Are kids addicted to their cell phones?

Michael Richard, MD
Michael Richard, MD

Media expert Michael Rich, MD, MPH, director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Children’s Hospital Boston, answers your questions about media use.

Last week he answered your questions about parenting with television. Here’s this week’s question:

Q: It seems like today’s generation is always on their cell phones, iPods, Nintendos, etc., whether they are 8 years old or 18 years old. How does this happen? Is this simply a fad, or are these children addicted?
-Curious about Kids in Lamar, CO

A: Dear Curious,

I recently came across an interview with three girls who are labeled “extreme texters.”  It was fascinating to listen to them talk about how and how often they use technology, but what was most interesting to me was this comment:

Reporter: Would you say that you’re a little bit addicted to your cell phones?
Teen: I don’t think it’s being addicted to my cell phone, it’s the need to be talking to my friends, and the cell phone is just the way I get to that.

So perhaps what’s changed for this generation is the expectations about friendship: since today’s technology makes it possible to be constantly in touch, it is now expected.
The average American 8-18 year-old uses media for 7 hours and 38 minutes a day, and 20% of that time is spent on a mobile device.  It’s certainly a lot of time, but the definition of any kind of addiction is not solely a matter of quantity. Instead, we have to look at whether this excessive use results in certain related behaviors.

The idea that someone could be “addicted” to media is controversial in the United States health community. However, several countries in East Asia have been doing research to gain a better understanding of problematic interactive media use and to try to treat it. Their research says that addictive media behavior is a combination of four elements:

  1. Excessive use, often associated with losing a sense of time or neglecting basic tasks of life (like sleep and homework).
  2. Withdrawal, including anger or sadness when asked to turn it off.
  3. Increasing tolerance—for example, using the Internet for longer and longer time periods, or watching more and more outrageous reality shows.
  4. Acceptance of negative consequences in order to feed the addiction. For example, being willing to fight with family members or miss work or school in order to keep using media.

There are certainly some children who fit this description, but most probably do not.  However, as a pediatrician, I would say that if media is interfering with someone’s ability to complete the important tasks of daily life (eating, sleeping, exercising, doing homework, etc), then it is likely time to talk with them about changing their media habits and setting some limits.

Enjoy your media and use them wisely,
The Mediatrician®

  • Anonymous

    Thank you, Dr. Rich.