Adolescent smartphone addiction: Supporting pupils and parents

Written for SecEd Magazine. First published online on 14 September 2022.

Just before the summer holidays, I received a message asking me to call a parent who had some concerns about her son. I had no idea what this was about, but suspected it related to a sanction he had been given the day before.

Instead, however, it was a plea from the parent for advice, even help, on how to get her son off his phone at home, especially at night. This is not the first time a parent has discussed this issue with me. It is also a battle I have had with my own son.

Mobile phone ‘overuse’

My pupils’ parents are right to be worried. Mobile phone overuse has been linked to cognitive-emotion regulation, impulsivity, impaired cognitive function, excessive introvertness and low self-esteem (Wacks & Weinstein, 2021). Aside from the psychological issues, the physiological problems of excessive phone use can lead to sleep deprivation, reduced fitness, unhealthy eating, migraines and reduced cognitive control.

Moreover, studies have demonstrated that mobile phone overuse can also lead to anxiety, depression and other psychological disorders (Thomee, 2018). One study has found that young people who spend longer on their phones score higher on depression scales than other children (Calpbinici & Tas Arslan, 2019).

Intriguingly, new terms have been coined to define aspects of “problematic smartphone use” (De-Sola Gutiérrez et al, 2016; Looke, 2016). These include:

  • Smartphone addiction: The inability to cut back on excessive mobile phone use.
  • Nomophobia: The fear of being without your phone.
  • FOMO: “Fear of missing out.”
  • Ringxiety: Constantly checking the device for missed calls and texts.
  • Textaphrenia: The fear that you can’t send or receive texts.
  • Phantom vibrations: The belief that your phone is alerting you when it isn’t.

There is clearly a developing area of concern among psychologists and health professionals that suggests pupils, parents and schools need to work together in order to combat the adverse effects of mobile phone overuse.

Can pupils actually be addicted to their phones?

According to numerous researchers interested in psychological pathology, “smartphone addiction” is an increasingly accepted disorder (Wu et al, 2020). Basically, smartphone addiction refers to users developing psychological and behavioural problems linked to the abuse of mobile phones (Su et al, 2014).

Most of the apps or websites we use on our mobile phones are designed to make us want more; whether that be rewards, information or social acknowledgment. All of this excitement can trigger the release of chemicals, especially dopamine, in the brain and this has a knock-on effect on our feelings and behaviour. In a similar vein to gaming and gambling, this can lead to a “behavioural addiction” (Alavi et al, 2012).

Even our everyday web searches are problematic. Algorithms tailor the results of our searches to reflect and predict our personal needs and wants, which makes our use of them evermore compulsive (Yan, 2017).

According to Thornton (2017), internet algorithms gradually reinforce teenagers’ early biases, potentially preventing “exposure to the counterfactual challenges that might stimulate critical appraisal of those ideas”.

Academics are now arguing that there is a clear correlation between adolescence and smartphone addiction (Shoukat, 2019). In the UK, researchers have reported that more than one in three young adults report “problem use”, including addiction (Sohn, 2021). Even academics approaching smartphone addiction critically still point out that overuse of mobile phones “certainly entails risks for young people and adolescents” (De-Sola Gutiérrez et al, 2016).

It is worth noting, however, that smartphone addiction is a contested idea (see Harris et al, 2020).

Advice for pupils and parents

Of course, I would much rather my own son be addicted to his mobile phone than drugs and alcohol, but as a parent I find the evidence laid out above concerning enough to be proactive in curtailing his phone use.

Although some may see this as patronising, I am also willing to make suggestions on how to combat excessive phone use with pupils and parents. Despite the fact that ideas below may seem “common sense”, I have found many willing to listen and make suggestions of their own. Here are some:

Teach about mobile phone overuse:Schools have made a concerted effort to educate pupils about cyber-bullying, sexing and other online dangers, but perhaps there is room for direct warnings about overuse, including some of the issues mentioned above. This could be part of a wider conversation with pupils and parents on wellbeing and mental health.
Be a positive role model (parents and siblings): Cut down on your own use at home. We are responsible for our children’s primary socialisation and our children, whether we like it or not, often imitate our everyday actions, so simply spend less time on your own phone.
Have a “phone-curfew”: This is obvious and advocated by almost everybody concerned by mobile phone use. Consider banning mobile phones from bedrooms after a certain time. This is hard and may lead to arguments, but – as above – you could simply model this yourself so that the curfew does not seem like an individual punishment.
Have “phone-free” spaces at home: Consider banning phones elsewhere in the home or at certain times. This can include the dinner table or even the toilet – unless you want your child to suffer from painful haemorrhoids when they are older!
Talk more: Turkle (2011) has come up with the concept “alone together”, which denotes family or friends sitting around and completely ignoring each other while transfixed on their individual devices. A possible solution to this atomisation of family and social life is to talk more. Perhaps watch television together and comment on what’s going on or ask how each other’s day has been. To repurpose a phrase used by John Major in the early 1990s, we need to get “back to basics” – albeit in how we live together as opposed to social moralising on family types.
Encourage socialising and other interests: This could be as a family, such as going for walks, playing board games or something similar. At a push, and I know this is hard, but you could try to get your child interested in clubs or sporting activities as well as getting them to “hang-out” with their mates like we used to (pre-mobile phones). Yes, the latter has its risks, but you’re still here!
Consider a “digital detox”: This can be defined as a period of disconnection from social or online media or reduced usage. We can all set ourselves and our children targets for reducing our time on devices. Furthermore, “digital detox stands in a long tradition of media resistance and resistance to new communication technologies” (Syvertsen & Enli, 2020); perhaps this isn’t the easiest form of youth rebellion to encourage, but research suggests longer term phone use might be more balanced with other habits.
Offer further help: There are very few organisations offering any sort of advice or support for mobile phone overuse in the UK. However, it might be worth working with colleagues, particularly pastoral leads, to formulate responses to the concerns raised above. A coordinated approach might be greatly appreciated by staff, parents and – maybe in the longer term – pupils.

Further information & resources

  • Alavi et al: Behavioral addiction versus substance addiction: correspondence of psychiatric and psychological views, International Journal of Preventative Medicine, 2012:
  • Calpbinici & Tas Arslan: Virtual behaviors affecting adolescent mental health: the usage of internet and mobile phone and cyber-bullying, Journal of Child Adolescent Psychiatric Nursing (32,3), 2019:
  • De-Sola Gutiérrez, de Fonseca, & Rubio: Cell-phone addiction, Frontiers in Psychiatry, 2016:
  • Harris et al: Problematic mobile phone and smartphone use scales, Frontiers in Psychiatry, May 2020:
  • Looke: Do you have ‘phantom vibration syndrome’? WEBMD, 2016:
  • Shoukat: Cell phone addiction and psychological and physiological health in adolescents, EXCLI Journal (18), 2019:
  • Sohn et al: The association between smartphone addiction and sleep, Frontiers in Psychiatry, March 2021:
  • Sui et al: Development of the smartphone addiction scale for college students, Chinese Mental Health Journal (28, 5), 2014.
  • Syvertsen & Enli: Digital detox: Media resistance and the promise of authenticity, 2020:
  • Thomee: Mobile phone use and mental health: A review of the research that takes a psychological perspective on exposure, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health (15, 12), 2018:
  • Thornton: The influence of the smartphone: Part 1, SecEd, May 2018:
  • Turkle: Alone together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other, Basic Books: 2011.
  • Wacks & Weinstein: Excessive smartphone use is associated with health problems in adolescents and young adults, Frontiers in Psychiatry, May 2021:
  • Wu et al: The mobile phone addiction and depression among high school students: The roles of cyberbullying victimization, perpetration, and gender, Frontiers in Psychology (13), April 2022:
  • Yan: Child and adolescent use of mobile phones: An unparalleled complex developmental phenomenon, Child Development, May 2017:

Photo credit: Marco Verch Photography (used under a Creative Commons Licence).

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