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Supporting teens' technology use

25 Oct 2019

While many young people are aware of issues associated with excessive smartphone use, they can still be reluctant to put them down, says a USC leading expert in brain development.

Dr Michael Nagel, Associate Professor in Child Development and Learning at USC’s School of Education recently spoke with parents and students of Moreton Bay schools at a free public event, Rewiring the Teenage Mind hosted by Pine River Rivers State High School. This event also featured staff from the Department of Education, Queensland Police and Children's Health Queensland who answered parents questions as part of a special panel session.

The evening also included a presentation, 'Traversing the pitfalls of technology and social media' by Detective Senior Sargent Scott Ballantyne from the Queensland Police Service who has over 20 years of experience in law enforcement, with a focus on technology-based investigations or support of such investigations.

Dr Nagel said the event was a chance to discuss what excessive smartphone use does to young brains, how technology is linked to a rise in mental health issues and how we can help foster healthy minds in young people.

“I focused on a pilot study I was involved in last year where we spoke to 1,300 young people in Australia and New Zealand. It was really interesting how much they were already aware of the negative effects of too much screen time,” he said.

“They know it contributes greatly to sleep disruption, anxiety and bad grades in school. But the interesting thing is that while the kids knew it was creating problems for them, they were reluctant to take action. It was almost to the point that they would be happy if someone told them to put their phones away so they didn’t have to make the decision themselves.”

Dr Nagel said smartphones were basically hand-held computers that offered immediate access to social media, gaming, adult content and more, presented in an addictive format that equated to “brain-hacking”.

“What a lot of people don’t understand is that they actually hire experts in addictive behaviours to help create these products for your phone, and that makes it extremely hard to turn away from,” he said.

Dr Nagel said while evidence did not yet exist about the long-term effects of smartphone use on young brains, there was still no evidence to suggest that devices helped children learn better.

“Parents who want to help restrict screen time need to set boundaries and parameters from a young age. If your kids have already grown up with screens, you can find a middle ground, like turning off devices at night. But parents need to do it too.”

Dr Nagel said it helped to promote activities that take the family away from devices, such as tech-free meal times, social occasions together, and getting outdoors and playing sports.

Dr Mike Nagel’s top tips to gain control over your smartphone
  1. Turn off all notifications, except those from people.
  2. Go grayscale. All those colorful apps? They're designed to trigger your brain's reward system and make you feel good.
  3. Limit what's on the home screen. If you don't see them right away, you'll be less likely to use them.
  4. Take social media off the phone. You'll likely be more intentional about when and where you dip into Facebook and Instagram if you only do it on a computer. If you're a regular social media user, you might be amazed to find how much time you actually spend on these apps.
  5. Type to find apps. Tapping is so easy! It's easy enough that we do it without even thinking sometimes. But if you need to take the time to type the name of the app, it gives your brain a second to consider whether Instagram or Candy Crush are that important at that time.
  6. Charge the phone outside of the bedroom. It's so easy to roll over, tap snooze on your buzzing phone, and delve right into the latest news or last night's emails. But is that really the habit you want to create?
  7. Go cold turkey. This one is tough, but effective! If you really want to use your phone less, remove all social media and game apps from your phone. It’s the easiest way to cut back, as these apps can easily gobble up so much of our time.
Other online resources for parents
  • ThinkUKnow: The ThinkUKnow Program began in 2009 and is an Australian Federal Police (AFP) evidence-based internet safety program. This website include helpful resources for parents
  • eSafetyCommissioner: The eSafety Commissioner (eSafety) is Australia’s national independent regulator for online safety and administers a complaints scheme for Australians under 18 who have experienced cyberbullying or seriously threatening, intimidating, harassing or humiliating online behaviour 
  • Child and Youth Mental Health Service (CYMHS), Children’s Health Queensland: specialises in helping infants, children and young people up to the age of 18 years who have complex mental health needs
Dr Mike Nagel presenting at the Rewiring the Teenage Mind event

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