LITTLE ADDICTS

D.A.R.E. to Keep Kids Off Tech

Smartphones are deeply integrated with life for many students. Should classrooms change to accept that?

11.17.15 6:00 AM ET

Smartphone addiction among younger users may be a culturally accepted norm in the next few years, as more students have smartphones than ever before, and rules start to relax preventing phone use in the classroom.

The fact is that, while ownership of smartphones between the ages of 12 and 17 has been rapidly increasing for years, it’s become harder to police their use among a population that is addicted to checking their phones.

Before anyone starts getting into the “kids these days” routine, technology addiction and a compulsive phone checking habit are not just run-of-the-mill concentration problems. It’s not just a casual disobedience during class, and checking a phone is not the equivalent of slipping a comic book inside an open textbook.

Cellphone addiction is a real problem, and it has similar symptoms to drug or gambling addictions. That’s because checking a screen has, culturally, become a source of dopamine release.

James Roberts is the Ben H. Williams Professor of Marketing at Baylor University, and the author of Too Much of a Good Thing: Are You Addicted to Your Smart Phone. He says that we need to acknowledge that we can be addicted to the behaviors and technology “just the way we can be addicted to drugs. It’s kind of a battle, if you will.”

And the effects are starting to make themselves known. The arguments keep stacking up against smartphone usage at early ages, as do the health problems they might be causing medically and mentally.

A recent study found that people who don’t use Facebook are 39 percent more likely to be happy than people who do, and there are nearly 1.4 billion monthly Facebook mobile users.

Another study is finding that all that bad posture from looking at phones is having negative effects on younger users—a sort of hunchback effect that can lead to problems later in life.

In the classroom it’s becoming a source of anxiety for students, who may not handle separation and restriction well. Frequent problems have even caused professors to rethink strategy for combatting use of phones in classrooms.

What drives kids and the rest of us to check our phones is satisfaction. “When we go to use our phones we’re looking for rewards—a funny story a nice email, an interesting fact—and so we’re looking for rewards,” Roberts says. “And what is happens when we find these rewards, we get this intermittent reinforcement that keeps us coming back.”

If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the same way you might describe buying lottery tickets or pulling the level on a slot machine. And not knowing whether there will be a payoff is part of the rush. “By never knowing when and how often it’s going to pay off,” says Roberts, “it keeps us coming back.”

But the solution to the problem is not taking away phones—at least not if you’re trying to help students. In fact, while some of the behaviors might look compulsive, Roberts says they’re not harmful unless they’re hurting the rest of your life.

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Either way, demonizing the phone is not going to fix the underlying issue of finding balance. After all, he uses one too. “It’s not something we’re going to go cold turkey on. I use my cellphone too,” he says. “What we really have to do is carve out some rules to this game. There’s got to be times when we don’t use our smartphones, we’ve got to limit the amount of time we use our smartphones.”

He says determining whether a student or anyone has a problem is about analyzing their wellbeing. “What I’m looking for is if your use of your smartphone is causing trouble. If you can’t control it, if it’s causing conflict in your life… if it’s hurting the quality of your life, your relationships, then you’ve got a problem.”

That’s a problem we might all have, from the friend who can’t put their phone away during dinner to the partner who can’t turn their phone off in bed. Those are the behaviors you have to watch out for.

What’s more, phones can be a forum for secondary addiction. “It can find an easy outlet in our smartphones,” Roberts says. “Impulsiveness is a personality characteristic that always precedes addiction.” Think gambling apps, or “freemium” microtransactions within games.

As for handling the problem in class, breaks throughout the day and halfway through a long class to check phones alleviate some of the anxiety. And they can be timed with the comfortable length of the average attention span in a way that actually could help students focus more toward the end of a lecture. Roberts pointed anecdotally to colleagues at Baylor who have had success with breaks at 20-minute intervals, and that’s been observed to work at other institutions as well.

But that’s just the cultural norm, not serious addiction. If those problems are rearing their heads, there are rehab centers for phone addiction around the country, but Roberts has a more realistic concept for how to beat the problem. It starts with realizing the dangers of a new technology.

“I think with all new technologies… we had to kind of learn how to use them, and learn how to use them properly,” Roberts says. “That kind of figuring out how we should be interacting with this technology.”