By Jon Krop

Since the days of kids in cowboy hats parked in front of black-and-white TVs, young people have experienced the addictive qualities of technology. In the smartphone era, the challenges are greater than ever. Digital devices and social media offer an endless stream of distraction that can be hard for teens (and us) to resist.

Tech addiction and teen health

This tech addiction affects teens’ mental and physical health. In a 2016 Student Health 101 survey of high school students, two-thirds said they stayed up later than they intended to “on a pretty regular basis” because they were using technology. More than half said they felt tired at school most or all of the time. Harvard sociologist Steven Gortmaker has spoken frankly about the physical effects of screen time. “Children who watch more television have higher rates of obesity,” he told the Harvard Gazette. (Interestingly, research shows this link has more to do with the amount of junk food marketing kids see on TV than being inactive while they watch.) “Children with access to small screens [e.g., smartphones] had less sleep,” he added.

Studies have found that using social media is associated with lower mood and depression, and that it may negatively affect academic performance. Excessive screen time can even alter the structure of young brains and may cause symptoms such as withdrawal and neglect of important relationships.

Teens may be open to reducing their device usage

The good news is that teens are more aware, and wary, of their device dependency than you might guess. In our survey, nearly 70 percent of students said they were “a little bothered” or “very bothered” by the frequency of their technology usage. They may even accept you as an ally in the struggle to find some balance.

Help your students loosen the grip of technology and experience the simple pleasure of non-distracted, present-moment awareness with these four tips:

  1. Ask students to put their tech devices away for at least five minutes periodically. Once devices are down, have them do a mindfulness practice by taking deep breaths and focusing on the sensation of each inhale and exhale.
  2. Encourage students to not use their headphones the next time they’re out walking. Aside from making them safer and more alert, this provides them with an opportunity to use their senses to experience their surroundings—sans distractions.
  3. Declare the bathroom a phone-free zone. Scrolling through social media or online browsing while on the toilet is common and not necessarily hygienic. Turn bathrooms into a safe haven where everyone can take a break from tech.
  4. Encourage students to turn off at least some of their app notifications. For example, advise them to choose three apps to continue receiving notifications from (e.g., email, Twitter, Instagram) and turn the rest off. The less our phones interrupt our lives to say, “Hey, look at me!” the less we’ll feel we need them.

You might find the teens in your life surprisingly receptive to these suggestions, especially if you put them into practice too.