Disconnecting in a Wireless World
Let’s face it: We’re a society hopelessly addicted to our smartphones and hooked on Wi-Fi, text messages and the latest app. It’s not uncommon to see entire families glued to their screens during dinner out at a restaurant or couples hardly speaking on a date because they’re too busy posting photos to Instagram.
According to the Pew Research Center, as many as 92 percent of American adults own a cellphone, and 68 percent of those are smartphones. In younger age groups (18-29), that number is even higher, with 86 percent owning a smartphone.
While technology brings the world to our fingertips and makes life easier in many regards, it isn’t without its drawbacks.
Barbara Alderete, a clinical educator for Texas Health Behavioral Health, said she and her colleagues have seen significant changes in how families interact, as well as how teenagers navigate growing up in a digital landscape.
“We have seen an increase in the isolation and lessened connections of individual family members within the immediate family,” she said. “Many more family members, adults as well as adolescents, are on their phones, social media or the Internet a great deal of time each day. This even includes when they are in the presence of other family members.
“In addition to a decrease in the face-to-face interaction and sharing of family members, we see adolescents who have less opportunity to learn complex social interaction skills. The social skills used in social media and other types of distance interaction are less aware and less reactive to the responses and feelings of others.”
Our phones, tablets and other devices may be ringing and pinging all day long with calls, text messages and multimedia messages, but experts believe we’ve fallen into a trap of quantity over quality when it comes to our communication.
“While individuals may be more ‘in touch’ with others through almost constant contact through texting and social media, the contact is changing in the quality of connection,” Alderete explained. “A much larger amount of time is spent in contact with others, particularly those outside the family. For adolescents who already are driven to seek more peer contact during these years, it can change the balance in the connection with the family. The result can be an even greater emphasis on the peer relationships and particularly, peer approval and acceptance.”
More than 90 percent of teenagers are online every day, with close to 25 percent reporting that they are almost constantly connected via their mobile devices. While many parents attempt to monitor their kids’ online activity, the majority discuss appropriate online behavior with their teens, rather than using parental controls to track or block their usage.
Alderete explained that there are several drawbacks to unlimited screen time, especially for teenagers.
“The amount of input from peers is not only greater in volume, but because of the anonymity of the Internet, the content is often much more critical and cruel,” she said. “Specifically, we see the occurrence of cyber bullying which is reported by approximately 15 percent of adolescents. Other problem areas that can occur are oversharing of private information, sexting and even vulnerability to being lured by online predators.
“Meanwhile, with the increased time spent on social media, the support and relationship with parents who can help put peer acceptance into perspective can be diminished, leaving the teen more susceptible to the emotional turmoil of adolescent relationships. We also see sleep deprivation in teens that have difficulty setting appropriate limits for utilizing the phone or social media at night.”
While social media serves to easily connect people of all ages, it doesn’t always portray reality, which can lead to negative feelings and self-esteem issues.
“Facebook and similar social media sites can portray life in a more idealized and less realistic picture,” Alderete said. “Even adults who struggle with self-doubt and low self-esteem may find that constantly viewing others’ postings about the ‘highlights’ of others’ lives makes their own appear to be a failure or more of a struggle. This can impact the occurrence of depression and anxiety in both adults and adolescents.
“At Texas Health Behavioral Health we have increased the number of beds available for treating adolescents in the last four years significantly and have found that the demand for those beds has continued to increase.”
According to a Gallup poll, more than half of all smartphone users check their phones several times an hour, with 11 percent admitting to looking at them every few minutes. In the age group of 18- to 29-year-olds, 22 percent reported checking their phones dozens of times an hour. More than 80 percent of Americans keep their phones with them almost constantly during waking hours, and 63 percent report taking their phones to bed with them.
So what can we do to encourage a digital disconnect and increased positive personal interactions? First and foremost, Alderete recommends setting healthy boundaries, especially for teenagers.
“Limiting use of the phone during school, activities and homework will help contain use and reduce the negative impact on these areas,” Alderete offered. “Rules which require teens to give up their phones at night until they have reached the maturity to set their own limits regarding its use can improve the sleep patterns of the adolescent. Additionally, parents should know and continually educate themselves about the social media sites and apps their teens use.
“We encourage families to set phone, Internet, social media and gaming limits for all members of the family. Requiring everybody to put down phones or other Internet devices during dinner or other family time can help foster those important relationships within the immediate family.”
Want to learn more about how your phone affects your health? Take a look at our infographic, “Technology + Your Body.”