Smartphones: A True Addiction?

A recent blog post talked about the need for mobile app designers to consider the active role that teens can and should play in staying safe online. It’s not just the responsibility of parents to restrict a teenager’s online presence. Instead, it’s much more productive for parents to team up with their children in order to start a conversation about Internet safety.


This week’s post involves one of the risks that parents are undoubtedly concerned about - the risk that teenagers are addicted to their smartphones. Anecdotally, we all can think of a parent disapproving of their children’s inability to look away from their phones for an extended period of time. This problem certainly is not unique to teenagers. Researchers are only beginning to find out what impact smartphones have on our health and our social networks.


An article in the NYTimes poses a compelling question: are teenagers replacing other addictive substances with their smartphones? There is good news and bad news that might suggest this is the case. The good news is that teen drug use (trying or regularly using drugs, including alcohol) has gone down in the past decade. This trend is true for all students overall regardless of their demographics. The bad or neutral news, depending on how you look at it, is that this is the same time period that smartphones have exploded onto the scene.


There is no way to prove that this coincidence is definitely a causal effect. There are far too many factors at play, including, but not limited to the financial crisis in the past decade, and the extensive anti-drug educational campaigns that might have started to pay off. Also, drug use among college students has not fallen in the same time period.


But it’s important to think about the implications of what some experts call a “portable dopamine pump” in a teenager’s everyday life. In the article, the writer explained that smartphones and their various apps provide feedback loops for users and the members of their social networks. Teens have said that they feel “really good” when using their phones for social media.  

Researchers are looking into this trend with a lot of interest, and so should we. The new “high” formed by excessive phone usage could shape teenagers’ social priorities and experiences for years to come.