Teenager launches online course to help break smartphone addiction

With half of all children receiving their first phone between the ages of 10 and 12, smartphone addiction is becoming a problem worldwide.

A teenage boy looks at his smartphone screen.  (photo credit: CREATIVE COMMONS)
A teenage boy looks at his smartphone screen.
(photo credit: CREATIVE COMMONS)
A teenager who broke his own addiction to smartphones has set up an online course tutoring others on how to do the same.
The Children's Council's annual report, published this week, revealed that as of 2018, 95% of teens aged 13-17 were active on WhatsApp, 88% on Instagram, 61% on Facebook, 38% on Snapchat, and about a fifth use TikTok, Maariv has reported. The report further found that by the age of 12, half of all children already have their first smartphone.
All that social-media surfing adds up to a lot of screen-time, yet 42% of parents do not limit their children's access to smartphones at all. Some 36% limit their children to up to two hours a day, while just 13% have banned access to screen time entirely.
The consequence is that some children are developing an addiction to computer screens, seriously impacting their studies and their health.
Until recently, 17-year-old Kahel from Haifa was one of them.
His addiction to screens was such that "I would hardly talk to anyone," he told Maariv. "I lost weight, almost stopped eating, dropped my grades. From achieving grades of 90-80 I dropped to 50-40. I was constantly glued to the screen," he said.
That changed for him by chance. "One day, a fly landed on the computer screen," he said. "I saw it and said to myself: 'There are things off screen.' I suddenly began to understand what was happening to me."
After searching the Internet for similar experiences, he found that addiction was a problem for many others.
"From that day, my life began to change in a big way." he said. "Now, I want to help parents understand how their child can be helped so that he understands his situation, can make the decision to quit, and seize control of his life."
Kahel has developed an online course for parents showing them from a child's perspective how addiction can come about, and how they can disengage from screens. Titled "Connecting to Reality - Six Steps to Weaning Your Children from Screens," the course features a number of assignments designed to gradually take parents and their children through the process over two months.
Many parents are themselves addicted to smartphones, so part of the process is encouraging parents to disengage themselves. "Personal example is a big part of this process," Kahel says. "It is also something I pass on in my course. If the parent is unable to meet the demands he or she places on the child, then why should he ask for it?"
Kahel originally released the course for free over the Internet, where it was accessed by dozens of families, but when he saw demand take off, he decided to market it to parents. "Anyone who uses it is very pleased and sees a change in the child in the first few weeks," he said.
Screen addiction is very much a worldwide phenomenon given the rapid rise of smartphone technology and social media in our lives. Other countries such as China have already introduced detox camps to help young teenagers achieve a healthy balance between online media use and the real world, but so far no such option exists in Israel.
One of the organizations that has been involved in this area is Netivei Reshet (Network Paths), an NGO offering advice on how to nagivate the virtual world in a healthy way.
"We do this mainly through our hotline," CEO Yona Fressburger said. The organization offers free advice to parents on how to help their children access the online world safely. For NIS 400, parents can attend a private workshop with their children to learn about the effects of screen time.
"Childhood addiction to screens is a very common issue among the referrals we receive," she said. "There are kids who are really badly addicted, whose lives go in front of the screen."
Just because a child spends a lot of time online, it doesn't necessarily mean that the child is addicted, Fressburger clarified. Many children use the Internet for worthwhile pass times including learning. But when screen time becomes excessive – or a child does not have clear boundaries to put the phone down when they have finished an online activity – it becomes a problem.
Addiction is likely, "if the child doesn't do everyday essential tasks such as sleeping at a reasonable time, stopping to eat, putting the phone down for homework, or to take part in real-world social interactions," she said. "Once a child is unable to do anything else [but play on the phone], it indicates addiction."
Describing a typical situation, she added: "The parents ask him to do some kind of activity like going to a club or to sports, but besides being on screen he doesn't want to do anything else. Then when he's forced to disengage from the screen, he becomes aggressive or depressed."
She continued: "They tell me, 'My child is dealing with the device like it's a drug.'" They say that when they take the phone from their hands, they gets nervous. On the other hand, when the child is on the phone, he is calm and can't disconnect."
Some families have gone so far as to offer their children a trip to the United States as a reward if they are willing to break from the phone, but to no avail.
"[The child] agreed to the offer and [his parents] downloaded an app that limits the time the phone can be accessed, but when the child actually saw that he couldn't use the phone, he crashed like an addict in need of a drug."
In such situations, parents have to be very determined in order to break their child's addiction, Fressburger said. "Accompany the child in the process and set boundaries. Start building a detox process with him," she advised.
"It's also important that the process comes from a place of love and not a place of anger and toughness, but it needs a lot of determination," she concluded. "The rehab time is very individual. It depends on the level of addiction, and the nature of the child."