Have Smartphones Become the New Drug of Choice for Kids?

Have Smartphones Become the New Drug of Choice for Kids?

The digital generation is literally growing up with electronic devices in their hands. Toddlers know how to navigate smartphones to find their favorite cartoon videos, and elementary school kids FaceTime their friends to chat. It’s just a fact of our current-day reality, and, in some ways it’s not so bad. They are developing skills for the modern era, like problem-solving and online proficiency, and nothing tickles a grandparent more than receiving an “I love you” text from their grandchild.

However, there is also a downside to a device-driven life. Even as adults, we know that overwhelming urge to check our email or Instagram account 30 times a day—and that moment of panic when we realize we left our phone at home. We have become incredibly dependent on our phones for just about everything—we just can’t get enough of them.

Our teens are no different. So, have smartphones become their new drug of choice?

The short answer may well be yes…and that’s not necessarily a terrible thing.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) conducted its annual Monitoring the Future research about adolescent drug use and found that “past-year use of illicit drugs other than marijuana was at the lowest level in the 40-year history of the project for eighth, 10th and 12th graders”. They are consistently finding that teen drug and alcohol use is on the decline in our country, so they naturally want to understand why. And the theories surfacing are that having access to anything in the world at your fingertips satisfies that desire for novelty that teens used to turn to drug and alcohol for.

Getting a bunch of “likes” on your Instagram post or latest Tweet provides a hit of dopamine not unlike substances of abuse can. Indeed, one professor of psychiatry calls smartphones “portable dopamine pumps” and a high school senior from San Francisco says being on social media “really feels good”—like a “chemical release”.

The Pew Research Center reports that 24% of teens said they were online “almost constantly,” and 73% of them either had a smartphone or easy access to one. Another survey found that most teens between the ages of 13 and 18 could spend as many as seven hours a day on a screen. And this is being seen as increasingly problematic.

No kid would spend seven hours a day smoking pot or drinking, yet they may sleep with their phones and it’s largely consider normal. Increasingly, mental health professionals are seeing more internet addictions than drug addictions. To say that’s an improvement is a complicated thing. Of course, it’s better that our teens don’t abuse drugs or alcohol, but it’s not good to be so dependent on their phones that they go through withdrawal if forced to be without them—cravings, irritability, and even depression.

Because smartphone addiction is a relatively new phenomena, the research is sparse and not fully fleshed out, but something NIDA is beginning to address. In the meantime, parents and educators can be mindful about the addictive potential of smartphones and be proactive about helping our teens moderate their use.


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