Talking to Teens About Smartphone Use… Like Talking About Any Other Potentially Lethal Behavior
Can smartphone use be that harmful? When we look at the recent increase in teen suicides and non-lethal self-harm, we have to ask, “What is contributing to this trend?” Over the past 10 years the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported that the suicide rates for teen girls doubled while it increased by 30 percent for teen boys. A 15-year CDC study of emergency room visits for treatment of self-harming behaviors (cutting, ingesting poison or overdosing on drugs) showed relatively stable rates for boys, though an increase of 8.4 percent annually between 2008 and 2015 for girls between the ages of 10-24.
Meanwhile, the Pew Research Center reports that by 2015, 73 percent of teens had smartphones. Researchers are now making the connection that such access to smartphones may likely be a contributor to these increased rates of depression, self-harm, and suicide, especially for teen girls. While smartphones increase positive social connections and access to information, they can also make negative interactions more public, intense and harder to escape, leaving teens feeling overwhelmed and stuck.
So what can we do to help protect them? First, our increased reliance on our devices is here to stay. Ironically, the thing that seems to be taking lives, is literally experienced by teens as a lifeline. It is too late to rely solely on restriction and removal of smartphone access. Similarly to approaching issues like drug and alcohol use, some limits (especially for younger teens) can be useful. More importantly, we need to empower our kids to think critically about their own smartphone use and how it affects them.
Talking about the trends of harmful outcomes for teens and increased smartphone use in our culture is valuable. We need to approach this as we would any other potentially dangerous decision making conversation. Help them explore how their use affects them for better and worse, examine the pros and cons of their smartphone and other online use, learn effective ways to manage and self-restrict use, and know when to come to us for help when they feel stuck or overwhelmed. They need to feel we hear them, will problem solve WITH them, and empower them to make safe and healthy choices … just as we would with any other potentially dangerous or lethal behaviors.