Is problematic smartphone use (PSU) making your child unhappy?

Psychologist Maria Guerrero explains how PSU is changing how kids think and gives parents 5 tips to help them cut back and stay mentally healthy.

As a psychologist I feel I am on the second line of the Covid-19 crisis. By this I mean that physicians are dealing with the first tidal wave of having to care for people’s physical trauma related to the disease, meanwhile we in the mental health profession are gearing up for, and already dealing with the second wave, the emerging psychological effects related to the crisis. The mental problems are as real as the physical ones and they are hitting children in ways that may take years to reveal themselves.

“Mental problems are as real as the physical ones and they are hitting children in ways that may take years to reveal themselves.”

Fortunately, we are already aware of many of the mental issues connected to excessive screen-time, and one issue in particular: the problematic use of smartphones, often referred to as PSU. A longitudinal  study from King’s College London revealed how mental disorders such as depression, anxiety, stress, poor sleep quality or poor academic performance have been increasing in young people and adolescents due to addiction to the use of smartphones.

The university looked at 41 different studies across 42,000 British children and teens over seven years and determined that the problematic use of smartphones (PSU) in young people is related to poor mental health results such as insecure attachment style, loneliness, and low self-esteem. PSU was also associated with alcoholism and smoking.

“Problematic use of smartphones (PSU) in young people is related to poor mental health results such as insecure attachment style, loneliness, and low self-esteem.”

Thanks to this study and others, we are also more aware of how to help children reduce their anxiety levels, compulsive behavior and re-find happiness. For example, in a study of 38 boys, half of whom had been diagnosed as smartphone addicts, by the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA),12 received cognitive behavior therapy sessions for nine weeks. The therapy was found to normalize aminobutyric acid (GABA) ratios related to PSU in the brain, key to proper brain and emotional function.

This is great news, but there are things parents can do, and should do now, to help prevent PSU and its related mental health issues in the first place.

How parents can help cut down the time their children spend on smartphones:

1. Set time limits.

One of the best things you can do to avoid addictive behavior is to set consistent time limits on the time your child can connect to their phone. 

2. Set downtimes.

Block out times of day and night when smartphone use is not allowed, e.g. one hour before bedtime and at the dinner table. 

3. Set phone to call-only mode.

To make smartphone use less attractive, you’re going to want to make it a “dumb phone” by making it so your child can only use it to receive and make calls. I especially recommend this during school-time hours to reduce distractions. 

4. Remove or block unnecessary apps on the smartphone to help your child avoid the temptation to connect.

Videogame and social media apps can be especially addictive for children.

5. Take the phone away.

This is a last resort, but you should ask yourself, “Does my child really need a smartphone at all?” There are many debates around the right age to give a child their first smartphone. I think every child needs to be looked at as an individual and the decision should be based on emotional maturity, but my general rule is “the later the better” and certainly not before age 12. Remember some of technology’s top tech gurus did not allow their children to have smartphones until age 14. And an increasing number of experts in technology and neurology now recommend waiting until age 16.

To ensure consistency in all of the above, I highly recommend parents use a parental control app like Qustodio together with the phone’s native restriction settings. 

If you find your child is still demonstrating addictive behavior or depression despite these efforts or others to control screen-time use, it is time to get professional help. In addition to the negative effects of excessive time on smartphones or being behind other screens, there may be more at work to cause your child’s unhappiness or unhealthy behavior. Are they being affected by other problems online, such as cyberbullying or online predators? Or are there offline factors at work, such as problems at home or difficulty dealing with other life changes. A psychologist or family practitioner can help you understand what is wrong and get your child the help they need.

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