Guest Piece by Larry Schweikart
I knew there was a problem when on Christmas Eve a family sat down next to us in church and before the choir even started singing, the man in the group pulled out his cell phone and began watching golf.
Yep. In church, on Christmas Eve.
Note to self: if you need to pull out your phone in church to do anything but read a Bible verse, you have a phone problem. If you spend more than two hours a day texting (this is the average texting time daily for teens!), you have a phone problem. If you miss meals and bathing because you are gaming on the internet, you are an addict. And if you or your kids are seeing psychologists for “anxiety” due to social media, you all have a phone and device problem.
The following is taken from my new book, All Thumbs: How Our Obsession with Phones and Devices is Damaging Our Children and Restructuring Our Lives, available only as a gift when you sign up for an annual VIP subscription at www.wildworldofhistory.com. While the field is still relatively new—remember, the “smart phone” only came out in 2007, the iPad in 2010—the vast, vast majority of research is suggesting that we as a society have phone and device problems. Simply put, the more you’re on the devices, the more likely you are to have anxiety, depression, and even suicidal thoughts; for girls, the behaviors also include self-harm and cutting. What I propose is certainly not prohibition, which would be impossible in today’s society in the first place, but as one would with medicine, alcohol or fast cars, management and control.
The cell phone spread to one-quarter of the U.S. population faster than any product in history except for its companion, the internet (13 years vs. 7 years). Merely finding out how much people are on phones is a challenge, because some studies double count, such as when a child is watching an iPad while simultaneously playing a video game on a hand-held device or texting. According to Pew, 92% of teens go online daily and half go online multiple times a day. Women have more extensive use of cell phones than men do, especially when it comes to text messaging; men are more likely to use a phone while driving. (More on that in a moment).
Here comes the scary stuff. Some 40% of teens hide their online behavior from their parents, including more than half of those 14-16 years old. Some kids—14%—hide their passwords from their parents and 10% regularly delete their browsing history. Yet parents think they know what’s going on: 70% of parents are unaware of their kids online/phone activities.
The devices are just the beginning. The websites and activities are the real issues here. Heavy Facebook/Instagram use has infected youth with massive levels of anxiety. One-third of eighth graders spent large amounts of time online just reading what other kids were saying about them. One pediatrician cited in the book who only five years ago saw one patient a week for anxiety now reports three to four a day, virtually all of them young people. Merely leaving a conversation without saying “goodbye” (called “ghosting”) can cause remarkable unease. In a single year, 2017-2018, emergency room visits for suicidal ideatoin and/or self-directed harm rose by more than 25%. And this phenomena is reported worldwide, not just in America. (I can’t even begin to get into “cyberbullying” and human trafficking via the internet in such a short column).
I found hundreds of studies on changes in the brain caused by phones and/or devices. If you want a quick source, look for anything by UCLA’s Dr. Gary Small, one of the first to study the stimulation of the brain by a computer (and remember, that’s what a smartphone is). Scans of brain activity on internet surfers, gamers, even girls looking at their Facebook posts, show significant effects on brain activity, few of them good. The reliable Journal of the American Medical Association says “children who have more screen time have lower structural integrity of white matter tracks . . . that support language and other emergent literacy skills.” Still other studies found that reading on pads or screens changes the very way we read and radically diminishes understanding and retention.
As for devices being addictive, the science shies away from flatly stating this. Usually the phrases are “shows strong correlation with” or “is strongly associated with.” The reason for such mush phrases is that controlling for phone/device use that would allow for absolute “causation” statements would require massive long-term “double-blind” studies that likely could not be conducted given the restrictions on kids that would be required.
Yet when I asked the authors of these studies, as well as pastors, psychologists, therapists and others whether they thought the devices were addictive, with only one exception, they all said “yes.” Steve Jobs was so convinced the smartphone was a bad thing he wouldn’t let his own kids have one. Research has shown that devices cause the “dopamine tickle,” a phrase that refers to a release of the pleasure transmitter dopamine into the brain. Typical video game dopamine release are at the level of 100%, or about the same as sex (eating chocolate is rated at 50%, cocaine, 350%). Game-related addictions have even cause a new disorder to be named: “Internet Addiction Disorder,” or IAD. But it’s not just games: it turns out that releasing information on the web (“Do you know who I saw her with??”) also causes the “dopamine tickle.” Wait! It gets better (worse?): 55% of technicians monitoring heart bypass machines reported talking on their cell phones during surgery!
For our kids, it may be worse. Some 46% of all Americans said they could not live without their cell phones. A 2020 very large study of 21,000 high schoolers found the three most mentioned “feelings” they experienced were “tired, stressed, and bored,” with tired the most popular response. Why? Would it be because studies link phones to sleep deprivation? And keep in mind that a mere two hours a day on devices reduces language and thinking skills. At seven hours a day, research shows clear premature thinning of the cortex, a development that usually happns much later in a person’s aging process. How much time total do kids actually spend on phones and/or devices? Dr. Eimitri Christakis puts the number at 4.5 hours a day just on phones. Even kids admit they are spending too much time on phones, with 60% saying it is a “major problem’ in their life.
There is much more, including the dangers of texting and driving. But this is enough for now for you to ask, “So what do we do?
Here are three quick suggestions:
1) The first thing you and your kids need to do is to have an honest assessment of how much time you and they are on devices. This is time you are not interacting with another live person. So, carve out specific people time. That means, especially for parents with kids, car time and dinner time. No phones at dinner. No phones for anyone in the car unless it’s a GPS for around town. For longer trips, have the first half-hour out and the last half-hour back as no phone time.
2) Never allow children to sleep with their phones. If they (or you!) use a phone for an alarm, get a clock. Phones interrupt sleep in many different ways, as discussed in the book.
3) Most important, as you develop non-phone time and phone rules, parents remember it’s your phone. You pay for it, and therefore you get to set the rules.
These and many other suggestions, along with many sources and references for help, are in All Thumbs, and I’ve only scratched the surface. Start today learning to live better with your phone or your device!
Larry Schweikart is the co-author of the New York Times #1 bestseller, A Patriot’s History of the United States with Michael Allen and the author of Reagan: The American President. He also has an instructional history site, www.wildworldofhistory.com where this and full history curricula can be purchased.