Quick: where is your cell phone right now?
Did you just check your desk, your room, or your pockets to make sure it was still there?
But what if it wasn't?
Can you imagine going a day without your phone? Or even a few hours?
Maybe you should. Because our phones are creating a big problem.
The data from multiple studies proves that we all struggle with self-control when it comes to how we use our smartphones. Instead, we feel obligated to always be connected, afraid that we'll miss the latest text or comment. Our shift toward a 24-7 "always on" culture is making a number of major health problems worse, including a massive rise in teen depression. Both teens and parents are aware of this problem, as a recent report from the Pew Research Center explains:
72% of teens say they often or sometimes check for messages or notifications as soon as they wake up, while roughly 40% say they feel anxious when they do not have their cellphone with them. Overall, 56% of teens associate the absence of their cellphone with at least one of these three emotions: loneliness, being upset or feeling anxious.
As parents and teachers, we may try to limit our children's phone usage... but we also have our own challenges, as that same Pew Report shows:
At the same time, some parents of teens admit they also struggle with the allure of screens: 36% say they themselves spend too much time on their cellphone. And 51% of teens say they often or sometimes find their parent or caregiver to be distracted by their own cellphone when they are trying to have a conversation with them.
Additionally, 15% of parents say they often lose focus at work because they are distracted by their phone. That is nearly double the share of teens (8%) who say they often lose focus in school due to their own cellphones.
Maybe the most worrying part of our smartphone-influenced culture is the way it's changing our expectations of life itself. Once again, multiple studies show that teens and young adults feel an immense pressure to give others the impression that they're living picture-perfect lives, especially on Instagram. This causes young people to increasingly base their self-worth on how many likes and comments their images receive, rather than deriving it from their own skills, talents, values, character, and self-confidence. By outsourcing their self-image to the false validation of others, they're setting themselves up for a lifetime of insecurity — and a lifelong feeling of being trapped by the screen in their pocket.
It's not reasonable to expect that teens or adults will stop using smartphones altogether. Like any tool or tech, our screens can be useful, practical, and enjoyable when we use them in a healthy and balanced way. But this balance doesn't come naturally, because our phones and apps are designed to exploit our instinctual need for interaction and validation. They know exactly how to keep luring us back for "one more minute," one more click, and one more worry that we're missing out, even as our lives keep passing us by in the world outside our screens.
So maybe it's time for each of us to improve our smartphone balance, and stop being prisoners to our devices.
Let's stop letting our phones use us.
Dr. Randal A. Lutz