancing in appreciative reverence. Instead, the darkened concert space was awash in a sea of light.

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People were on their phones. In the row in front of me I could see one person checking her email, another WhatsApping with his kids, a third flipping through Facebook and reading the latest news on the Bibi bribery crisis.

The man to my left gripped his phone ferociously throughout the concert. He checked his screen every few seconds to see if he’d received a new message, and seemed compelled to respond to messages immediately.

As Hanoch sang his heart out on stage about love and longing, audience members were receiving their dopamine hits not from the passionate melodies of Israel’s “King of Rock,” but from the banal notifications they were unable to banish on their smartphones.

And it drives me nuts.

“They’re being rude to the performer,” I seethe. “That’s not how an audience should behave!”

But I’m also aware of how much I’m being triggered by the pull I feel to check my own phone. I’m embarrassed by the addiction that I’ve developed with my device.

And it is an addiction. Think otherwise? Ask yourself this: When was the last time you went to the bathroom and didn’t pull out your phone to check your messages while you’re doing your business? I know I can’t.

Jean M. Twenge is a professor of psychology at San Diego State University who studies these public displays of over-texting. Her latest book focuses on teens; it’s called iGen: Why Today’s Super- Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood – and What That Means for the Rest of Us.

Twenge describes this “iGen” as young people who came of age in the late 2000s at the exact moment when the percentage of Americans who owned a smartphone surpassed 50%.

Smartphones have made young people more comfortable in their bedrooms – where they can chat for hours on their phones – than at a party or in their cars (shudder the Baby Boomers), Twenge writes in the September issue of The Atlantic.

Ironically, that has made today’s young people safer than ever before – they are less likely to get into a car accident, and have less of a taste for alcohol, than their predecessors, she points out.

But the rates of depression and suicide in the iGen have skyrocketed, Twenge explains. “There is compelling evidence that the devices we’ve placed in young people’s hands... are making them seriously unhappy.”

That’s not a radically new insight. But the data Twenge presents are shocking.

“Only about 56% of high-school seniors in 2015 went out on dates. For Boomers and GenXers, the number was about 85%,” Twenge writes. Eighth-graders who spend six to nine hours a week on social media are 47% more likely to say they’re unhappy than those who devote less time to Facebook.

Moreover, heavy users of social media increase their risk of depression by 27%, and teens who spend three hours a day or more on electronic devices are 35% more likely to have a risk factor for suicide.

Twenge admits that other factors could be at play. “But the smartphone, its blue light glowing in the dark, is likely playing a nefarious role.”

While Twenge writes mainly about teenagers, a survey by Common Sense Media found that it’s not teens spending the most time in front of screens – it’s their parents.

It seems likely. I see the same trends Twenge points out for the iGen happening with friends my age. And I’ve felt more isolated, lonely and depressed since an iPhone became my new best friend.

That scares me. But the impact for our kids is that much greater.

Twenge says she realizes “that restricting technology might be an unrealistic demand to impose on a generation of kids so accustomed to being wired at all times.”

Instead, she preaches the benefits of moderation. “Some mild boundary-setting could keep kids [and their parents] from falling into harmful habits,” she writes.

Given that “significant effects on mental health” appear after just “two or more hours a day on electronic devices,” says Twenge, that’s sage counsel.

In a Jewish context, that’s why Shabbat and holiday meals, with no screens allowed, remain so important in our household (even if we’re checking in the bathroom). Same with not using cellphones in synagogue – not a universal idea by any means, but a good one.

MIT professor Sherry Turkle agrees with Twenge. Turkle is another researcher with a book about how social media is rewiring our brains (2011’s Alone Together).

“We did the sacred space thing,” Turkle told USA Today. “No computers or phones in the kitchen, at the dining table, or in the car. Those are the places I think where you create family space.”

We may not be able to resist the buzz in our pockets and purses entirely, but proactively practicing some purposeful restraint may allow us to be more present in our day-to-day family interactions – or the next time Shalom Hanoch performs in concert.

The writer’s new book, Totaled: The Billion-Dollar Crash of the Startup that Took on Big Auto, Big Oil, and the World, will be published in September. www.brianblum.com

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