At the dawn of the most recent millennium, mobile technology was still in its infancy. Only about a 1/3 of people had a mobile device, most of whom were adults. Today, 92% of all adults in the U.S. have a cell phone as well as approximately 85% of middle schoolers. The iPhone was released in 2007; today, 73% of youth ages 13-17 have access to a smartphone. Many are even younger.
For parents, the decision to provide a mobile device comes with uncertainty, but certainly is the going trend. Kids can (theoretically) be reached at all times. Mobile devices help keep youth busy. They provide instantaneous information and an unrivalled breadth of experiences.
Yet, amidst the promise of a new age, the decades-long experiment of youth and their mobile devices is failing. Promises of mobile technology and youth are giving way to a landslide of problems. Here are a few:
The great sleep recession: Sleep affects almost every area of physical and psychological functioning. 85% percent of teens sleep with mobile devices by their side. They are afraid to miss a 2 a.m. text. What they are really missing is an opportunity for a good night’s sleep.
Sexting: Sexting didn’t exist until mobile devices became available. Now teens are using apps that can’t even be tracked to send racy photos at alarming rates. If the photos weren’t enough, youth who engage in sexting are 4-7 times more likely to engage in sexual behaviors, be promiscuous earlier, and physically mature at a younger age.
Cyberbullying: Cyberbullying is another issue that didn’t become prominent until mobile devices entered the youth world. Bullying and teasing have always been an issue. But now the number and breadth of ways that a youth can be bullied has expanded infinitely, and both the bully and the bullied remain affected as long as a digital trace endures.
Distractions galore: The average adolescent female sends more than 4,000 texts per month. That’s approximately 8 texts per waking hour. And it’s not even her day job (school). Question: “Where do they find the time?” Answer: “In the middle of everything else.”
Traffic Accidents: The leading cause of death with teens is traffic accidents. The leading cause of traffic accidents with teens is texting. Drunk driving is second. More than 50% of teens admit texting while driving. Even more likely do.
Classroom Woes: Mobile devices in classrooms, whether it is the ring, buzz, or all the other potential diversions, are clearly associated with decreased learning, retention, and efficiency. Think passing notes and classroom shenanigans were bad? Try being a teacher and competing with mobile devices today, especially when classroom bans are often not enforced.
Pornography: The average male first views pornography by age 11, mostly online. By the time they are young adults, they access it on average 50 times a week. Any wonder that pornography profit out grosses NBC, ABC, and CBS combined? Mobile devices make it all too easy.
Social Skills Declining: Eye contact, gestures, and basic interactive skills have long been the basis of relationships. But increasing evidence indicates that even the most core skills are being affected by mobile devices. Try having a conversation with someone who seems only half there; then imagine this was the norm. No wonder young people are flocking to the digital world.
Obesity/Sedentary Behaviors: By now, we all know the dire news about pediatric obesity and Type II diabetes in youth. Ironically, mobile devices encourage anything but mobility. The apps that purport to increase activity don’t have the data to support their claims. Meanwhile, the only safe way to game, text, message, or the like is to stop moving, which is one huge problem many overweight youth face today.
Brain Development: This one goes deep into the neurons and the glial cells to areas of functioning that affect all the previously mentioned domains. Nothing looms more important to our youth than the development of skills such as emotional regulation, impulse control, sustained attention, and “if…then” consequential thinking. They only have a little over 20 years to develop these skills before the brain reaches its maturation; mobile devices are not helping.
The writing on the wall keeps getting bigger and bolder even as the rocky marriage of youth and mobile technology continues. Even for those who are not swayed by the concerns noted above, they must make you wonder. If it weren’t for the trends and the desire to be able to reach children at all times, would this marriage make any sense? Trends can change if we as parents desire. It seems time we put the mobile device-youth experiment to rest, and look at better options to meet our needs and theirs.
For more information on this topic, see my Just Thinking column.
[Editor’s Note: Take the Poll – Should children have mobile devices?]