Just How Bad Is Kids’ Smartphone Addiction?

A letter from investors to Apple urges the tech giant to address childhood tech addiction.

Photo Illustration by Lyne Lucien/The Daily Beast

It's the easiest babysitting hack known to modern adults attempting to pacify a fussy baby: Take a smartphone, find a game or show, put it in the child’s hands, and—lo and behold! The kid is quiet, eyes wide, and still.

And that magic trick seems to extend to children who can crawl, tots who are just stringing together words, kids toddling into preschool, and—most obviously, at least when it comes to psychological research—tweens and teens hunched over their smartphones, oblivious to the world.

That worries a group of Apple investors, who are calling on the company to investigate what effects this screen time has on children’s brains and development. In a letter co-signed by New York investment firm JANA Partners and Anne Sheehan, the director of corporate governance at the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (the largest public teacher’s pension fund in the country), the investors implore the tech giant to fund research into what their ubiquitous products might do to a child’s brain:

The average American teenager who uses a smart phone receives her first phone at age 10 and spends over 4.5 hours a day on it (excluding texting and talking). 78% of teens check their phones at least hourly and 50% report feeling ‘addicted’ to their phones. It would defy common sense to argue that this level of usage, by children whose brains are still developing, is not having at least some impact, or that the maker of such a powerful product has no role to play in helping parents to ensure it is being used optimally. It is also no secret that social media sites and applications for which the iPhone and iPad are a primary gateway are usually designed to be as addictive and time-consuming as possible, as many of their original creators have publicly acknowledged.

The letter is signed on behalf of investors whose shares amount to nearly $2 billion of Apple stock. Apple’s total valuation is about $900 billion.

It’s a small proportion, but the letter is sparking conversation about what it means to be addicted to technology—particularly among the youngest users of smart technology. It cites research and science published within childhood psychology, including that of Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University whose most recent book, iGen: Why Today’s Superconnected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood, tackles the effects of smartphones on teens.

Twenge said she first spotted some odd trends in teenage mental health in 2011 and 2012, when smartphones were becoming more common among teens. “There was a doubling in the suicide rate and tripling in emergency room admissions of self-harm among young girls,” Twenge said. “And there was a 50 percent increase in the clinical depression rate.”

To Twenge, the link between screen time and mental health seemed apparent. And while she said her research doesn’t touch on addiction so much as the mental health of teens based on smartphone use, she said there’s undeniable proof that screen time has a negative effect on developing minds, based on research that was published in November in the journal Clinical Psychological Science.

“I found that teens who spend five or more hours a day of screen time are 71 percent more likely to have risk factors” for mental health issues, such as depression, or thinking about suicide. That screen time is measured as that devoted to gaming, social media, or any other use of a device outside homework. And while Twenge’s research doesn’t indicate causation, other research does show that screen time leads to unhappiness rather than the other way around.

That’s because there are some very significant neurological events happening when we interact with our screen. Anna Lembke is an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Stanford University Medical Center, and she’s studied addiction extensively, both substance abuse and technology. She said the way we absorb the cool blue glow of a screen is akin to the electricity a drug user may feel.

“Smartphone screens light up the same area of the brain as opioids and cannabis,” she told The Daily Beast. “The rewards pathways mediated by dopamine respond to screens in a very similar way to opioids.”

What makes adolescents especially vulnerable to the addictive nature of smartphones is that they are in a crucially pliable point of their mental and physical growth. “They’re incredibly socially sensitive,” Lembke said of adolescents, classed as those first experiencing puberty through those at the end of the teenage years.

The need to fit in and the desire to be popular and gain social points mean that kids this age are especially vulnerable to falling for the “social media contagion effect,” the term Lembke uses to describe a child doing something just because a peer is doing it. And Lembke said that reasoning is simply logical in an adolescent’s brain.

Smartphone screens light up the same area of the brain as opioids and cannabis. The rewards pathways mediated by dopamine respond to screens in a very similar way to opioids.
Anna Lembke
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“Adolescent brains are more vulnerable to risk taking, so the emotion centers of the brain drive behavior more than the future planning centers of the brain,” she said—which is why teens are impulsive enough to take risks without recognizing future consequences. Their brains are pliable because adolescence is a time when neurons undergo pruning, fundamentally altering the shape and structure of the brain from one of a child’s into that of an adult’s.

Online, that can be dangerous: It can lead to slut shaming when kids send and receive nude photos without thinking about ramifications, for example, or bullying on anonymous messaging apps like last summer’s sleeper hit Sarahah. Being turned on by peers can be devastating for a teen and in some extreme, tragic cases lead to suicide. Neuronal pruning can mean screens are used as a coping strategy, and tearing kids away from their screen can be difficult not only because it offers a sense of safety and information, but also because a kid may be addicted.

But what about little kids? After all, infants and toddlers aren’t using the internet to stalk their exes or dissect the latest cryptic Taylor Swift tweet. They’re primarily using it as an entertainment device replacing, at the most high-tech end, a television show with squealy puppets, and at the low-tech end, a parent regaling a child with tales.

That’s part of the reason why judging the effects of touch screens—smartphones, tablets, and their ilk—is so difficult: the fact that they’re new. The iPhone just celebrated its 10th birthday, so there’s not much history for figuring out how the smartphone may have changed how we think. And what makes all this even more difficult is trying to figure out when exactly tech addiction could kick in.

“Nearly all the research that is relevant is mostly with much older kids,” Heather Kirkorian, an associate professor at the School of Human Ecology at the University of Wisconsin who studies how toddlers under 5 learn with media, told The Daily Beast. “But there’s not much scientific consensus.”

Kirkorian has found (using data from Common Sense Media) that kids’ time with technology goes up as they age, with preschool kiddos clocking in an hour-and-a-half per day. Kirkorian said her research focuses on learning with technology—not problematic use—and said that while she sees some expected demographic trends of boys playing video games more than girls, who tend to favor social media, and white children eking out more screen time than their black and Hispanic counterparts, tech is not necessarily all bad.

“Tech can play a positive role in the lives of kids,” Kirkorian said, citing the ability to video chat with family who live far away and playing interactive games under the supervision of older family members as valuable for bonding and learning.

What Kirkorian wishes the Apple investors’ letter addressed was the fact that while we’ve started to collect a fair amount of data on how kids interact with technology, we still don’t quite understand how to interpret those findings.

Kirkorian points to the example of teens who might be suffering from depression and anxiety. “The causal direction is not clear,” she pointed out. “It could be that this is actually a tool for teens who are disconnected and lack social interaction. They can be tools to help kids who are socially isolated.”

But are these kids reaching for tech to ease feelings of isolation, or are they isolated because they’re entering their digital worlds? “That’s really unclear, and it’s the chicken and egg problem here,” Kirkorian said.

Lembke said the screen, however, is inherently addictive, regardless of intent. “Even if I turn to a screen because I’m anxious, to cope with my anxiety, that screen can become inherently addictive,” she said. “You can become addicted." Lembke said she’s had patients come in with substance problems who didn’t initially mean to become reliant on a substance.

“For those who are vulnerable to addiction, the risks are extraordinarily high,” she said. “Add to that early onset of use, and the risk of addiction is there.”

Adam Alter, an associate professor of marketing at New York University and author of last year’s Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked, told The Daily Beast via email that the question isn’t about whether too much screen time leads to a tech addiction among kids.

“I’ve used the word ‘addiction’ myself, but whether or not you use the word to describe how children interact with screens is beside the point,” he said. “When you ask how young a person can be to be addicted, I think the real question is how young can a person be to be adversely affected by a smartphone.”

And for that, Alter doesn’t think there’s an age when screen time is safe. “There’s no lower limit in my opinion,” he said. “As soon as a child can sit in front of a screen—and as soon as that screen eats into the time he or she might spend in face-to-face interactions with other people or engaging with the wider world—it’s possible for the phone to compromise that child’s well-being.” To Alter, it’s up to the caretaker to figure out “when kids are distracted, unhappy, disengaged, and generally adversely affected by screens.”

But that’s what makes declaring technology as a villain difficult and problematic: It can serve an important role as a teacher and motivator. Every expert The Daily Beast interviewed had a different thought about what the best solution should be about youth tech addiction. What was universally agreed upon, however, was that the Apple letter shone an important light on tech addiction among kids. Thus far, screen time has been “regulated,” with a 2015 report breaking the concept of limiting time for kids, going so far as to suggest that the phrase “screen time” was antiquated.

Exposure to the internet isn’t actually the problem. Being online can be good for kids of all ages. What’s problematic, as psychologists point out, is relying on the screen to come to terms with the roller coaster emotional experience of being a teen and not being able to turn to another peer or activity without feeling pain of being torn away from a device. As the letter stated: “To be clear, we are not advocating an all or nothing approach. While expert opinions vary on this issue, there appears to be a developing consensus that the goal for parents should be ensuring the developmentally optimal amount and type of access, particularly given the educational benefits mobile devices can offer.”

In other words: iPhones, iPads, and any other digital device kids might veer toward for entertainment aren’t bad. They’re amazing tools for learning and growth. They simply aren’t the only tools a kid should have to explore the world.