Turns out smart devices may not be so smart after all

The use and influence of technology have grown exponentially over the past 20 years, so significantly in fact, that technology is an essential part of today’s society, embedded in nearly every activity we engage in.

Worldwide, more than 1.8 billion people own a smartphone and use their device on a daily basis. Some studies estimate that the average person checks their screen up to 150 times per day!

While there are huge advantages to this technology, such as research, staying connected, sharing of information and ideas, and improved communication with people all over the world, finding a balance between the use of such technology and other pursuits in life, such as sport, social gatherings, face-to-face interactions, can be incredibly difficult.

Today’s parents are faced with trying to address issues about technology, social media and devices that didn’t even exist when they were at school.

More and more, they are struggling to contain their children’s technology use, while still allowing them to be connected to friends and resources.

Add to this the ever-increasing daily demands and time-pressures of families, parents and students, and the use of technology to connect, explore and entertain has a clear and increasing role within our society.

Children as young as two and three are being allowed more frequent and longer time on smart devices, and any detrimental effect on brain development, not yet researched, could be significant.

Data from the UK shows that almost 70% of 11 to 12 year olds regularly use a mobile phone, increasing to 90% by age 14.

Researchers who are starting to explore the effects of screen time on younger children and adolescents have been very concerned with what they have found.


Why is the use of smart devices so worrying?

Research suggests that use of screens has effects in a range of areas and across all ages and developmental stages of life.

Social interactions, communication, relationships and family time 

Time on a screen, including phone use, limits your real-time interactions with others, including friends, family and others you may come into contact with. 

Think about when you catch a train in the morning or afternoon: how many people are on their phones rather than reading a book, looking out the window, or interacting with those around them? 

Dan Siegel (Mindful Awareness Research Centre) has been looking at the effects of limited social interactions on development and has found evidence that limited social interactions reduce language, social and emotional development. Children’s level of insight and empathy towards others is reduced and they are limited in how they understand their sense of self and their connection with others.

Dr Radesky [1] (Boston Medical Centre) noted: “They (children) learn language, they learn about their own emotions, they learn how to regulate them. They learn by watching us how to have a conversation, how to read other people’s facial expressions. And if that’s not happening, children are missing out on important developmental milestones.”

A 2014 study at UCLA’s Children’s Digital Media Centre suggests that when screen time limits face-to-face interaction, kids struggle to develop and practice social skills and the ability of children and adolescents to read, understand and respond to emotions in others (i.e. empathy development) is reduced. 

This is particularly concerning, given that social and emotional intelligence in children and adolescents is critical to success in life.

Creativity, imagination and free play 

Screen time is a very passive activity (not a lot of movement). Even if playing video games, the act of being on a screen involves little to no movement and often not a lot of creativity, imagination or visualisation. Users are limited to the stimulus on the screen (text, animation, shows, games). How do children build their sense of creativity? How do they think of situations, build games in their minds and imagine the world around them?

Clinical psychologist, Catherine Steiner-Adair[2] stated that “children need time to daydream, deal with anxieties, process their thoughts and share them with parents, who can provide reassurance and support”. This does not happen with children who prefer screens and smart phones while in the car, waiting in line at a shop, or sitting at home over dinner with the family.

Sleep, weight and physical wellbeing 

We are already aware of the effects of screen time in reducing physical activity and contributing to the rise in obesity and physical health problems in both children and adults, such as Type 2 diabetes, hypertension and high blood pressure. 

Screens also affect sleep patterns by interfering with the normal sleep cycle, both in children AND adolescents. Add the additional effects of overstimulation due to games and social media, as well as the tendency for young people to be on their devices into the late hours, and sleep problems become a huge issue for wellbeing and learning. 

Learning and academic achievement 

Children need to experience the world around them to accommodate new ideas. 

Psychologists know that babies, toddlers and young children learn better with three-dimensional materials (things they can touch and manipulate), rather than two dimensional ones (things they can see on a screen). 

Screen time reduces the opportunities to explore and develop key skills and developmental milestones when younger. This can lead to a reduction in motor skills (actions), language development and social and emotional growth. 

These things in turn can impact on future learning and academic performance. 


Screens and smartphones increase children’s exposure to being over-stimulated and encourage them to “multi-task” and divide their attention simultaneously. 

How many teenagers who are “doing their homework” also have social media, electronic textbooks, Skype, instant messenger, YouTube and a video running at the same time across multiple tabs? As adults, how many tasks are you expected to do at the same time? How well does that work?

If children and adolescents aren’t encouraged to stay focussed and attentive to individual tasks one at a time, how do they learn to do this? 

Struggles with attention and concentration do not always mean a child has a condition such as ADHD, it may be the effect of never having learnt to give their full and undivided attention to one thing at a time. 

Children also need to learn the consequences of their behaviours and actions. How can they do this when they may barely be able to remember what their behaviours were in the first place? 

Screens and smartphones cannot assist children in understanding what happens when they do a certain behaviour and it cannot give them feedback about the effect of these behaviours on themselves and others.

Mental health 

Mental health issues such as depression and anxiety have increased in recent years, partly, social researchers believe, due to the increase in smartphone and screen use and the reliance on technology over direct interaction and communication.

A study conducted by the Centre on Media and Child Health (University of Alberta)[3]  found that over the past three to five years, as smartphone use has increased, 90% of teachers report that the number of students with emotional challenges have significantly increased.

Similarly, research in the USA by Professor Jean Twenge[4] has found that since 2010, teens who spend more time using smartphones and other technology, are more likely to report having mental health problems than teens who spend less time with their devices. 

She also discovered that between 2010 and 2016, the number of adolescents who experienced major depression grew by 60%.


Mandy Saligari, an addiction researcher at the Harley Street Charter Clinic in London, has suggested that screen and technology can be just as addictive and dangerous as drug and alcohol addiction and has raised concerns that we are “leaving them to manage this themselves on their own”[5] in their rooms. 

Indeed, recent research in brain development in adolescents coming out of the UK and the USA is suggesting that technology obsession and addictive use activates the same pathways in the brain that is associated with other addictive behaviours such as drug and alcohol use.

The addictive nature of device use can also be seen in the significant increase of adolescents to psychologists and community health centres for treatment for “technology obsession”, with upwards of one in four parents reporting significant struggles in managing their young person’s use.

Exposure to inappropriate material and people

Online safety is a major concern for most parents, including exposure to age-inappropriate material, stalking and grooming behaviour from others online. 

This also includes sexting and sending and receiving pornographic and explicit photos and text via smartphone, something which has significantly increased in girls as young as 13 and 14 years old. 

There are lots of resources and literature on this topic. For more information, please see the Office of the eSafety Commissioner (www.esafety.gov.au). 

What can parents do?

Mobile phones and other smart devices can provide children and parents with a sense of safety, security and control over their environment. 

Being able to contact children regarding changes in plans, movements and activities, provide great peace of mind to parents. Children being able to reach out to parents and other adults when they are needing support, help or information is a big positive too.

Device use allows children to develop skills and competence in areas of technology that will be necessary for them into the future. 

It follows then, that banning or removing screens from a child’s life is counterproductive and almost impossible. So, what then can we do?

Talk to your child 

Children need to not only have screen-free time, but also times where you talk together about all aspects of their life, including what they are doing on their screens. 

Indeed, talking about the current games they are playing, the people they are connecting with online, and the activities they are engaging in is a powerful way to connect with your child around something they love, but also allows you to monitor what they are getting up to when they are on screens at other times.

Using technology “side by side” can also be a way to connect and engage with what your child is doing and show interest in the things they are doing in the digital world.

Set the rules 

There are a plethora of rules and “guidelines” for how much screentime children should have, when they should be allowed to have it and at what age this should start. In reality, research has not yet fully determined all the effects this technology may have on our young people and what levels of use are “ok”.

Just like whether chocolate is “bad” for you or what type of exercise is the “best”, these guidelines and rules shift and change on a regular basis, as our ability to research and explore the effects of them changes. 

However, having some family guidelines about when children can use smart phones and screens, for how long, and for what purpose is always a very helpful and positive start in helping your child set limits and reducing the negative effects of screens on them and their growth. 

This is especially important for students who have devices that can access the internet and other apps, and which have the potential to cost a lot of money depending on their level of access. If your child needs a phone, consider a less technological handset (the old “flip phone” works well), or one with limited/locked options for apps and the internet access.

Boundaries and expectations 

How technology is used, when it is used and what it is used for can all be modelled and discussed within the family environment and conditions and expectations for their use developed in collaboration with children and young people. 

Most young people are aware of the fascinating and alluring nature of screens and technology and will often talk about how they lose “hours” of time on their smartphone. 

For younger children, this fascination and obsession with technology is even harder to resist, especially when it makes them seem more grown up and mature with a smartphone in hand and access to the internet and social media.

Family modelling of appropriate and helpful screen use - for example, dinner time is “talking time” and screens of any kind are banned, no phones or screens after 7pm (good for improving sleep) or limited times during the week and on weekends - can all help build healthy technology use.

Similarly, boundaries and expectations at school for smartphone and technology use can encourage healthy, practical and balanced use.

Finding useful and educational apps

An enormous number of different apps and programs available for smartphones and other devices these days. A simple Google search of apps for “relaxation” yielded over 100,000 results!

Increasing children’s technology exposure to apps and programs that have educational and knowledge-building value, along with the other “fun” apps, can help to maximise the use of technology in a positive way and encourage children to use it for learning and developmental purposes as well as for fun and enjoyment.

And finally . . . everything in moderation

Obviously technology, screens and smartphones are here to stay and there are definite positives to having such technology in our lives. The world seems smaller, more accessible. Information is more readily available and shared. People from different cultures, religions, countries and ways of life can connect in a way never seen before. People with common interests and ideas can find an audience and cohort of like-minded people with whom they can share their interests.

The challenge for children, adolescents and their parents is how to find a way to balance the benefits of such technology and screen use with other essential and important aspects of our lives, such as social, emotional and developmental growth. 

This will look different for everyone, but finding such a balance will have significant and long lasting effects on the adults that we as parents and educators want to build and nurture now and into the future.


Ms Vanessa Sleeman
School Counsellor & Clinical Psychologist







[1] From article, “How do smartphones affect childhood psychology”, www.psychcentral.com

[2] From article, “Smartphones and Kids: Harmful effects and what to do about it”, www.aish.com

[3] “Growing up Digital Alberta”, A collaborative research project by Harvard Medical School Teaching Hospital, the Center on Media and Child Health, Boston Children’s Hospital, University of Alberta and the Alberta Teachers’ Association (2016)

[4] Jean M. Twenge, PhD. iGen. New York: Atria Books (an imprint of Simon & Schuster), 2017.

[5] Taken from article, “Giving your child a smartphone is like giving them a gram of cocaine, says top researcher”, www.independent.co.uk/news/education