The last decade has witnessed the mass adoption of smartphones, with everyone from pre-teens to senior citizens getting in on the mobile action.
Smartphones have changed society in a way no one could have expected, but whether it’s for better or for worse is still up for debate.
However, according to one top addiction therapist, gifting a smartphone to a child is as bad as giving them a single gram of cocaine.
An addiction as dangerous as alcohol and drugs
Rehab clinic specialist, Mandy Saligari, recently shared at a London conference for teachers and school professionals her findings on addiction in adolescents.
According to Saligari, “I always say to people, when you’re giving your kid a tablet or a phone, you’re really giving them a bottle of wine or a gram of coke.”
She stressed that the time that adolescents spend interacting with their peers on popular apps like Instagram and Snapchat can lead to addiction as dangerous as alcohol and drugs. This is because the addictive roots of alcohol and drugs rely on the same electrical activity and brain impulses that are triggered by smartphone apps.
Her comments are more than just scare tactics: children in the UK no older than 13 are now being admitted into rehab for digital technology addiction.
In a recent survey, a third of English children between the ages of 12 and 15 admitted that they had difficulty balancing their smartphone time with other aspects of their life.
Saligari emphasized to the conference of school administrators and teachers that many of these children have been failed, because there has been a failure in identifying the signs of digital technology addiction.
When identifying addiction, we have a tendency to focus on the thing or substance, rather than the behavior itself, which is why digital technology addiction has fallen off the radar for so long.
Saligari finds herself leading the charge against digital technology addiction: the rehab clinic specialist runs London’s Harley Street Charter clinic. She has found that there has been a “dramatic increase” of young people seeking addiction treatment, with over half of her patients falling within the 16 to 20 age range.
With this addiction to technology comes another harmful side effect: the rise of sending and receiving “nudes” or sexual images, or accessing mature content with their phones.
In one survey, over two-thirds of teachers admitted that they were personally aware of students sharing sexual images and videos; one in six of those are primary school students.
And over the last three years, over two thousand children in the UK have been charged by the police for cases involving sexual content.
Sexting has now become ‘normal’
For Saligari’s 13 and 14-year old female patients (who make up the majority of her patients), the sharing of sexual content and sexting is seen as “completely normal”.
Young girls have been convinced into believing that sending nude pictures of themselves to another person is “normal”; they only think that they have done anything “wrong” if an adult or parent discovers the picture or sexting.
For Saligari, this is an “issue of self-respect and it’s an issue of identity”. To prevent this, children must be “taught self-respect”, so they will see their actions as a form of self-exploitation.
Dr. Richard Graham, consultant psychiatrist at the Nightingale Hospital Technology Addiction Lead, presented his findings alongside Saligari.
Graham reported that parents are experiencing increasing difficulty in knowing how to regulate their children’s smartphone activity. His findings suggest that over four in ten parents of young teenagers are unable to balance their children’s smartphone usage.
And the situation is becoming progressively worse—parents have started handing more screen time to children as young as three and four, with this age range now averaging six and a half hours on the internet every week.
The best way to deal with rising addiction
Saligari and Graham concluded that the best way to deal with the rising technology addiction was to focus on sleep and digital curfews.
Schools must also introduce a systematic approach towards smartphone regulation; for example, schools should be encouraged to try a “smartphone amnesty” every morning.
For Saligari, it’s not too late. There might be “resistance” with teenagers and older children, but “it’s [not] impossible to intervene”.
The goal should be to begin catching addiction early. Once addiction has been identified in children, they can then be taught too self-regulate.
Only through self-regulation can they experience long-term, permanent change; they can’t think that unlimited smartphone usage is perfectly normal whenever their teachers or parents aren’t around.