Is your child addicted to their smartphone?

Are you wondering how you can prevent smartphone overuse before your child experiences any negative consequences?

Do you think your teen is concerned about his or her own smartphone use?

In over 20 years of private practice, I have yet to meet a parent who doesn’t share at least some level of concern about their child’s smartphone use, and there have been countless research articles and surveys which suggest the concern is widespread across every U.S. demographic, as well as in countries across the globe.

Now, you may be surprised to hear that your teen is most likely concerned about his or her smartphone addiction as well, but that seems to be the case, at least according to a recent national study conducted by Screen Education.

The study found that teens are so troubled by their smartphone addiction that they actually want to reduce their screen time:

  • 65% wish they were better able to self-limit the time they spend on their smartphone
  • 68% have attempted to reduce the time they spend on their smartphone
  • 26% wish someone would limit the time they spend on their smartphone for them
  • 37% have tried to persuade a friend to reduce the time they spend on their smartphone
  • 53% of those who attend schools that ban smartphones in class are glad they do so

What Are The Early Warning Signs Of Smartphone Addiction?

Dr. Mark Griffith, Professor of Gambling Studies published a paper on “Adolescent mobile phone addiction: A cause for concern” which addresses the difficulty parents often experience in deciding between normal teen smartphone use and addiction. He devised a simple set of questions that parents can use to determine their child’s level of addiction.

If 6 or more of these warning statements are true for your teen, then there could very well be an issue.

1. If they get distracted at school or work because of their phone continuously

2. Whether they thought their smartphone is one of the most essential things they have

3. If they get angry/agitated/irritated if they don’t get to use the phone or check notifications immediately

4. If they are having frequent arguments with their friends, family or spouse on smartphone usage

5. How they don’t have any time for other activities because they are too engrossed on their phones

6. Whether they get a strong desire and urge to check the phone if it’s not in reach

7. Whether they have noticed a pattern on how their smartphone usage has increased over the months

8. If they end up lying when someone asks them how long they have been using their phone

9. If their phone can lift up their spirits and change their mood

10. If they get back to the same pattern of over-using the phone even after they have tried limiting it

What Are The Signs and Symptoms of Smartphone Addiction That Parents Should Be On The Lookout For?

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Significant weight change
  • Change in diet
  • Change in sleep patterns
  • Fatigue
  • Depressed or irritable mood
  • Flat affect or facial expression
  • Little interest in activities they once found enjoyable
  • Difficulties paying attention
  • Withdrawal from social interaction or activities
  • Low self-esteem
  • Neglecting other activities and is constantly on his or her phone
  • Sore neck or headaches
  • Experiencing anxiety when without his or her cell phone or service
  • Experiencing “phantom vibration syndrome,” which means checking his or her phone when it hasn’t vibrated or rung
  • Using his or her cell phone while driving or crossing the street, or in other situations that are dangerous

5 Steps To Help Curb Your Child’s Smartphone Use

  1. First, spend a few days paying attention to how and when your child is using their device, you will need concrete examples of why you believe it is an issue when you talk with your child about it. For example, checking notifications every minute or two is a sign of addiction (referred to as cycling).
  2. Open up a conversation using open-ended questions. “How do you feel when you check your phone and there are no new notifications? How do you feel other areas of your life are going now, as compared with how things were before you got a smartphone? How does it feel when your phone is dead? Or when you misplace it for a few minutes?” Follow those questions with your observations and your concerns.
  3. Set limits on screen time and stick to them. Kids don’t have the impulse control we have as adults and they need your help to decrease their screen time. Decide together how much time is appropriate, carve out smartphone free zones like the dinner table, and family vacations. Use Social Judo or some parenting tool on your child’s device so you can be sure they are following the rules. Set clear expectations and consequences if the rules broken before the limits take effect.
  4. Model appropriate smartphone use. It is more important that many parents think, your kids are taking cues from you so if you are worried about your child’s screen time, be mindful of your own.
  5. Know when it is time to seek professional help. When your parenting strategies fail, it is time to let a professional help to be sure there is no underlying mental health issue that your child is struggling with. Much like drug and alcohol addiction, people turn to smartphones to escape negative feelings like anxiety and depression.

Smartphone addiction is a huge issue not only for teens but for adults as well, but the effects on the adult brain compared with the tween/teen brain are different. It is so important for every parent to understand why that is. The short version is that your child’s brain is still developing and as with any other addiction, it could have negative implications on their brain development. In addition, research has indicated that there are several adolescent personality traits associated with internet addiction, which is closely related to smartphone addiction.

Two Adolescent personality traits associated with internet addiction;

  • High harm-avoidance; These teens are more worrisome, pessimistic, fearful, and shy
  • Altered reward dependence; The adolescent becomes dependent on rewards associated with the internet or smartphone instead of the natural reward we get by spending time with friends, playing sports, or getting good grades. (Essentially rewiring the reward system in the brain)

It is so important that parents are educated about the signs and symptoms, understand the potential negative effect on a child’s underdeveloped brain, and that they recognize when it is time to seek professional help.


Andrea Difilippo is a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker, nationally recognized parenting expert and Chief Parenting Officer with Social Judo.