For many teen girls a typical day looks something like this: wake up, roll over and check her phone, scroll through social media while she’s getting ready for school, text friends on their way to class, check out some TikTok videos during lunch break, catch up on anything she missed on social media after school, answer all the notifications as they come while at home, scroll through social media or watch a show on their phone while lying in bed before falling asleep. If we truly monitored the amount of time our daughters spent on their phones, the number would be staggering. But does the amount of time they spend on their phone actually have an impact on their mental health?
Typically, when we think about teens who spend a lot of time on their phones, we are more likely to wonder if they’re lonely than if they’re popular, or an up-and-coming social media influencer. This suggests that the idea of the relationship between depression and social media addiction is already imprinted in our minds, even if we don’t quite understand how they became so interconnected. New research suggests a person’s reliance on their smartphone predicts greater loneliness and depressive symptoms, as opposed to the other way around.
What Contributes to Smartphone Addiction?
When looking at the relationship between smartphone addiction and depression, these researchers decided to focus on adolescents, as rates of both issues are most prevalent among this age group. Not only have they all grown up with smartphones, but they are at a stressful stage in life where they are more vulnerable to not knowing how to cope with mental health struggles in a healthy way.
We often think that teens who don’t know who to talk to or where else to turn in life escape into a virtual world, but researchers claim that this problem starts much earlier. Many teens who spend a lot of time online recognize that social media is addictive and has affected their self-esteem, but they feel like their social reputation is tied to their online presence and therefore can’t delete their accounts.
One of the major negative effects smartphone use can have on girls’ mental health is contributing to a constant sense of comparison. They see filtered images and pictures of smiling, happy people living their best life. It is easy to see how they could begin to view their own life negatively. They may begin to question why they are not as happy or why they don’t have what other people have. This is also tied into FOMO or Fear Of Missing Out. Social media allows users to be constantly updated when the people they follow post or when they receive a like or comment. Because they fear missing out, disconnecting from their device may feel impossible.
Why Focus on Effects of Smartphone Use?
“If depression and loneliness lead to smartphone dependency, we could reduce dependency by adjusting people’s mental health,” explains study co-author Pengfei Zhao said. “But, if smartphone dependency (precedes depression and loneliness), which is what we found, we can reduce smartphone dependency to maintain or improve wellbeing.”
“We’ve really been trying to focus on this idea of dependency and problematic use of smartphones being the driver for these psychological outcomes,” describes Zhao. “There’s an issue where people are entirely too reliant on the device, in terms of feeling anxious if they don’t have it accessible, and they’re using it to the detriment of their day-to-day life.”
If we understand that smartphone use is common and, at this stage, fairly natural for young adults, how can we determine when that use has become detrimental? Here are some things to be aware of:
- Withdrawing from face-to-face social interactions: Maybe you’ve noticed that your daughter quit her favorite after school club or is choosing to stay home on the weekends instead of going out to meet their friends. If she is starting to withdraw or isolate, this can be a sign that she is becoming too dependent on her technology use.
- Consistent anxiety, stress: If her smartphone use is leading to mood swings or elevated levels of stress and anxiety that is a clear signal that her smartphone use has become unhealthy.
- Grades begin to slip, and assignments reflect poor work or are left undone: If all of their focus is on social media, other areas of their life may begin to suffer. If your previously studious daughter has chosen to spend her evening learning a new TikTok dance instead of preparing for her tests it can lead to a negative impact on her school work.
- Avoidance of real life responsibilities, such as chores or homework: For many teens, the last thing they want to do is clean their room or empty the dishwasher. But these are important parts of having healthy, balanced lives. Excessive smartphone use can quickly throw that balance off.
- Ill at ease, ill-equipped or unresponsive to people in front of them: If your daughter is spending more time on her phone and less time interacting in real life, she may begin to feel uncomfortable in social situations. Like most things in life, practice is key to building skills, and without that real world practice they do not have the opportunity to build those skills.
- Phones begin to create conflict in their closest relationships: What happens when you ask your daughter to put her smartphone away? Does she lash out and get angry? Does limited phone use cause an outburst? Unreasonable reactions to being separated from their smartphone may mean that she has created unhealthy habits.
Building Offline Communication Skills in Residential Treatment:
Having worked with adolescents with mental health issues for over a decade, Solstice RTC has noticed a recent increase in the number of girls and assigned female at birth we work with who have also struggled with smartphone addiction. Noticing this intersection, we have adapted our programming to help address the unhealthy ways that technology is used, expectations that teens have about their online identities, and communication skills missing from online interactions.
Raising awareness about social media addiction has become a unique part of Solstice RTC’s program by teaching parents how to handle these issues and set boundaries around electronics.
Equine Therapy: In addition to group and family therapy, we believe that equine therapy is a powerful way of teaching relational skills, like nonverbal communication and social awareness. Using body language with these sensitive animals helps students learn how to better communicate with others and build relationships.
Weekly phone calls with family: Teens today are used to having more conversations online than in person–even with their families. This depersonalized way of socializing often gets in the way of maintaining two-way conversations. While they do not have access to cell phones, students at Solstice are encouraged to make regular phone calls to friends and family members to strengthen their support system. Every week, students have the chance to video chat with their parents during therapy sessions. This helps reframe the phone as a tool and changes the wiring of the brain that feeds smartphone addiction.
Home visits offer opportunities to self-monitor social media use: Students periodically go home for a few days, prior to leaving the program, to gauge how they handle being at home with access to their cell phones and social media. Every teen has an individualized technology contract that they work on with their parents and their therapist to decide what boundaries, if any, may need to be set around healthy media use.
At Solstice RTC, our goal is to help teen girls and assigned female at birth learn how to use their phones to communicate more effectively with people without feeling like they have to be attached to their phone every second of the day. Many of the girls and assigned female at birth we work with come to our program struggling with a “fear of missing out” and describe their compulsion to “stay updated” on their online social lives all the time.
“For the most part, I can do things and have it in my pocket and not need it. Right now, it’s not that big of an issue for me. I can be by myself and be okay and I’m reconnecting with a lot of things I love. And I don’t feel empty.” -Testimonial from former student who struggled with internet addiction
Solstice RTC Can Help
Solstice is a groundbreaking residential treatment center for girls, ages 14 to 18. Our girls and assigned female at birth often struggle with depression, anxiety, trauma, ADHD, technology addiction, and other emotional or behavioral problems when they come to us. Through a unique combination of therapeutic programs based upon both traditional and holistic mental health treatment, we treat our clients with age and gender-specific techniques. With a strong emphasis on family therapy based intervention, nutrition, and physical fitness, and the supportive provision of cutting-edge academics, substance abuse/addiction therapy, equine therapy, and psychiatric services. Issues such as smartphone addiction are common and treatable with the right intervention.
Solstice sets the stage for the infusion of light into the previously darkened lives of the families we serve. We strive to empower teenage people with the ability to believe in themselves offline and provide the tools and motivation required to instill these beliefs for life.
For more information about smartphone addiction, contact us at 866-278-3345.