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Why Smartphones Are Not Smart for Teens – Especially 8th Graders

depressed teen sitting on sofa

by Melanie Hempe, BSN, with Psychiatrist Dr. Adriana Stacey, MD

Speaking to BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg ahead of the launch of her new Channel 4 film, I Am Ruth, Kate Winslet admitted that parents feel ‘utterly powerless’ about how to help their children navigate social media. I Am Ruth confronts this dilemma as Winslet shares the story of a mother desperately trying to help her daughter, whose mental health has been shattered by social media. It’s fantastic that Winslet is using her star power to shine a light on this issue.

Many of the parents who contact me feel helpless after handing over smartphones to their kids. The truth is, we are not powerless, and you and your child should not be the victims of social media. We do not have to give our teens smartphones. There are alternatives.

I got this same sense of powerlessness when I watched a recent video discussion with four therapists. I was pretty shocked by what I heard. The topic was teens and smartphones & social media. 

They lamented that smartphones are causing problems for tweens and  teens, but the therapists’ consensus was:

  1. Tech is here to stay, so we are all in misery. 
  2. Our teens are the most miserable of any age group.
  3. We must allow it because this is where all their friends are.

 

The therapists’ answer to the teen smartphone dilemma: have more conversations about the dangers and potential problems smartphones cause for our teens. 

What were their tips?

  • Continue to address each digital mishap with them even if everyone is miserable.
  • Find a counselor you like and keep going to counseling.

 

What terrible advice! ScreenStrong has a solution. Don’t try to live with the problem. Remove it. 

The fix is not just circling the problem and talking more about it with our kids. The answer is doing something about it and preventing the situation in the first place. At ScreenStrong, we take a bold stand against the serious practice of giving teens (especially 8th graders) smartphones. 

Listen to the podcast: Why 8th Grade is Not Smart for a Smartphone

Here are a few of the many reasons smartphones are not smart for 8th graders:

10 Reasons Smartphones are Not Smart for Teens

1. Teen Brains Seek Novelty (and this keeps them online)

The teen brain is primed to seek novelty—new experiences, new content, and new adventures. Smartphones give teens a constant source of novel content, making it harder to put their screens down. Furthermore, online searches change as kids get older. The type of content 8th graders seek is very different from what they sought when they were younger. Moreover, the drive for new experiences and knowledge can lead them to darker and more disturbing places online. One study shows that the search for depression increases with 8th grade. 

How searches change between ages 10 and 13

2. Teen Brains Are Remodeled During Adolescence 

The brain embarks on a remodeling period during adolescence. This remodeling process is a result of neuronal pruning. What is neuronal pruning? It is the process of removing neurons that are no longer used or useful in the brain. Pruning means “that the abundance of neural connections achieved during the sponge-like soaking in or knowledge during the childhood period will be whittled down, shaped like a garden.” 

Adolescence is the time for teens to use it or lose it when building their brains. This season begins just before puberty and continues into their mid-twenties. Circuits that are used will be reinforced; those that are not will be lost. This is why teens need to engage in activities that will build their brains during adolescence. If you want your teen to be good at a sport, learn a foreign language, or play a musical instrument, they need to practice these activities. ScreenStrongs’ educational resources will show you how to replace screentime with healthy hobbies.

Teens won’t develop critical neural pathways if they stare at smartphones all day. Consequently, if they are not socializing in person, the neural pathways necessary for social interactions, like the ability to use eye contact and read body language, will be pruned away. 

Teen brains are rapidly developing during adolescence. Smartphone use directly affects brain development, and not for the better. Smartphones are not smart for teens.

3. Teen Brains Need Sleep

Sleep is critical at this stage in life. Adolescents need more sleep because they are going through the second stage of cognitive maturation, and a lack of sleep results in obesity, impulsive behavior, and dysregulation. Being tired affects memory, concentration, and, most seriously, motivation (the desire to accomplish a goal). If teens are up at night texting friends, scrolling, posting, and responding to notifications, they interrupt an essential brain health need: sleep.

4. Teen Brains Are More Prone to Addiction

The teen brain is more susceptible to addiction. If teens become addicted to a substance or behavior early, they have an increased risk of forming other addictions as they grow into adulthood. Ninety percent of adult addictions begin in childhood. High-reward behaviors, like gaming and posting on social media, are designed to keep the user hooked and become addictive. 

5. Teens Must Learn to Use Time Well

 

Time is a valuable resource. Teach your teens to use it well.

If teens spend, on average, 9 hours a day on digital devices (not including the time spent on schoolwork), they will have spent 16,400 hours online between 8th and 12th grade. Don’t let this critical window for development go to waste. Think of what they could be doing instead with those hours, especially now that we know their brains will be pruning the pathways they don’t use!

Teens have so much potential during adolescence. Encourage your teen to learn a new language, master an instrument, improve their drawing and painting techniques, or become proficient at a sport. Teens are in a season of rapid physical, intellectual, and emotional growth. Make the most of this window of opportunity.

Finally, teens must practice the time management skills they will need in adulthood. Adolescence is also the time for teens to learn to handle discomfort, work through relationship issues, and practice time management skills. Habits, built up over time, are hard to break. Will your teen be able to get the essential tasks of adulthood done without you there to remind them?

Smartphones are working against our teens. They are sucking up their time and keeping them from the skills they’ll need to transition to adulthood successfully. Smartphones are not smart for teens.

6. Teen Brains are Impressionable and Impacted by Negative Content

Sexual interest is peaking for both boys and girls by 8th grade, and the smaller the screen, the more exposure there will be. 62% of teens and young adults have received a sexually explicit image and 41% have sent one (usually from/to their boy/girlfriend or friend).

Smartphones allow increased access to the world of pornography—80% of porn viewing occurs on smartphones. Indeed, porn is chasing them. 56% of teens seek out porn once a month, and it will appear in the most seemingly innocuous places. Your teen will stumble across porn as they search for craft pins and anime cartoons or enter user-created worlds on popular video gaming sites. 

The brain is competitive, meaning it maps for new exciting images at the expense of what was previously attractive. Content heavily impacts the teen brain. When porn fills a teen’s masturbation sessions, the images rewire his brain maps. Now the cute girl in history class no longer seems exciting. 

Viewing porn activates the dopamine reward system, which makes it easily addictive and triggers the craving for more. Teen brains hold tightly to these associations once new connections form. Our most powerful and lasting memories, along with our best and worst habits, arise in adolescence. Every day that goes by without porn is a win.

7. Teen Brains Are Not Pre-wired With Parental Values 

Since the brains of teenagers hold on tightly to new connections, adolescence is a critical time to ensure your teens are not getting 24/7 access to influences that undermine your family values. Remember, our values are not genetic. This means your child is not born with your wisdom; you must teach it. Is the online world the place where you want them to learn values and be the most influenced? Most likely not. 

Besides unwelcome sexual content, there are many harmful and dangerous influences in the form of social media challenges, unmonitored chat rooms, and exposure to other unhealthy addictions. Don’t let the negative influences on social media platforms shape your teen’s values. 

8. Teen Brains Are Susceptible To Mental Health Problems

Mom hugging crying teen

Smartphones exacerbate and may even cause teen mental health issues. How?

Dr. Nicholas Kardaras, addiction expert and author of Glow Kids and Digital Madness: How Social Media is Driving Our Mental Health Crisis – And How to Restore our Sanity, writes, “We’re living in the Age of Digital Social Contagions. It’s a time when certain illnesses aren’t spread by biological transmission but by a digital infection that attacks the psychological immune system. Using algorithms that find and exploit our psychological vulnerabilities, kids get sicker as Big Tech gets stronger.” He points out that “many of our young people are simply attempting to find a tribe or community to belong to via their online explorations and demonstrating what psychologists call ‘sociogenic’ effects; that is, effects caused by social forces — in this case, digital social forces.” What teen discover online influences them as they try to fit in with peers and find community. Listen to Dr. Kardaras’s ScreenStrong Podcast here.

Repeated exposure to harmful content, concepts, and social rejection online is causing a myriad of mental health problems. Record rates of depression, suicide, social anxiety, loneliness, overdoses, mass shootings, gender dysphoria, and addictions disproportionately affect our teens. 

Dr. Stacey, a ScreenStrong partner and psychiatrist, reports that her patients with smartphone overuse are more likely to present with mental health issues. Parents worry that kids won’t fit in if they don’t have smartphones, but what about when smartphones cause them to suffer from mental health issues? Smartphones exacerbate and may even cause mental health issues, so why are we giving them to our 8th graders at the worst possible time? Smartphones are not smart for 8th graders.

9. Teen Brains Are Searching For Identity

Adolescence is the time for identity formation, and where they spend their time will play an essential role in this process. Online influencers and peers have a significant effect on who they will become.

Not only is adolescence the peak time for identity formation, but it is the peak age for feeling rejection pain. Rejection by peers at this age is especially devastating. Social media magnifies rejection pain as teens try to manage the world of social media comparison. Moreover, when teens feel inadequate it derails the process of securing their identity. They begin to question who they are as they compare themselves to strangers and friends on the virtual stage. 

10. Teen Brains Do Not Get Their Social Needs Met On Smartphones

Smartphone overuse is pulling teens away from face-to-face interactions with peers and delaying the development of strong social skills. Smartphones are not a tool for enhancing social skills. 

Adolescence is a time to enrich social-emotional skills. It is not the time for teens to sit in isolation and stare at their screens. Instead, they need more authentic in-person experiences that provide opportunities to make their voices heard and allow them to strengthen their social abilities.  

Teens need to practice social interactions to prepare them for the adult world of job interviews, career success, dating, and adult relationships. They need opportunities to build robust social connections. We do not learn conversation skills on a screen. We learn them in person by observing others’ facial expressions, tone, inflection, and body language. To build strong social skills, it is vital for teens to spend time in groups, have face-to-face interactions, and learn how to read the room.

The healthier social experiences they have, the more they will crave genuine social connections. As a result, they will be less lonely, more confident, and ultimately more successful and happy. 

Takeaways

Parents, you can change the culture in your home and guide your kids away from the fire of the virtual world—if you do not, they will get burned. Why subject them to the worst the digital world has to offer during the most vulnerable stage of their lives?

Smartphones are not smart for 8th graders because:

  • Teen brains seek novelty
  • Teen brains are remodeled during adolescence
  • Teen brains need sleep
  • Teen brains are more prone to addiction
  • Teens must learn to use time well
  • Teens are impressionable and impacted by negative content
  • Teen brains are not pre-wired with parental values
  • Teens are susceptible to mental health problems
  • Teens are searching for identity
  • Teens do not get their social needs met on smartphones

 

These are the reasons why ScreensStrong empowers parents to take a counter-cultural approach and replace the time spent on social media and smartphones with more productive and fun activities for teens. When the ScreenStrong community has your back, your family will benefit. Everyone wins when parents become the coach, discover a new game plan, and strengthen family connections!  

Want more information?

  1. Join the ScreenStrong Community and get the FREE 7-Day Challenge
  2. Explore our Lifestyle Course with the bonus 30 Day Digital Detox

 

Listen to the podcast with Dr. Stacey: Why Smartphones Are Not Smart for 8th Graders

If you liked this post, you may also like this one:  Digital Stress is Hurting Our Kids