How Smartphones Are Ruining Our Kids’ Mental Health (and tips to fix it)

mental health issues derived from kids being on their phones all the time

When I was a teenager, I’d never heard of the concept of ‘mental health.’  I didn’t know there was such a thing.

Occasionally someone’s parent would be rumoured to have had a ‘nervous breakdown’ but it was only hinted at, and the parent in question was just gone (to the hospital?  The Gulag?) for a while and nothing more was said about it.  Implicit in the non-response was that the person had totally lost it or gone completely bonkers for some inexplicable reason, and it was better to not discuss it. Mental health was not understood the same way it is today.

I’m sure many people suffered in silence and self-medicated but suffice to say mental health issues were rarer then than now.

The Rise in Mental Health Issues in Young Canadians

Today, 500,000 Canadians miss work every week due to mental health issues.  And many come to work and soldier on but feel beyond terrible and hopeless while doing so.

Jean Twenge is a professor of psychology at San Diego State University and has studied generational data for 25 years regarding mental health.  In 2012, she reports that the data went nuts.  Unprecedented shifts.  For the first time, indicators went off the charts for young people:

  • Not wanting to learn to drive
  • Feeling lonely (up 40%)
  • Getting less sleep
  • Not hanging out with friends
  • Not dating
  • Showing an aversion to risk
  • Self-harming
  • Feeling depressed and/or anxious (up 50%)
  • Saying they feel ‘left out’

Read her article in The Atlantic.

The smartphone isn’t the only factor in the deterioration of our kid’s mental health, but she believes it’s the main one.

Meanwhile, these Gen Z people are joining our teams and struggling with all these mental health issues.

Phones stimulate your brain in ways that make sleep more difficult.  I’m a life-long semi-insomniac, and if I read, I get sleepy.  If I use the internet, I don’t.  Smartphones wind us up when we should we winding down.

1. Don’t Keep Your Phone in your Room Overnight

Most people check their phone just before bed, and again first thing in the morning when they wake up.  Most people sleep with their phone within arm’s reach, and many sleep with it under their pillow!

Don’t use your phone in the place you’re supposed to be sleeping in.

Many people need it beside them because it functions as their alarm clock.  Solution: buy an alarm clock!

2. Unsubscribe from apps/use apps to Limit your Phone use

“We did a more sophisticated statistical analysis once and matched it up, and there’s about a year delay.  The technology comes first, then the depression.” Jean Twenge

We’re not addicted to phones any more than an alcoholic is addicted to a bottle.  We’re addicted to apps.  Take steps to limit their use.

Ironically, there are apps to help you do this!

3. Turn Off Notifications to Improve Your Mental Health

Constant notifications keep our brains stimulated in unhealthy ways.  Like Pavlov’s dog, we compulsively check for likes and banner notifications.  Simply turning off these notifications in ‘settings’ will help you get more focused right away.

4. Take Screen-free Days

My smart wife takes a full day off from all screens once/week.  She isn’t available during those times and uses the time to read, think, pray, study, and spend time with family and friends.

If a day is too much, try one block: a morning, afternoon, or evening.

5. Don’t Allow Smartphones in Meetings

I’m a strong believer that smartphones in meetings are a problem.  Particularly before and after the meeting.  That’s the time when we catch up.  We talk about our families and the football game and spend a bit of time being human.  Too often that time is spent on an app while the real people around us are ignored.

6. My Journey with My Smartphone and Mental Health

For years I’ve read about 50 books/year.  At some point, I realized that I wasn’t reading much anymore.  Instead, I was on my smartphone.

I was watching videos.  Random videos that popped up on my feed.  From motorcycle reviews to guitar restoration shoots to crazy people base jumping to news bloopers to… you name it.  Then compulsively over to LinkedIn and a quick check of Instagram, a quick Google search on how to make traditional guitar hide glue (because I saw that on a YouTube video), and finally over to the news to get depressed by the 24-hour doom loop.

I was like a monkey swinging through the jungle grabbing whatever vine was nearest.  And I was feeling worse about my life.

So finally (to my discredit) I made all of those apps inaccessible.  I realized that I was a phone-aholic and needed to go cold turkey.

Now I can’t access the internet from my phone, except for email, texts, my calendar, and Google maps.

To check out those other apps or find out the correct way to pronounce Worcestershire, I have to intentionally walk to my office and get on my computer.  Which isn’t worth it for me most of the time.

Suddenly I was reading again.  My mind calmed down.  All at once my life made sense again.

Smartphones are here to stay, and we all need to get better at living successfully with them.

Like fire, they make excellent slaves, but very poor masters.

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Trevor Throness is a speaker, consultant, and author of “The Power of People Skills.”  He is also co-founder and senior instructor at Professional Leadership Institute.

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    4 thoughts on “How Smartphones Are Ruining Our Kids’ Mental Health (and tips to fix it)”

    1. I find that turning off notifications really helps my mental health. That way I can set aside some time to look at my notifs when I’m not doing work, and I don’t depend on them for dopamine.

    2. This has been an area of my interest for years, as being one of the last millennials right in the transition to Gen Z I have experienced this from the beginning.

      One connection that often doesn’t get made is the link between Gen-Z (and younger millennials) not being able to be working deep/focused and continuing distractions. A really good book on this is Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport and also Deep Work (an earlier work from him). As your reference article mentioned as well, since 2007 (the introduction of the iphone) mental health under youth has decreased, also causing issues with long term focus and the capability of the brain to think deep, as it can only get in that state when not disturbed for a longer time.

      People think we get more advanced these days but in fact we are getting dumb and dependent on our technology. How come impressive architectural work from history was built without computers or our current technology and still highly accurate and perfect. Like Egyptians could built pyramids but humans in current times would have trouble achieving this the same way as they did. This all has to do with the distractions, we can’t get our brains to the next level when we don’t work in a state of solitude, which is a healthy state to work in because it gives purpose and fulfillment and focus. For me as a young millennial I don’t have the ability to focus as the Gen-x’ers did and much of the Gen z-ers will have a worse ability yet. I have a hard time reading for a longer period than 10 minutes without my mind wandering and I enjoy reading very much! That ability to focus we have lost, in the medieval times Monks could repeat the whole Bible in Latin out of their head or recall any verse, nowadays I bet you no one knows a thick book like the Bible completely out of their head just because we don’t have that level of solitude. Solitude doesn’t mean loneliness; people are lonely because they can’t make a connection with distracted people. When people can focus (being less distracted), they can connect. Balanced time spent on solitude vs connecting with people will make for a happier more satisfied population.

      Your tips are helpful but the same as they have been given for years now, they only often work temporary and people seem to always slide back into the bad phone habits again, it needs renewed continuous focus which costs a lot of energy. However, I sometimes wonder if something more drastic needs to happen (something larger than us) to solve these issues, to solve loneliness…

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