March 22, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Mobile Device Addiction Explored in Report; Educators as “Mentors” Highlighted


Fifty percent of teens believe they are addicted to their mobile devices, and almost 60 percent of parents agree, according to a survey of families conducted as part of a new report by Common Sense Media that explores the research on Internet addiction.

While most families say using mobile devices hasn’t harmed parent-child relationships, about a third of parents and teens report conflicts over the amount of time adolescents spend on their devices, and both parents and teens say they feel pressure to check their devices frequently. Half of the parents and more than a third of the teens who participated in the survey said they want to cut back on the time they spend online.

The report, “Technology Addiction: Concern, Controversy and Finding Balance in the Digital Age,” reviews existing studies on adults’ and children’s Internet use and provides recommendations on ways that parents, educators, and media providers can discourage unhealthy media and technology habits in an era when children are increasingly connected online.

“A balanced approach includes fostering awareness of media and self, carving out times and places to disconnect, engaging with quality media content, and spending time with exercise and nature,” the authors write.

The authors note, however, that it’s still unclear whether “Internet addiction” is an actual disorder or that it causes changes in the brain, such as those in the brains of alcoholics and compulsive gamblers. These changes have been found in those who gamble online; Internet gambling disorder is now an official diagnosis by the American Psychological Association. Because of the lack of agreement among researchers on the topic of Internet addiction, the authors use “problematic media use” to describe findings from past studies and the new survey.

“People have a sense of how it is impacting their day-to-day lives,” said Mike Robb, the director of research for Common Sense Media. He added that while in many families, conflict over children’s media use is “simmering” in the background, there are some children for whom it is “seriously an issue.”

The downside of multitasking

While many adults and teens might view multitasking as a necessary part of modern life—and even a skill—the authors point to research showing that it might be causing harm. Multitasking, such as texting or listening to music while doing homework, they note, is not actually doing two or more things at once. Instead, it’s actually “doing tasks back-to-back, sequentially”—a practice that can lead to “cognitive fatigue, a type of mental exhaustion caused by the strain of switching between tasks and multiple trains of thought.”

Studies have found that multitasking can make academic tasks, such as reading, take longer, and can interfere with a student’s focus on schoolwork. A 2015 Common Sense Media survey found that of the teens who often or sometimes multitask while doing homework, 76 percent said they listen to music, 60 percent said they text, 51 percent said they watch TV, and 50 percent are on social media.

Social and emotional outcomes

Whether Internet use—especially texting and social media—is making today’s children and teens less empathetic and more narcissistic is another area explored by researchers. While face-to-face conversations allow people to pick up visual cues and tone of voice, online communication allows users to ignore others’ feelings. The researchers note, however, that maybe those who are naturally less sensitive and more likely to promote themselves are more prone to use websites and apps for that purpose.

One study cited in the report found that after spending time at a five-day camp without access to media, 11- and 12-year-olds were more likely to pick up on nonverbal emotion cues than peers who were at school and used media as usual during that time. Other research by Roy Pea of Stanford University found that high levels of media use were linked to negative well-being among eight- to 12-year-old girls, while face-to-face interaction was associated with feelings of social success, acceptance, and normalcy.

In surveys conducted by Common Sense Media, teens say they still prefer face-to-face communication and don’t view social media as a problem. In fact, more than a quarter of them said it allows them to be less shy, and one in five said it made them more confident and sympathetic toward others.

More research needed

The authors note that most studies focusing on Internet use and the question of addiction has been conducted with adults, and that causal studies, nationally representative studies, and more qualitative research are needed to better understand how children’s and teens’ social-emotional outcomes are affected by media use.

It’s important, they add, to distinguish between time spent using technology for learning, creating, and gaining new skills and when it becomes a distraction or is used as a way to isolate oneself from others. “A healthy digital lifestyle could and should include thoughtful and intentional uses of technology,” the authors write.

The authors encourage young people to take advantage of features on their phones that can limit interruptions, such as turning off notifications or assigning specific sounds to different alerts so they know whether or not to ignore a message. Some apps will also display how users spend their time online, allowing them to be more conscious of use.

But using those tricks “only takes you part of the way there,” Robb added. “That has to go hand in hand with developing some internal strategies. It’s about self-regulation.” He recommended that students practice “single-tasking” to avoid distractions.

Librarians as ‘media mentors’

The idea of educators as “media mentors” is highlighted in the report, a role that many librarians are fulfilling in their schools by teaching digital literacy and Internet safety.

“This is another hat that we’re wearing. We need to teach [students] how to have a balance,” said Marie Belle Vargas, the library media specialist at PS1x Courtlandt School in Bronx, NY, and a winner of this year’s Common Sense Media award, presented to educators or organizations that “have embraced media and technology to make the world a better place for kids.”

At a school where more than half of the students live in families below the poverty line, Vargas’ support of students’ development as digital citizens ranges from opening up her library early before school so those without Internet at home can do their homework, to teaching the ones with mobile devices how to be mindful of not only the amount of time they spend online, but the quality of what they are accessing.

“There is the real world and the digital world,” she said. “You have to be safe in both.”

In a 2015 white paper for the Association for Library Service to Children, librarians Cen Campbell, Claudia Haines, Amy Koester, and Dorothy Stoltz wrote about this new role.

“Children require mediated and guided experiences with digital media for the experiences to translate into positive and productive digital literacy skills; this requirement holds true across a wide age range of youth,” they wrote. “This role as media mentor is a core function of supporting the lives and literacies of children and families in a twenty-first-century library.”

The results of the telephone survey released with the Common Sense Media report was conducted by Lake Research Partners in February and March. A total of 1,240 interviews were conducted with parents and children, ages 12-18. Both parents and children had to use a mobile device to participate in the survey. The results have a margin of error of four percent.

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Linda Jacobson About Linda Jacobson

SLJ contributor Linda Jacobson is an education writer and editor based in the Los Angeles area.

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