Scientists at King’s College London have found almost one in four children and young people are exhibiting “problematic smartphone usage” (PSU), which means their relationship with their phone is consistent with behavioural addiction.
The study, published in BMC Psychiatry, found 23% of children and young people showed PSU, which is linked to other mental health issues like anxiety, stress, poor sleep and depressed moods.
Co-senior author Dr Nicola Kalk, from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience (IoPPN), said:
“Smartphones are here to stay and there is a need to understand the prevalence of problematic smartphone usage.
“We don’t know whether it is the smartphone itself that can be addictive or the apps that people use. Nevertheless, there is a need for public awareness around smartphone use in children and young people, and parents should be aware of how much time their children spend on their phones.”
If you’re worried about your child’s relationship with their smartphone, here are some things you can do…
Spot the signs
First thing’s first, you need to know what you’re looking for. “You know your child better than anyone, so think about what’s ‘normal’ for yours,” says Dr Pablo Vandenabeele, clinical director for mental health at Bupa UK. “Do they seem more moody, anxious or withdrawn? Mental health can fluctuate day to day, in the same way physical health does. It can be tricky to distinguish mood swings and the symptoms of a mental health issue, particularly in teens. Having ongoing conversations about their mental health can be a helpful starting point.”
Start a conversation
If your child is showing problematic smartphone usage, it can be tempting to confront them with all guns blazing. However, Vandenabeele says this “might put them on edge and lead them to rebuff your questions”.
Vandenabeele advises parents to think about how they approach these tricky conversations, saying:
“Simply asking your child how they are is more likely to lead to a more positive and productive conversation. And when they share how they feel, acknowledge it. Be wary of undermining feelings by saying things like ‘social media doesn’t matter’, or ‘there’s no need to worry about that’.”
Banning your child from tech outright isn’t a particularly practical solution, so Vandenabeele recommends finding suitable distractions.
“If your child can’t live without their phone and you’re concerned about their mental wellbeing as a result, a distraction technique can give them a new focus and some respite from their online life,” he says. “Something simple, such as reading a book, helping with the weekly shop or to prepare dinner, can show your child there’s life beyond the screen.”
Have a family digital detox
Children learn behaviours from their parents, so it’s important to think about your own smartphone usage – and maybe even get the whole family involved.
“Lead by example; having a family ‘digital detox’ at an agreed time each night can be one less distraction to make sure the family gets enough sleep for the next day,” Vandenabeele says.
If you are particularly worried about your child’s smartphone usage, Vandenabeele advises seeking help. He says:
“If you think your child may be showing signs that they are struggling with their mental health, it’s important to seek medical support as soon as possible, as early diagnosis and treatment can help them on the path to recovery and improve long-term outcomes.”