The smartphone’s relatively recent advent and swift domination have been as unprecedented as it is all-pervasive. How society has become so widely reliant upon smartphones in a few years should give considerable pause for thought. Of particular concern is how children have become attached, devoted and even addicted to their phones, with devastating consequences.
Children and Phones: The Data
Children have become singularly reliant upon smartphones in a little over a decade. According to a 2020 Pew Research study, 67% of children under 11 were either exposed to or used a smartphone—as far as their parents were aware.
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The figure for earlier years was even more alarming. A total of 62% of children under four were believed to be exposed to smartphone usage, while nearly half (49%) of children under the age of 2 fell into the same category.
Because the COVID-19-related lockdowns saw a huge uptick in computer and smartphone usage, the Pew Research Center followed up with the same parents surveyed in 2020. It found that children’s usage of smartphones and other digital devices had predictably increased, with 71% of those under 11 exposed to or using a smartphone in 2021. In addition, 81% of parents said their children under 11 used a tablet.
Spending Time Online
Nor are young children merely using a parent’s device. Pew Research found that “37% of parents of a child age 9 to 11 say their child has their own smartphone, compared with 13% of those with a child 5 to 8, 5% of those with a child 3 to 4 and 3% of those with a child who is two or younger.”
Even more striking is the amount of time young children spend on these electronic devices. Other studies present different results, with the most shocking being a 2019 report from the National Institutes of Health that found children aged only 12 months were averaging 53 minutes of screen time a day.
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With such heavy usage in the early years, researchers found the trend continues into pre-teen and later years. In 2020, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry released a report that “revealed that children between 8 and 12 in the U.S. spent between 4 and 6 hours per day watching screens.”
Common Sense Media echoed this statistic in 2019 by finding eight to twelve-year-olds spent an average of nearly 5 hours on screens per day.
This number jumps up alarmingly as the age increases. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry found that teens spend up to 9 hours daily on the screen. Common Sense Media suggested that teens average nearly seven and a half hours per day—not including any time on the screen for school-related purposes.
Phone Usage Destroying Children’s Health
With instant access to the online world, a smartphone offers almost endless sources of distraction and supposed amusement. Thus, children no longer have to engage with friends or use their imagination to create games to occupy their time. They lose themselves in a virtual world of digital fiction via their phones.
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This change of habits is responsible for the marked drop in the number of teenagers who read a physical book regularly. In Common Sense’s 2019 survey, 15% of teenagers said they never read books, while 17% said they read only once a month.
The damaging effects of smartphone and screen usage go far beyond a drop in book reading. Researchers are finding that increased screen time stimulates stress while decreasing the body’s ability to produce melatonin, which is needed for good sleep.
Long screen usage is also linked to emotional and behavioral problems in children. The time spent away from real human interactions and the un-rewarding stimulation of the on-screen activities undermines the formation the child needs to progress through life.
A 2017 article in Child Development magazine warned that “[w]ith respect to health implications of digital (wireless) technologies, it is of importance that neurological diseases, physiological addiction, cognition, sleep, and behavioral problems are considered in addition to cancer.”
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Child Magazine noted how children become accustomed to regular smartphone usage by watching adults become increasingly addicted to them. They also develop bad habits when parents give them screens for entertainment. The study’s authors highlighted this usage’s little reported and potentially catastrophic health impacts. Pointing to a 2008 report submitted to the World Health Organization (WHO), the authors noted that children using phones regularly faced “disruption of memory, decline of attention, diminishing learning and cognitive abilities, increased irritability, sleep problems, increase in sensitivity to the stress, and increased epileptic readiness.”
The 2008 report warned that possible, more remote risks to these children later in life included brain tumors, nerve tumors (even before age 30), Alzheimer’s disease, depression, and early dementia symptoms. The report warned of damage to the brain’s nervous system when phone users hit their fifties.
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With such warnings made in 2008 before the advent of the iPhone, the outlook for today’s children—spending up to a third of every day on the screen—is not particularly hopeful.
Nor are such warnings clearly found. Indeed, many articles warn of increased screen time and advise parents about how to limit their children’s usage. However, the more impactful data—like that contained in the 2008 report referenced above—is carefully avoided.
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The ubiquitous use of all things digital adds to the children’s confusion. Everywhere, people are on their phones, whether messaging while walking distractedly through the streets, religiously photographing their sandwiches before eating them, using a phone to guide them to the next tourist point, or employing them pay for parking since many meters no longer allow in-person payments.
Indeed, children’s use of smartphones is part of a vicious circle revolutionizing society. With so much screen time, children are being trained to accept a digital life where human interaction is replaced by pixels. They are being formed to see nothing abnormal in spending more time watching meaningless video content on social media than spending time performing actual tasks or enjoying physical events.
The digital revolution is also forcing people to use some form of digital technology. This trend is visible across the board: whether with self-service machines in stores, the use of digital password codes when trying to access banking services, or even being only able to purchase certain goods online.
The COVID era made matters worse by accustoming both young and old to move even more of their daily lives onto the screen. For families, “virtual” reunions replaced previous, happy family gatherings. For Catholics, “virtual” Mass replaced in-person church attendance. Children saw their classrooms become an online collection of blurry heads on a screen. Office workers experienced even more of life from behind a screen than they had previously thought possible.
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Throughout all this, the radical advance of a digital society is being directed chiefly at children. While only a few years ago, only teenagers seemed addicted to their phones, this attachment can be found in those under 13 or even under the age of 7.
Children are being sacrificed on the altar of so-called societal progress in an increasingly digital age. The high priests of this sacrifice are not only the tech companies, who gladly collect hundreds of billions of dollars in profits every year but also the unwitting parents who sadly prefer to expose their children to the harms of the Internet. Instead of committing to a more traditional family life, they allow the invasion of smartphones and tablets into the home.
The attachment to technology must be curbed swiftly and firmly to protect America’s children from greater harm.
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