Health & Fitness

How growing screen time is impacting teens’ mental health. What you can do.

Smartphones are overtaking teens’ time, their mental health and even their lives.

Earlier this month, 16 local seventh- and eighth-grade student leaders discussed their frequent use of cellphones. The students expressed concerns about leaving a positive “digital footprint,” the devices causing eye damage, and the problem of bad behaviors online, such as cyberbullying.

The leadership class at Salida Middle School in the Salida Union School District (SUSD) is composed of elected student representatives. All but two of the students have cellphones.

Nearly 95% of teens ages 13-17 own or have access to a smartphone, and 45% of the teens reported they were online nearly constantly, according to Pew Research. This doesn’t include other electronic devices, including computers, tablets and gaming consoles.

Teens average at least nine hours a day of screen time, excluding time spent at school or for homework, according to a 2016 study by Common Sense Media. Currently, YouTube, SnapChat and Instagram are the most popular sites.

Social media researchers have shown that the more time teens spend online, the more likely they will become victims of cyberbullying.


“One friend had a guy bullying her on social media for her weight. She’s a little overweight. He kept calling her names and said it’s disgusting when she runs,” said Nevaeh Marquez. “I stuck up for her and he came after me as well.”

She said she was upset about the bullying, so she reported it to an adult. The bullying then stopped.

Marquez is an eighth-grader in the leadership class. She is called an “upstander” because she witnessed unacceptable behavior and did something about it.

Nearly 60% of teens reported some type of cyberbullying, according to Pew. Name calling and spreading false rumors were the most common offenses. These once were limited to the playground insults, but with cellphones, they spread far and wide in seconds.

In addition, 7% of the teens had explicit pictures of them shared with the intent of causing harm.

However, some researchers say the effects of cellphone and Internet use on mental health are more nuanced.

British researchers found that among young teens, very frequent social media use led to mental health problems due to cyberbullying, as well as insufficient sleep and lack of exercise for girls, but not boys. In addition, girls experienced more cyberbullying than boys.

“If you’re on social media, be kind. Don’t say anything rude,” said eighth-grader Carisa Villasenor, “You might hurt someone’s feelings and they’ll get sad or depressed.”

SUSD uses an app called StopIt for students to report anonymously any misbehavior, including online. Last school year, seven bullying incidents among the district’s 2,300 students were reported.

Teen brains and downsides of cellphones and e-devices

Teenage brains aren’t fully developed. The frontal cortex, the area involved in decision making, isn’t fully developed until about age 25. Teens tend to make decisions with the amygdala, the emotion region of the brain. Thus, adolescents make choices based more on feelings than judgment. Also, they may be more vulnerable to negative feedback, including on social media.

In her book “iGen,” psychologist Jean Twenge questions whether smartphones have destroyed a generation because of the overwhelming rise in mental illness among youth.

Anxiety, depression and suicide rates have risen steadily among adolescents since 2000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For females ages 15-24, the rates of suicides nearly doubled to almost six deaths per 100,000. For males in the same age group, the rate increased from 17 to 20 per 100,000. Historically, the suicide rate for males is higher than for females.

The largest increase in suicides has occurred since 2010, corresponding to smartphones becoming a regular attachment to teens. Although a relationship in time doesn’t mean cellphones are the cause, recent research suggests the devices may be contributing.

“Also something that can get into your mind and cause negativity is watching certain kinds of shows,” said Nevaeh Marquez. “It can affect you and the way you think and your mood.”

Marquez was discussing “13 Reasons Why,” a popular Netflix series that revolves around teen suicide. She said shows can plant unhealthy ideas, such as suicide, in kids’ brains.

Twenge and her colleagues found that more screen time correlated with higher risk for depression, suicide ideation and attempts and death by suicide.

Posts on social media are equivalent to an actor’s sizzle roll — they show only the best. Teens who portray perfect lives in their social media feel a lot of pressure to live up to their glamorous, online selves. And, viewing those dazzling posts leads some individuals to think less of their own lives and themselves, and can cause depression and low self-esteem.

“Likes” on social media accounts, such as the super-popular Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook platforms, lead to a surge in dopamine, the “feel good” hormone. This stimulation is as rewarding as hitting even the smallest jackpot on slot machines for gamblers and has the same potential for addiction, according to a report from Harvard University.

More than half of teens are themselves worried that they spend too much time on their cellphones, according to Pew Research.

There’s actually a term for fear of being without a mobile phone, “nomophobia.” The cellphones themselves aren’t the issue, but the addiction to the Internet, games or apps that actually fuel the problem.

And like any addiction, withdrawal can cause depression, anger, irritability and physical symptoms such as restlessness.

Physical health is also adversely affected

“Don’t watch your device in the dark, it can harm your eyes,” said Hang Zheng, a seventh-grade student in the leadership class.

The blue light from screens is hard for eyes, causing strain and fatigue. Screen time is associated with increase in nearsightedness in young people. Sunlight emits blue light, which has positive effects of eye development. However, vision specialists have concerns about the long-term effects of blue light from screens, because of the proximity to the screens and the prolonged exposure.

Complaint of neck pain is also a growing problem for adolescents. Often referred to as “text neck,” it results from muscle strain due to looking down at cellphone or tablet for too long.

The full extent of adverse effects on physical health of cellphone use and screen time is not yet known. Cellphones emit radio frequency radiation, and the brain is the main target of this radiation. The World Health Organization review panel concluded this is a “possible” risk for cancer. However, no link to cancer has been demonstrated.

The panel noted that other effects on the developing brain need close monitoring, including neurological disorders and changes in sleep, thinking and the behaviors of adolescents.

When asked, more than half of the students admitted that they broke their parent’s rules for using their phone. The most common infraction was using the cellphone after bedtime.

‘When I go on my phone at night, I stay up talking to my friends or I’m on Instagram or Snapchat,” said Bellanit Lopez, an eighth-grader. She said she usually gets six or seven hours of sleep. She confessed, at times, she is tired in the morning.

“It does have an effect on their health and well-being in a number of ways,” said Steven Millar, pediatrician and assistant physician-in-chief at Kaiser Permanente, Central Valley.

He said sleep disruption is one of the biggest concerns for health and cellphone use. Adolescents need more sleep than younger children because they’re undergoing major cognitive and physical growth spurts.

Most American adolescents are not getting the recommended eight to 10 hours of sleep, and screens are a big reason.

Sleeping with cellphones in the bedroom is a common practice for teens (29%), and many keep the phone under their pillow.

The California Department of Public Health recommends not sleeping with cell phones near one’s head to help decrease exposure to blue light and possible low-grade radiation.

All of this is not to say there aren’t obvious benefits to cellphones and e-devices.

The “good” of cellphones and e-devices

It’s easy to embrace the good of smartphones and other e-devices. They’re the tools to the Internet, which allows rapid access to classmates, friends and family, regardless of where they are.

“Yes, I recommend some apps to the kids,” said Millar. “Some apps can empower teenagers to take control of their health.” He likes apps used for meditation, healthy eating and fitness.

Some parents are reassured that their teens have cellphones for safety reasons, including at times of disaster. That’s not an insignificant concern in the current era of school shootings.

For education, the devices put a world of information at kids’ fingertips. To complete homework, Gen X parents had to go to the library. Most teens haven’t seen an encyclopedia or heard of the Dewey decimal system for finding a book.

Google has gone from a company name to a verb. Kids can “google,” that is do an Internet search, on almost any topic to complete a term paper, solve algebra problems or practice a foreign language.

Computers, once a luxury for a student, are now essential equipment.

But how are local districts teaching kids safety online?

Teaching cybersafety

Area school districts have incorporated digital citizenship as a core element of their students’ education.

“Digital citizenship tells us what to do on Chromebooks and in general,” said seventh-grader Sherlyne Perez, “Like no cyberbullying and not going where you’re not supposed to be.”

Chromebooks are inexpensive laptops that allow access to the Internet. They are used in several area school districts and function in some ways like a constantly updated textbook.

“Our cellphone policy is ‘off and out of sight’,” said Melanie Evans, coordinator of educational services for SUSD. Because the kids have school devices, she said, there really isn’t a need for them to use their cellphones at school.

SUSD has students from transitional kindergarten (TK) through eighth grade. The district provides age-appropriate electronic devices to their students for their schoolwork. With those devices, the students are required to have training in digital citizenship.

Evans worked with Twila Tosh, SUSD superintendent, and district teachers to develop their digital citizenship curriculum. She incorporated resources from Common Sense Media and, which is hosted by the Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Both of these sites have resources for kids of all ages, parents and educators.

“For TK students, we start with stranger danger in the real world, and then move to Internet safety,” said Evans. The topics progress in intensity for the older kids. For example, for middle schoolers, they discuss cyberbullying and the dangers of online predators.

The SUSD leadership classmates could readily cite the rules and reasons of digital citizenship.

“We stress to our students and parents that their digital footprint is forever,” said Tosh. She said they also integrate counselors into digital citizenship proactively, not just when a student breaks the rules.

Cellphones and e-devices in local public school districts

Public school districts in Ceres, Modesto and Turlock, as well as others in the area, also provide their students with e-devices and digital citizenship training.

“We provide Chromebooks to all of our students, TK through 12th grade,” said Mariana Sandoval, education technology specialist with Ceres Unified School District. With the devices, the students have mandatory training in digital citizenship.

“We want our students to know how to use digital citizenship in the real world,” said Sandoval. She said the lessons include information about cyberbullying and online safety, privacy and appropriate behavior.

Modesto City Schools provides computer literacy training for all students. Digital citizenship is one component of the training.

“We think our computer literacy training is unique in the area,” said Joseph Mesa, technology coordinator for MCS. All students receive grade-appropriate training in the use of apps, Internet searching, programming and learning to evaluate scholarly information.

“We have one-to-one devices for students in grades seven to 12,” said Mike Rich, senior director of curriculum with MCS. The students can take the devices home and the same safety filter is in place as for in-school use. Kids in grades TK through sixth grade use devices only at school.

MCS students in grades seven through 12 may use their cellphones at lunch and during passing periods.

All of these districts actively involve parents in learning themselves and teaching their children to be wise users of e-devices and the Internet.

“It’s the way of the world,” said Tosh, “It’s moving forward in the 21st century.” She said for the district not to prepare students for the digital world would be equivalent to “sticking their heads in the sand to avoid reality.”

This story was produced with financial support from The Stanislaus County Office of Education and the Stanislaus Community Foundation, along with the GroundTruth Project’s Report for America initiative. The Modesto Bee maintains full editorial control of this work.


Resource Box

Tips for parents

  • Be a role model — limit cellphone use and practice “off and out-of-sight” during family time.
  • Communicate with kids about online safety, and do it often.
  • Set limits on screen time, including cellphones.
  • Avoid having electronic devices in children’s bedrooms.

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