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Are Smartphones and Social Media Hurting Kids?

We hope you’ve enjoyed the first two months of Friday Focus. In August we addressed immunizations and last month we highlighted senior care. The analytics are positive – each #FridayFocus post on Facebook has reached more than 150 viewers, with our September 8 focus on advance care planning reaching 1,842 viewers! So, what’s up for the rest of the year? October = Cyber Health, November = Smoking Cessation and December = Healthy Holidays. Want to contribute? Contact Lizzy Lukrich, CAFP’s Manager of Communications and Social Media.


In the September issue of The Atlantic, Jean M. Twenge tackles the issue of smartphones and questions whether they are destroying the generation she calls the iGen. iGen (or Generation Z), including those born between 1995 and 2012, is a generation shaped by the smartphone and the rise in social media. These young people have grown up with smartphones, Instagram, and Facebook, and have never known a time without the internet.


The oldest of the iGen/GenZ were adolescents when the iPhone was launched in 2007 and a 2017 survey of more than 5,000 American teens found that three out of four own an iPhone and 37 percent own a tablet. Tablets are a mainstay in schools – from elementary to college, assignments are delivered and completed via the device.


Today, nary a child, nor even a two-year-old, is seen without an “e-device” in hand as a babysitter, occupier or entertainer. When was the last time you saw a child reading a hardcover book at the table in a restaurant?


What are the effects of time spent on these devices? Ms. Twenge doesn’t go into the physical issues faced by smartphones users, but she discusses evidence of curtailed attention spans, radical changes in teens’ lives – from the nature of social interactions to mental health – and the overall effect on households. She cites skyrocketing rates of teen depression and suicide since 2011, noting that experts believe the iGen is on the brink of the worst mental health crisis in decades. Can this be traced to their phones? Many believe the answer is yes.


The smartphone is the gateway to social media as well. Teens have more access and spend more time on social media platforms today than ever before. They spend less time in the physical presence of friends, don’t belong to school clubs or participate in school activities, and appear to be quite satisfied with a “homebody” lifestyle. As Ms. Twenge says in the article, “Teens … seem to be content with this homebody arrangement—not because they’re so studious, but because their social life is lived on their phone. They don’t need to leave home to spend time with their friends.”


Research shows that teenagers’ use of social media goes hand-in-hand with increased teen depression. In fact, major depressive episodes increased from 8.7 percent in 2005 to 11.3 percent in 2014 in adolescents, and from 8.8 percent to 9.6 percent in young adults. The increase was larger and statistically significant only in the age range of 12 to 20 years.


As family physicians, this is where you come into the picture: What is your role? What have you seen in your patients? How can you help?


Family physicians are in a position to talk to families about the digital world along with the social and health issues that children may experience. They should counsel parents to talk to their children about their internet use and to learn more about the technologies their children are using. Physicians should also talk with parents about developing a plan for internet use, which should include family meetings, reviews of privacy settings and online profiles, and a focus on healthy behavior. Parents should be reminded of the importance of supervising their children's activities through active participation and discussion.


Use of Media by School-Aged Children and Adolescents: A Policy Statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics
Media Use by Teens Infographic
Is Social Media Messing with Your Teen's Mental Health
Association between online social networking and depression in high school students: behavioral physiology viewpoint