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Shining the Light: Spotlight on Teen Mental Health logo

Overuse can make teens more prone to anxiety and depression.

Like many of her peers, 17-year-old Julie Abramson is rarely without her phone.

“I try not to look during class, but sometimes I do,” admitted the senior at West Bloomfield High School. “I check it a good amount so I can keep up with what is going on. I want to be in loop. It’s nice to feel updated and not left behind, and you will be if you’re not checking social media.”

Julia Abramson
Julia Abramson

Abramson is hardly alone. According to a 2015 study by the Pew Research Center, 92 percent of teens report going online daily — including 20 percent who say they do so “almost constantly.” Just 12 percent of teens ages 13-17 say they have no cell phone of any type.

The pervasiveness of cell phones exasperates many an adult, who can’t understand why kids just can’t put the darn phone down — and it’s often just as vexing for teens who, as Abramson said, have a “love-hate relationship” with their electronic devices.

“This is their life now; this is their lifestyle,” said Shevy Zigdon, LSW, family and school-based services supervisor at Jewish Family Service and a former social worker at middle and high schools. “For any parent to say, ‘Don’t go on,’ is not realistic.”

Shevy Zigdon
Shevy Zigdon

Rabbi Yarden Blumstein, teen director at the Friendship Circle, agrees. “It is not realistic to not give teens phones. Then they would be completely isolated socially.”

But the pressure to stay connected can take a toll, experts say. According to the American Psychological Association, daily overuse of media and technology has a negative effect on the health of all children, preteens and teenagers by making them more prone to anxiety, depression and other psychological disorders as well as by making them more susceptible to future health problems. Furthermore, the APA says, studies found that middle school, high school and college students who checked Facebook at least once during a 15-minute study period achieved lower grades.

Rabbi Yarden Blumstein
Rabbi Yarden Blumstein

Even benign exchanges can have perils, Blumstein pointed out, because communication is so instantaneous. “The social media rules say that you must respond to a text ASAP. So, you are sending a message simply by not responding,” he said. “As adults, we can’t begin to understand the undercurrent, the speed they network at. It’s a strand in a web that is so complex, even when we think we are in touch we are out of touch.”

The Ripple Effect

This reliance on social media in the form of Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, Tumblr and other sites can be “torture,” Zigdon said. “It’s a very overwhelming situation. It’s very wearying on individuals, but no teen will say that.”

Hunter Banooni
Hunter Banooni

When she was first allowed to use her phone for social media at age 12, Hunter Banooni of Bloomfield Hills was checking it constantly. “My grandmother called me a ‘phone junkie’ because whenever I had a free second I was calling this person or texting that person,” said the Hillel Day School eighth-grader, now 14.

She continued that pattern for about a year. Then one morning something changed. “My mom doesn’t let us on our phones during the car ride to school because she calls it family time,” Banooni said. “It was a normal morning, and then I noticed it was a really nice day and I started to actually appreciate the world around me. After a while, my phone just started to seem like an object, not something I needed to get through the day, but something I wanted. It was the whole thing about your possessions possessing you, and I’m really glad I could take a step back and realize that this is not what I want.”

Banooni still checks her phone daily, but on a much more moderate basis. “You don’t want to miss the latest Instagram story or Snapchat update so we feel like we need to check — or we have to check. Timing blocks really help keep me organized, so I allow myself 15-20 minutes to catch up on social media. It can be difficult to stop, and it probably ends up being more like 45 minutes or an hour,” she said. “I find myself slowly sinking into the couch and realize this is not what I want to be doing.”

Dr. Jennifer Friedman
Dr. Jennifer Friedman

Dr. Jennifer L. Friedman, Hillel’s dean of student learning, said, “Kids feel trapped in a way. Everything is so public and taken to a level that never existed before.”

Squabbles with friends and romantic partners are as much a part of teen life as school dances and studying for exams. But what may have been a quick snit between two individuals can turn into high-level drama on social media, where everyone feels free to add her own two cents.

“Before, maybe you would resolve it face-to-face after school or in a phone call. But now there is no cooldown period, no time to calm down or self-reflect,” Zigdon said. “Social media is the platform to continue it, and then other people get involved, screenshotting comments and sending them to other friends. It gets obsessive, and teens can feel like they need to find out what everyone is saying about them.

“So, they are on the phone till all hours of the night trying to figure out what is going on. It continues all through the night and picks up the next day right where it left off. So even if the friends repair whatever happened, now everyone else knows your business and may start treating you differently. The ripple effect is so much greater.”

Magnified Mistakes

That ripple effect in which everything can become exponentially magnified is a major culprit of teen anxiety, Blumstein said. A tactless remark or foolish comment blurted out in person may be quickly forgiven and forgotten, but it lives forever on the internet where more and more people can see the faux pas and feel free to comment on it and pass it along for others to ridicule.

“Teens are continually watching themselves mess up again and again. It’s like skiing downhill and now you’re somersaulting out of control,” Blumstein said.

Friedman agreed. “Now all your friends from school and camp, and their parents and your parents, know about it. You can’t make an easy or light mistake anymore.”

And messing up can be an important big part of growing up. “Poor judgment and mistakes are part of becoming experienced and learning — it’s inevitable. But with social media, it’s a perfect storm,” Friedman said.

Zigdon worries about the future. “Think about these kids developing their skills to be successful once they leave school. Are they able to express themselves to a colleague? They have no experience in conflict resolution because it’s all being done via text. Confronting someone is a challenge and a skill they need to develop, and high school is that social minefield where they can be practicing these things.”

Blumstein said, “I wonder if teens are struggling with individualized self-expression because they are so part of a group processing experience. The whole dating relationship is this whole public soap opera.”

Zigdon added, “I have definitely noticed the breakdown in communication and social interaction between peers. Friends don’t talk face to face anymore; it’s just a text or an emoji and some important parts of communication like tone of voice and body language are being lost.”

Celia Levy
Celia Levy

But Celia Levy, a seventh-grader at Hillel, takes the opposite view. “It’s easier to incorporate what you want to say when you’re texting and with photos,” she said. “I feel like you can see the emotion more than just listening to their voice.”

Levy, who is 12, relies on her phone to keep in touch with friends both locally and those from Israel she has met at camp. She thinks adults who worry about the ramifications of cell phone use are overreacting.

“Adults say, ‘Oh, it’s so harmful’ and stuff, but it’s just a way to communicate. This is how I talk to my friends, through text and social media. It doesn’t even faze most teenagers. We have been raised to know what to do and what not to do, and we don’t need to be told every day. We know the safety precautions and not to share our personal information.”

What To Do?

As with so many other areas of teen life, it’s up to parents to try to mitigate the social anxiety that comes with cellphones. That can mean delaying the inevitable for as long as possible.

“My personal opinion is, is it really necessary before middle school? I would hate for a 9-year-old to be at the point where he’s already constantly checking his cellphone. Maybe allow a cellphone that doesn’t have internet access in the beginning, but where they can text their friends,” Zigdon said. “Tell them, ‘Let’s see how it works; show me that you are responsible and then you’ll get more privileges.’”

Blumstein has had at least two parents ask him to monitor their children’s texts via the iMessage app. “They completely forget they are being monitored after the first week or two. I have been able to say, ‘Hey, I saw you sharing personal information or making poor choices like hounding a kid, which could be bullying.’ In both cases, it worked out really well because it allowed the kid to see certain patterns, and when people see patterns, they do really well,” Blumstein said.

Friedman also recommends monitoring, as long as parents are upfront about it. “It won’t be foolproof but get your kids’ passwords and follow them on apps like Instagram and Snapchat. The fact they know you are monitoring already creates a different consciousness. This should always be part of the agreement of having a phone, but there is a balance between trust and monitoring,” she said.

But, Friedman cautioned, “There is no way to ever monitor all of it. Kids make different accounts. ‘Finstagram,’ a fake Instagram account, is just one trick of a million.”

Surprised couple meeting in a coffee shop watching media content in a smart phoneAbramson suggests parents limit phone time. “It is definitely not healthy the amount of time we are on our phones, and there are times when I do wish I spent less time,” she said.

Friedman recommends having kids disconnect at least a half-hour before bedtime, and get their phone out of the bedroom, enacting a policy that everyone in the family leaves their devices charging in the kitchen overnight.

JFS’ Zigdon likes to ask teens themselves for possible solutions. “They have some good ideas like deleting Instagram for a week to give themselves space or to stop following or unfriend their ex. Sometimes peers make a pact to put their phones away and actually talk to see if they can recreate their balance. Although the pressures of social media may seem daunting, parents and teens can work together to find ways to balance social media, relationships and communication skills. We all need to work together in recognizing today’s reality and supporting our children in the process.”

A senior at Cranbrook, who asked to remain anonymous, got his first phone in the fifth grade so he could communicate with his mother, then moved onto social media in seventh or eighth grade. He thinks all the hand-wringing can be overblown, but admits he finds it an “interesting debate.”

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“I don’t know a single kid who would say it’s a big problem that we are all on our phones — but I haven’t had the perspective of not having a phone,” the 17-year-old said. “I would much rather be reading a news article than be on social media — not that I’m not. It certainly is a fact of life, but I don’t view it as necessarily bad.”

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