The dawn of the screenager: Teens spending 9 hours a day online

NOTHING has invaded our personal worlds with such muted insidiousness than that of our technological devices. One of the most striking features of our society today is the fact that nearly everyone seems to be plugged out of life and plugged into some sort of device as they go about their daily commute to work or school. It is something I encounter on my own commute into the city — adults and teenagers alike, head down, feverishly zombie scrolling through the minutia of the latest post or tweet or whatever it is that is capturing their attention so completely.

However, while this may seem like a harmless way to while away those awkward moments on public transport, recent research elucidates the harsh reality, we are becoming more and more addicted to our devices.

One of the most pressing and urgent concerns I encounter with parents in my practice as a systemic psychotherapist is the fact that they do not know how to prevent their teenage son/daughter from spending so much time on their smartphones or games.

A recent report portrayed that teenagers are spending on average nine hours a day on their devices. This is an alarming statistic that should serve as a wake-up call to every parent, teacher, clinician, and policy maker, working with teenagers. We need to look at how technology is impacting the world of our children. We must also look at how we, as parents and educators, talk to our children about the time they spend on these devices and we must promote a healthy policy that protects them.

Blue light impacts melatonin production

I have observed over the years how more and more teenagers are presenting with exhaustion and low motivation in our classrooms. In my conversations with teenagers around this modern phenomenon they have outlined to me how they habitually check their phones during the night, which impacts on their energy and enthusiasm for the day ahead.

One student explained, “I know it’s probably nothing but if my phone flashes during the night I cannot resist checking it, I have to see what it is and then when it turns out to be nothing — I wonder why I checked it at all.”

When we examine what this student is describing a very worrying picture develops. Scientists believe that receiving messages and texts on our devices stimulates dopamine, which functions as a neurotransmitter in the brain — essentially making us feel good or arousing us so that we want to feel more. Therefore, we get caught in the cycle of sending out and receiving meaningless messages because they are satisfying for a moment.

However, when we get stuck in a pattern of compulsion which impacts on our mood we are moving rapidly and dangerously on a trajectory towards addiction. Parents are becoming increasingly aware of this development but are at a loss as how to deal with it.

Some practical tips:

Turn off notifications

Dopamine fires more when there is an unpredictability of outcome. For example, a late night message that is unsolicited is far too much excitement for the brain to ignore. As parents you must check the settings on your child’s phone and set them so any message that is received does not ping after a certain time.

Eliminate as many visual and auditory cues as possible

Make sure your child does not have access to a phone after a certain time. Get them an alarm clock so they are not using their phone as their only wake up call, thereby allowing for the removal of the phone from the room.

Be consistent with your policy

Teenagers have a heightened sense of fairness and justice. You cannot tell your child not to use their phone, when you are modelling the same behaviour.


One of the most recurring ideas I hear in my work with teenagers around mobile phone usage in the home is this idea of self-deception: ‘My dad tells me that I’m spending too much time on my phone, but he spends way more time than me.’

We have to be careful of the behaviour we are modelling for our children. It is a common scene in any restaurant in the country, a family out for a meal — the children are quietly watching their iPads, while the parents are scrolling through their smartphones.

When parents come to me and ask “how can I stop my child from spending so much time on their phone?” I ask them a very simple series of questions: “What is the pattern in the family for using phones? What is your policy like? And do you stick to it? What would your children be doing if they were not on their phone?”

These questions can often be very difficult for parents to answer because they illuminate the power the family system has in maintaining the homeostasis of the problem.

Our children are not receiving the seven to eight hours of sleep recommended for their bodies and minds to be healthy and rested for the day ahead. This fact is obvious to anyone working in the modern school system. We must as parents, teachers and clinicians develop a sensible policy that allows for teenagers to use technology while also educating them on the importance of technology-free time so that their bodies and minds can get some well-needed rest.

Everyone seems to be plugged out of life and plugged into some sort of device as they go about their daily commute to work or school

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