Outsmarting smartphones with kids' mental health

Smartphones are affecting our kids' social and mental health. (WHAM photo)

Suicides now claim more teen lives than all natural causes combined.

One expert believes says this generation is on the verge of the worst mental health crisis in decades, and now a connection is being made between it and smartphone use.

A surge in mental health issues among teens was first noticed in 2012. That’s also at the same time that more than 50 percent of teens owned smartphones.

The connection was so striking, psychologist Jean Twenge, who has studied generational differences for 25 years, says she’d never seen anything like it. “I was surprised by how sudden and how large that increase was in mental health, depression and loneliness," says Twenge.

A survey by the Centers for Disease Control found teens who spend five or more hours a day on electronic devices are 66 percent more likely to have at least one suicide risk factor than teens who spend one hour a day.

Twenge says smartphones have changed every aspect of teen lives: They date less than their parents' generation, wait longer to get their driver's license and hang out with their friends less.

Maybe that's because teens today have a social life on their phones - from Facebook, to Instagram and Snapchat.

But experts say social media can't replace the real thing.

“Seeing your friends in person is one of the best protectors against depression," says Twenge. “That's what makes people happy, that's what tends to protect against suffering from these mental health issues."

Gwen Olton, a consultant with Coordinated Care Services Inc. in Rochester, says, “People are missing out on relationships, and that relationship is, for me, one of the most important things about being alive on Earth."

The good news is that experts say all of this is fixable by limiting screen time.

Olton says there are apps that will turn off phones at a certain time and apps that track what you're doing.

“It's sort of like data on yourself. So you can kind of just use your phone as you normally would for a week or a couple of days and see what it is," advises Olton.

East Rochester sophomore Ben Parrone was forced to cut back time on his smartphone when his grades went down.

His grades went up, and Ben learned something else.

“When I'm hanging out with my friends, I’m the happiest person in the world," says Ben, who plays football. “The more you look at social media, and the more that you see people are talking about you and saying mean things, the more you're going to feel bad about yourself."

Experts say it's important parents set limits for phones and set a good example of usage.

And there's help: "Me, My Technology and I" is a new seminar for parents and teens being offered by Coordinated Care Services in January.

For more info, click here.

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