Are Cell Phones Bad for Teens?

Well the very brief answer to that question is YES and NO!

iuri melo
iuri melo

My extraordinary friends, I'm so glad that you would even be asking that gutsy question.  Well the very brief answer to that question is YES and NO!  Today I just briefly want to talk about this with you. I promise I'm not coming to pry your phone from your hands, nor am I launching on some sort of witch hunt to try to get you stop using your phone... so no need for you to get all rilled up and defensive.  My only job today is to make a very brief presentation to you about what people are talking about when it comes to cell phones and Teens, and then place it on your lap, and allow that most awesome, wise, and intelligent part of you to make the very best decisions that will allow you be happier, more successful, and just a straight up awesome and skilled human.  I will also provide you with some short pro tips that can help you to harness the power of phones, and to help you avoid some of the negative aspects that they can bring.  

So first let me take a moment and just present some of the evidence for you.

  • The number of teens with clinical level depression doubled between 2011 and 2020
  • The suicide rate for teens nearly doubled between 2007 and 2019, and for teens aged 10-14 tripled and nearly quadrupled for teen girls
  • Teens report feeling more unhappy, more dissatisfied with life, and more lonely and isolated from others, and all of these reports by teens seemed to shoot upwards after 2012. 

So how does this connect with cell phones... or is there a link between cell phone ownership and these feelings and attitudes that teens are talking about and reporting throughout the country and the world?

  • Smartphone ownership started in 2007 with the introduction of the iphone.  At the end of 2012 and 2013, 50% of the population had a phone.  By 2009 only half the teens were using social media, by 2012, 3 out of 4 were using it.  By today, 9 out of 10 teens have cell phones with more who have access to one.
  • As cell phone ownership and digital media use have risen, and there appears to be a connection here, so have the rates of depression, anxiety, dissatisfaction with life, and loneliness.  Btw, this evidence isn't happening just in America, it's happening throughout most of the countries in the world.  

Can I stop for a moment and make a quick statement here... It's very hard to completely prove that one thing is causing another.  The data seems to show and indicate that there may be a connection, but there are a lot of factors that can make a teen more predisposed to feeling depressed or anxious... things like, genetic factors, events and circumstances in their life, health, trauma, poverty, bullying, and of course our own psychology, how we interpret the events of our lives.  So, let's be put our heads together and figure out how and why this is happening?  Here is some of that research and some of my own thoughts.  

But first let me start by telling you a super short story.  

About a year ago, I took about 400 teens on a 3 day camping and hiking trip.  We're talking teens here... it was one of the coolest things I've ever done.  No cell phones were allowed on that trip.  Every night we would get together and do a huge dinner, you can imagine that was a lot of food.  

I remember one night walking over to where people were having dinner, and the amount of chatter and laughter in the air was just electric and fun.  Compare that with a 9 hour car drive that I just recently did with a car full of teens.  You could literally hear a pin drop in that car, as each and every teen was completely absorbed in their phone, on netflix, with earpods on, playing a game, on insta, snap, youtube, or whatever... everyone in their own little world, completely absorbed in these incredible devices that are simply remarkable.  One of these researchers talks about frequently arriving early to give a lecture at her college only to find a room of 30+ students sitting together in complete silence, all of them absorbed in their smartphones, afraid to speak or to be heard by their classmates.  

So to me, it's obvious why some of you say that you are feeling more isolated, less confident, more socially anxious.  Sherry Turkle who is one of these researchers says it best as she describes what smart phones have done to us, she says... "we are forever elsewhere."  think of it.  When you are in your phone, that is exactly where you are.  Just like those college students in the classroom, or your classmates in the hallway, or the teens who were in my car... their bodies were there, but their minds, their attention, their focus, was elsewhere.  I always tell people, the quickest way for you to be miserable right here, and right now, is for you to wish to be somewhere else, or to mentally be elsewhere.  

Ok... so here we are.  Now what do we do?  I'm telling you this, not because I'm feeling hopeless or negative about what is going on, but what I am doing is placing this problem in front of you, and I'm actually totally confident that you will look at that problem, recognize it, and work that problem and come up with some solutions that will help you individually, and others around you.  

Because even if you decide to be more interactive, more engaged here, where your feet are, you're still going to be trying to chat, connect with, and have fun with a bunch of other teens, who themselves are locked in to an eternal wave of entertainment that is 100% accessible, 100% of the time.  But we can only begin from where we are, and use what we have, and do what we can.  So here are some tips for you to ensure that your phone doesn't become a source of toxicity, loneliness, and social awkwardness.

  1. Commit to being more socially engaged and connected with others.  Look, i've said it here a million times, the greatest predictor of long and short-term happiness is quality relationships.  Whether that is in your home, with your siblings, with family, with friends, with coaches, with teachers, with other significant people in your life... please consider my suggestion, and make an effort beginning today, and only stopping the moment you die, to building your social skills, and becoming more friendly, more connected, more socially courageous, instead of hiding behind your insecurities, or what you feel may be your shyness, or social awkwardness.  I realize that this will be easier for some than it is for others.  Look, I don't care how quickly you get there... I just need you to travel in that direction, and little by little be and create the kind of friendships that will help you to be mentally healthier, happier, and more successful in your relationships and life.
  2. Commit to being where your feet are.  Remember that quote that I shared with you above?  Basically that "we are forever elsewhere," well my friend, it's time for you take a look in, and do the work.  We can't be forever elsewhere and be happy here.  I've literally looked at kids phones, and their messages, and while they were at dates with other people, they were texting and snapping other people... this is being "elsewhere" and being ‘elsewhere' is the enemy of being ‘here', engaged, connected, having fun, and being happier in this space.  So today make a commitment to being where your feet are.  Just be where your feet are.  Turn off the phone, the notifications, the bells, the chimes, the vibrations, learn to turn them off when you are at the dinner table, in a classroom, in a hallway, in a car with other people, at a game, on a date, with your mom & dad or family.  Come on, I'm just asking you to be reasonable and intelligent here.  
  3. Build your own fun, adventure, memories, and skills.  Quit wasting time looking, watching, and ‘liking' other people adventures, memories, and cool things that they're doing, and instead go do those things yourself.  Don't watch other people play rocket league, go play it yourself!  Don't watch other people skateboard, play the guitar, do flips and tricks and whatnot... don't watch them mountain bike, rock climb, hike, camp, kayak, or whatever... go and do these things yourself.  There is no confidence, or expertise, or achievement gained by liking a video, or post... but I promise there is confidence, and pride, and achievement, and awesomeness that is gained when you work your tail off and go and do those things yourself.  Yes, you can use those things as motivators or as a way to learn to do new things, but must make sure that's what you're doing.
  4. Use your phone as an enhancement, not a detractor or black hole.  Look, I have a cell phone too, and I use it for lots of reasons like you.  I use it for entertainment, education, work, connection, etc. All that I'm suggesting is for you to take an honest look... remember you don't own me anything, I'm not here to hold you accountable, or to judge or condemn you, I'm just here to raise your awareness a little bit.  To open your eyes a bit, and to have you see that the answers in your life are not looking down, on your phones... the answers are up above, and out here.  So quit walking around like a zombie, looking down like the hunchback of notre dame, and instead look up, rise up, and engage in this life... I promise that the special effects are pretty awesome out here as well.  I often see kids hunched together looking at a phone, laughing and carrying on... yes, yes, do that.  Make your phone an enhancement of your spiritual life, your education, a source of optimism, a source of positivity and fun, a way to gather and save memories, and not as a self-hypnosis device that literally disconnects you from the most critical... the most essential... the most important parts of your life, which by the way, are your relationships, your ability to carve out an awesome character, your efforts to build your own skills and find ways to contribute to the world around you... you have to contribute, and to do things that are meaningful, instead of constantly bathing yourself in what is meaningless.  
  5. Place some limits on yourself, or have others help you with this.  Look, why are phones so dang addictive?  I'll give you four reasons.  In the book "Atomic Habits" the author tells you 4 things that you must do to create long-lasting habits.  Do you want to know what they are?  1)Make it attractive.  Cell phones are attractive, sleek, they're a symbol, we want to have the new ones.  Very attractive. 2)Make it obvious.  Could phones be any more obvious?  They never leave our person.  They're in our hands, in our pockets, on our desks, in our beds, in the bathroom, in the cars, they are obvious everywhere, plus the vibrate, ping, notify, ring... dude... it is the ultimate obvious device.  3)Make it easy.  Phones are easy, and they make a lot of things easy.  Wanna binge a complete show?  Done.  Want to be entertained for 9 hours on a car drive?  Easy.  Wanna feel better and laugh?  Easy.  You don't have to do anything, the phone does it for you in the easiest way possible. And finally 4) Make it pleasurable.  Is your phone satisfying, fun, entertaining, relaxing, etc, yeah... you know what i'm getting at.  You've got yourself a habit, in fact most of the world does.  So, I'm not asking you to quit cold turkey, what I'm asking you to do is to manage it, cause if you don't, it will manage you.  4, 5, 6, 8 hours of screen time a day... you are getting managed.  Time to take control of your life a little bit, set some screen time rules and goals... ask for help, and let's get on top of your life, and do what will truly build your character and relationships.  Let's gooo!

Anyways, I'm sure i'm boring you to tears right now, and that you're thinking to yourself... "yeah, yeah, yeah, but it's not like that for me," come on, raise your game a little bit already.  Don't be bitter and defensive, instead be committed to being better.  No excuses, no blaming, those things just slow you down, instead look in and do the work... look in and the work baby!  Anyways, I would love to hear your thoughts and ideas, but more importantly... people are saying that the mental health of teens is the crisis of your generation.  

This problem is in your lap, it's in front of you, it's in you, and it's up to you to come up with the solutions that can turn this into a strength, instead of a national crisis.  Like I said at the beginning, I really am hopeful, and totally confident that you will indeed figure out a way to manage your life, and help others to manage theirs.  Anyways, thanks for listening in, I hope it was worth your time.