Cell Phone Use and Well-Being

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Imagine standing in line at the grocery store waiting to check out. The parent in front of you has a toddler in her cart begging for a treat from the impulse shelves. The parent desperately loads the conveyor belt while searching for her payment method and disciplining the child. I know you have witnessed this scenario or even actively participated with your child in the cart seat. An easy response for the parent could be to hand the child the cell phone, and 65% of parents who participated in a US Census representative study reported using a cell phone to calm a child in a public place. Today’s children are adept at navigating through the apps to get to the activity they most want. Is this a helpful or potentially harmful calming technique?

Cell phone proficiency is common in young children. Researchers are hustling to keep up with the developmental consequences of these new technologies since most households now have televisions and smart devices. One study in Pediatrics Magazine found that by age two, a majority of children regularly use a smart device. By age four, many had their own device. Time is consumed while consuming these technologies, and it will have an impact on your child.

Interestingly the nature of that impact is debatable. Some believe that it harms social, emotional, physical, and cognitive development, while others tell us digital literacy is imperative for growth in these same areas. A study printed in the Journal of Pediatrics reported an absence of evidence that mobile and social media use harms adolescents’ academic, psychological well-being, and general health. This result surprised me since I spent the last ten years butting heads with my own children and their device use. Household stress escalated on both sides following every disciplinary technique I employed. I am sure you can imagine the debates that ensued. The most common parenting question I get is about setting limits for technology use.

A professor at California State University wondered if cell phone use impacted student performance. He found cell phones absolutely distracted students multiple times, decreasing attention in class and on tests. He compared their involuntary response to the sound of an incoming direct message to the Pavlovian response of dogs who salivate for their food when the bell rings. Another study found this to be the same in adolescents; however, positive learning outcomes increased with creative uses of media in the same classrooms.

We cannot forget the influence technology has on us, the adults and further recognize our example. Little eyes are learning how to be a grown-up from those they admire through observation. Research shows adults are as distracted as our teens by cell phones during working hours. Maybe we should all put down our phones, silence the notifications, or employ the new focus settings for a while.

Going back to the child in the grocery cart. A 2022 study by the American Medical Association found that frequent use of mobile devices to calm a child under the age of five may decrease their ability to learn self-soothing techniques. Suppose a child does not learn this important social skill early. In that case, evidence indicates that technology use increases in later years, perpetuating an inability to have normal emotional reactions to common social stressors. Pediatricians do, in fact, recommend alternative calming approaches for our example child in the grocery cart.

Technology is here to stay, and there is a healthy place for technology in our lives. The balance between enrichment and over-use is relative to each family. Parenting research shows that moderation is the key, and my research shows that the cell phone isn’t the enemy. Well-being is found in the balance between limits and love. If technology use is getting in the way of productive functioning, like mood regulation, schoolwork, and sleep schedules, then limits should be set. We, the parents, should make adjustments within our households based on the well-being of our children by using fewer restrictions as they age and earn them.

For information and resources on this topic, please contact Pam Kerley, the 4-H Program Assistant for North Carolina Cooperative Extension, Lee County Center. 4-H is a positive youth development program offering programs that suit a variety of backgrounds, interests, budgets, and schedules. From in-school to after-school, clubs to camps, 4-H programs are available in Lee County, and we welcome children who want to have fun, learn and grow. In North Carolina, 4-H is brought to you by the NC State Cooperative Extension. N.C. Cooperative Extension’s experts and educators share university knowledge, information, and tools you can use daily to improve your life.

Reprinted from The Sanford Herald Extension News, April 22, 2023