A young woman holds an iced coffee in one hand and her cellphone in the other hand.
Smartphone addiction is real and it’s negatively impacting our youth. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

We’ve all seen it: Families at restaurants all looking at their individual cell phones instead of conversing with each other.

Or kids walking into walls at school while looking at their iPhones.

Or someone texting while driving in the car next to you.

Half of American teenagers feel they are addicted to their mobile devices, according to a new study, and 59 percent of parents believe their children are addicted.

More than one-fourth of all parents also feel addicted.

Although the American Psychiatric Association doesn’t yet recognize Internet or cell phone addiction as a diagnosable ailment, doctors say the phenomenon is real.

“I do think when it comes to cell phones, people can exhibit addictive-like behaviors,” says Lisa Lowery, MD, section chief of adolescent medicine at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital. “When we think of addiction and dependency, there’s always a need to have it present, to have it on, and the feeling when it’s not around is panic when I don’t know where my cell phone is. … I think a lot of people can relate to that.”

Negative Consequences

A lot of the criteria for addiction comes from substance-abuse issues, according to Brittany Barber Garcia, PhD, who specializes in pediatric psychology with Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital.

Those include thinking about and engaging in a particular behavior for a significant number of hours throughout the day, wanting to increase the number of hours as time goes by, withdrawal symptoms such as increased anxiety or shakiness, and negatively impacting one’s life.

In terms of engaging in the behavior for long periods of time, young adults use their phones, on average, more than five hours per day. They also use it twice as much as they think they do, a sign that smartphone use is habitual, according to researchers.

And the negative effects of dependency on mobile devices are obvious, Dr. Barber Garcia says.

“One of the biggest impacts for people who have increased engagement with the Internet and social media is that they have decreased engagement with the real world,” Dr. Barber Garcia says. “Some teenagers and young adults are not participating in class, or they’re getting behind in work because they’re focusing on their phones rather than work or school.

“The other issue is the social impact. People think they’re engaging socially on social media, but it’s very different than engaging face to face. For example, I have seen many teenagers who struggle with in-person social interactions—they’re less comfortable with face-to-face engagements, they’re not asking questions, and they have more anxiety in face-to-face scenarios because they haven’t developed the necessary skills to interact with peers or adults when not behind a screen.”

Multiple doctors said cell phone dependency also negatively affects many people’s sleep habits. A 2015 study showed more than 60 percent of students use their phones after lights out.

“Studies have shown that teenagers who keep their phones right on their bed, or next to their bed, or within arm’s reach are not getting the same quality of sleep,” Dr. Barber Garcia says. “Even if they’re not checking their phones, it’s like they’re subconsciously waiting for that next phone buzz.”

“It’s somewhat akin to watching TV or having the TV on while you sleep,” Dr. Lowery adds. “Their minds are always going, are feeling the stimulation from the light, which causes the sleep to not be as deep.”

Tips for parents

For worried parents, doctors have suggestions on how to best limit their children’s screen time. Having a cap on cell phone or Internet time such as 1-2 hours per day, plus having no screen time before or after lights out, can have a major impact.

“You’d be surprised how much just those two rules cut into a child’s usage,” Dr. Lowery says.

Doctors also suggest having designated electronic-free time at the dinner table or during designated family activities.

Parents should also inspect their kids phones regularly—and be upfront about it, not doing it in secret.

“It’s good to be ‘friends’ with or ‘follow’ your children (on Facebook/Instagram/Twitter/Snapchat) and monitor what they do on social media, but I can’t tell you how many of my patients have secret Instagram accounts, secret-secret Instagram accounts, secret Twitter accounts,” Dr. Barber Garcia says. “So parents need to be upfront about needing to look through their child’s cell phone and tell them, ‘Look, I trust you, I just want make sure you’re being safe with your phone. A cell phone is a privilege and these are the rules associated with that privilege.’”

Lastly, if parents can’t limit their own cell phone usage, that will affect their children’s behavior.

“Remember that kids choose behaviors on what their parents do, not what their parents say,” Dr. Barber Garcia says. “If you tell your children they’re allowed to use their phone for only 30 minutes a day at home, they’re not going to (stick to that rule) if they see their parents with a cell phone at dinner or when they’re having family time.”

“You can’t teach it and preach it if you’re not living it,” Dr. Lowery says.