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New report: One out of every two teens 'addicted' to smartphone

We have created a monster with smartphones, and it's not just teens locked in its grip. Increasingly, we live in a world where everyone is looking down to check texts or looking up to smile for a selfie.

A teacher told me her middle school students are losing “executive functions,” the mental skills that help kids get things done, organize responses and find solutions. These executive functions include managing time, paying attention and planning. Confronted by any problem, students want to pull out their phones, punch in the question and trust Google to supply the answer.

Is that a bad thing?

I continually hear students don’t need the same recall abilities of earlier generations because they now carry encyclopedias, dictionaries, thesauruses, almanacs, medical journals, plant taxonomies, calculators, poetry and modern literature in their pocket. They don't have to memorize the periodic table, the Gettysburg Address or math formulas because they can summon them in seconds on their phones.

Do average students --- not the future engineers or surgeons – even need to know how to figure out percentages when they have a super-fast calculator in their hands at all times?

Many college professors have written confessional essays on their mistake in welcoming iPads, laptops and smartphones into their classes. Even professors who teach social media lament how difficult it has become to stop students from being distracted by their devices.

Children are becoming attached to mobile phones at earlier ages. I see fourth graders checking their smartphones as they walk home from school. Schools have lost the battle on cellphones; many parents believe it's essential their kids have access to their cellphones at all times.

With that background here is a statement from Common Sense Media about its new report on mobile devices in America:

A new report issued today by Common Sense Media finds that 50 percent of teens "feel addicted" to mobile devices, and 59 percent of their parents agree that their kids are addicted. Additionally, parents and children are concerned about the effects mobile device use has on their daily lives -- from driving to the dinner table -- with over one-third of the families in the Common Sense poll arguing about it daily.

The Common Sense poll surveyed 1,240 parents and kids from the same households (620 parents, 620 kids) and accompanies a white paper that reviews the latest scientific research about problematic media use, including impacts on youths' well-being and development.  Together they offer a fresh, comprehensive review and perspective on addiction and media use in the U.S. today.

"Mobile devices are fundamentally changing how families go about day-to-day lives, be it doing homework, driving, or having dinner together," said James Steyer, founder and CEO of Common Sense. "What we've discovered is that kids and parents feel addicted to their mobile devices, that it is causing daily conflict in homes, and that families are concerned about the consequences. We also know that problematic media use can negatively affect children's development and that multitasking can harm learning and performance. As a society we all have a responsibility to take media use and addiction seriously and make sure parents have the information to help them make smart choices for their families."

Key findings from the survey of parents and teens include:

Addiction: One out of every two teens feels addicted to his or her device, and the majority of parents (59 percent) feel that their kids are addicted.

Frequency: Seventy-two percent of teens and 48 percent of parents feel the need to immediately respond to texts, social-networking messages, and other notifications; sixty-nine percent of parents and 78 percent of teens check their devices at least hourly.

Distraction: Seventy-seven percent of parents feel their children get distracted by their devices and don't pay attention when they're together at least a few times per week.

Conflict: One-third of parents and teens (36 percent and 32 percent, respectively) say they argue with each other on a daily basis about device use.

Risky behavior: Fifty-six percent of parents admit they check their mobile devices while driving; fifty-one percent of teens see their parents checking/using their mobile devices when driving.

Common Sense's white paper, a review of existing studies and research on Internet use, technology, and addiction, concludes that there is cause for concern around problematic media use, which in extreme cases can have very damaging consequences. The paper finds that multitasking, toggling between multiple screens or between screens and people -- which is common for kids doing homework or socializing -- impairs their ability to lay down memories, to learn, and to work effectively. Additionally, problematic media use can harm face-to-face conversation and undermine the development of empathy. Parents and teens should avoid multitasking with devices while talking to others and avoid replacing human interactions with technology.

"Parents are right to be concerned about the impact of media on the development of their kids," said Ellen Wartella, a leading scholar of the role of media in children's development. "It is a good thing that parents and educators are focused on kids' social and emotional learning and asking the right questions -- many of which we don't know the answers to yet. From attention disorders and multitasking to basic social interaction and interpersonal skills, we need to devote more time and research to understanding the impact of media use on our kids and then adjust our behavior accordingly."

The Common Sense report stemmed from last November's landmark report, Common Sense Census: Media Use by Tweens and Teens, which indicated that U.S. teens use an average of nine hours of media per day. The technology addiction research was initiated to spark a national discussion on media and technology use by acknowledging a pervasive feeling of addiction by American families and to help them identify resources to resolve family conflicts and encourage responsible use of technology.

Resources for families who are concerned about media use are available on the Common Sense website, including "5 Simple Steps for a Healthy Media Diet," our Family Media Agreement, video guides, and 20 Q&As that include answers to questions such as: "Is Internet addiction real?", "What are the downsides to multitasking?", and "How can I make sure my kid doesn't become addicted to technology?"

A webinar on helping families achieve media balance will be held on May 19 and will be free to the public here. To review the white paper and executive summary in their entirety, click here.


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.