It is a communication device. An entertainer. A game player, a joker, an adviser. A powerful toolkit and a palette for boundless creativity. Users create images and video “stories” with it. They converse, comment, discuss, and engage. They shop,
enjoy music, and organize their days with it.

According to Pew Research, 77% of Americans now own a smartphone. This new and powerful conduit for communication, self-expression, and ever increasing functionality has become a part of people’s lives with breathtaking speed. Within a decade, most people have become inured to “clicking” on favorite apps, “liking” others’ photos, and texting instead of making phone calls. Any question that comes to mind finds an answer instantly on Google. Any object a person desires is just a click and a day away.

The first children who grew up around smartphones are now teens and college students. In this grand experiment with new technology, many parents wonder if or how it will affect them.  The focus on teens has been the topic of films like “Screenagers” as well as more recent books and articles decrying it as the new teen addiction and the ruin of a generation.

To gain more insight on the subject from a local perspective, the RoundTable interviewed Steph Meyers, a licensed clinical psychotherapist who works with adolescents and college students in Evanston.

RT: What are your thoughts on smartphones as the new addiction for teens?
“I think it’s a complicated topic for a lot of parents. Kids want them, and parents feel pressured to do the thing that all the other kids are doing. But I think that the ongoing conversation we’re hearing a lot about around addiction and smartphones and technology has a really strong basis in how brain chemistry works. So much of what we do on smartphones (and most Internet-connected activity) releases dopamine into the brain’s pleasure center and can result in a cycle of habit-forming pleasure-seeking. You know, when we’re presented with new and enticing information, our brain gets a small dopamine release, which feels so good. And so what happens is you have that little nugget of dopamine that makes you feel really good, and that causes a craving for the next nugget of dopamine, which is what kids get when they are using technology like smartphones.

“And when they’re on social media, there’s always a presentation of new information, which again creates that dopamine cycle. So I think the argument around addiction has a really strong basis.  That being said, I think that [smartphones] are here to stay. So how do you create an environment in your home or in school or whatnot where consumption of the media and stuff off of the smartphone is balanced with other interesting things in your life? Because it’s really not that interesting in the long term. What’s really interesting is the here and the now. I think that’s the challenge for a lot of parents. I think it comes down to a parenting perspective: Are you cool with your kid being on their phone all the time? Can your kid really self-regulate? I don’t think most kids can.”

RT: What do you think of the idea that smartphones and social media cause anxiety in teens?
“In my experience as a mental health professional, consumption of social media can contribute to a lot of mood struggles with teens and adolescents — even adults, for that matter. I think it’s really hard for a young brain to process that what they’re seeing on social media is a highly curated version of a life and not reflective of how people really experience the world around them.

“So it’s oftentimes prescriptive to take a social media break when we see a sharp uptick in anxiety, fear of missing out, or even depressive symptoms. To say it’s time to put that down and cut if off completely for this set period of time and to focus on self-care. Because I do think as adults who didn’t grow up with social media, we can see it in a different light. But these are kids for whom  that’s all they’ve known. So if it’s on there, then it must be real, it must be factual. We know that it’s not, but it’s hard for them to process that.

“So when I work with teens and when I work with young adults – college students – we are prescribing social media breaks pretty frequently to just reset and start to recognize how impacted your mood is by seeing the things that are on social media.”

RT: Do you have any thoughts on parents’ reports that their kids seem much more grounded after they’ve been away from smartphones and computers for a while, at sleepaway camp or on trips?
“Well, they’ve had a period of time to really unplug and to reset the level, right? There is no more ‘next thing to go do,’ which is what the phone creates for young brains. It’s that anxiety around ‘I’ve got to hurry up and get this done so I can do the next thing.’ Whether it’s refreshing the screen or seeing what other people are doing, it’s this constant distraction. So when they go away to camp, where there are no phones allowed and there’s no social media consumption and they’re off screens completely, it’s a beautiful thing for their brains. They find bliss, and dopamine hits in other places. They’re calmer, they’re steadier, they’re more relaxed.

“But I don’t think that kids can self-regulate that as a consumption point. I mean, their desire to be in touch with it is so high…and also, their brains are still developing. The human brain continues to grow and develop until they’re 25. And so what does that mean? The brain is continuing to develop in so many ways, including self-regulation, sensation-seeking, risk-perception, etc. The brains of adolescents are more vulnerable to lots of different types of addictions, because the limbic brain regions that direct impulse and motivation are not yet fully developed. This age is a good period for trial and error, beginning to learn self-regulation and risk-assessment with the help of trusted adults. For most teens, I think self-regulation doesn’t come from within, it comes from external forces.

“If we were left to our own devices to self-regulate at the age of 13 or 14, we would have eaten Trix all the time and watched cartoons when we were kids. So what does that look like now? It’s basically Xboxes and social media. We can’t rely on [kids] to self-regulate, not really. They learn it over time, and they learn over time that when they have breaks from it and they can reflect about it, that ‘In fact, I was calmer, I was more comfortable, I did sleep better, I didn’t feel like I was really missing out. Because there was nothing to miss out on.’”

“I half jokingly say nothing good happens on social media. Of course that’s not entirely true and social media isn’t going away. Creating balance and recognizing when it’s time to take a break can be very beneficial. Helping kids realize that they will not become the least popular person in the school if they aren’t connected is important. And frankly even if they are ‘uncool’, they likely will have more success in adulthood than their popular peers, based on a decade-long study out of University of Virginia.”