MacMillan dictionary states that to have someone by the balls means: “To have complete control over someone, so that they have to do what you want.” When sitting down to write the title of this blog I couldn’t decide whether it was social media that has us by the balls or our smart phones. What is it exactly that makes us constantly reach for this attachment object like an adult pacifier? It’s not just the notification dings from social media, it’s also for emails, texts, games, news, calendar events, phone calls and weather alerts.

Smart phones are not just benign objects. We actually have a connection to them because they represent so much more to us. They are designed to be compelling and we are hardwired to respond to the notifications, the dings, the red lights you get with new emails because every time you receive these reinforcements you get a dopamine surge. It feels good that something you posted has garnered attention. That’s what makes smart phones so appealing.

For teens, it represents their social life. It helps them manage homework, their contacts, their whole schedule. As we know, social approval is very important to them and social media is their dominating source of validation. If a post does not receive over 100 likes, you’re considered “a loser.” I’ve heard teens say “Oh, I feel so sorry for her because she only got 75 likes.” As if the teen years were not hard enough to navigate before social media existed, now teens have so much more on their plates to deal with: the fear of missing out; the anxiety experienced if they misplace their phone; the insecurity felt when a text isn’t answered within two seconds; always satisfying impulses. All of these new stresses stem from having smart phones yet we can’t live without them.

There’s a lot of research by Dr Larry Rosen (Author and Psychologist) that’s starting to prove that our addiction to our smart phones is actually re-wiring our brains. Our brain is HIGHLY activated when using technology. It’s even worse after playing video games. For the brain to develop in a healthy way we need to make time to consciously take time away from technology to learn communication skills, creative thinking skills and calmness. Some concerns shared by experts about the future implications on our kids are: underdeveloped communication skills, bad learning habits, shallow thinking because of task switching and partial attention spans.

Dr. Rosen conducted a study where students who were asked to study for 15 minutes (without being told NOT to use their devices). Overall, the students could focus for no more than 3-5 minutes before checking for emails or texts. Those that had study strategies scored higher. Those that task switched a lot scored lower. Students who checked their Facebook JUST ONCE had the worst score on the test. The reason? Because Facebook is where their social world is. Once their focus had shifted to the irresistible distraction of technology, it took a long time for the brain to come back and fully focus on the study task because it was now in a state of stress and anxiety. This is a challenge for students today who believe they can handle “multi-tasking.” It’s not uncommon to see students studying with a laptop open (with iTunes running, their iMessages window open for texts and social media open as well). What they believe is multi-tasking, Dr. Rosen calls “task shifting.” Task shifting keeps your brain in a constant state of anxiety which “fosters bad learning habits, shallow thinking and partial attention spans.” If we were to take away the laptop, they could still perform all these tasks with their smart phone.

We don’t need to experience boredom anymore – our phone pacifies us. We don’t have to wonder anymore – Google tells us. We don’t need to learn long division anymore – we have calculators on our phones. We don’t have to feel alone – there’s always someone online that’s only a tap away. Perhaps in 20 years time our species will have an inability to delay gratification and boredom. We will be a species with high distractibility, lower patience and poorer memory. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Many parents feel powerless and unsure to take away phones because they fear it will cripple the teen on so many levels. You have to find a middle ground:  

– Make it less tempting. Not having smart phones in the bedroom overnight is a really good way to remove temptation.
– Turn off alerts when studying.
– It’s becoming a real social faux-pas not to answer a text right away. Some kids feel anxiety about not responding. Manage that anxiety by telling your friends you’ll be offline for a bit.
– Role modelling by the parent is HUGE too. One of the top reasons kids turn to devices for comfort is they see their parents doing the same thing.

We don’t HAVE to allow our smart phones to have complete control over us so that we have to check it every time it sends us alerts. It’s a choice.

What’s NEW for Fall 2017 at Natalia Coaching You? “Understanding and Overcoming Our Obsession With Technology” A talk with new study findings that explain our obsession with technology and how parents can help their kids stay in control. Click HERE FOR MORE.