There is no doubt we live in rapidly changing times. The smartphone was released just 9 years ago (July 2008) in Australia. It has had a huge impact on us all. We often think of smartphone use as something young people struggle to manage, but perhaps that is not a complete picture.

Of all Australians over 18, 84% of us own or have ready access to a smartphone. This figure is likely to rise as the 2G network is turned off soon and all those with older phones have to upgrade or not use a mobile phone. 84% is one of the highest adult penetration rates in the world. Only 7% of Australian adults do not have a mobile phone.

Collectively, we adults interact with our smartphones many millions of times a day. An amazing figure, taken from Deloitte’s Mobile Consumer Survey 2016: The Australian Cut: Hyper connectivity: Clever consumption. This survey suggests our phones are always by our sides.

The thought of losing it is worse than losing a wallet or purse.
10% of all phone users, adults that is, reach instinctively for their phone upon waking up and not just to turn off the alarm.
One third has looked at their phone within 5 minutes of waking up
50% have checked their phone within 15 minutes of waking.
The same is repeated in preparing for sleep. (We all know that getting a good night’s sleep has benefits for our physical and mental wellbeing.

Screen time just before going to sleep, can confuse the brain into thinking it is still daytime, and inhibit the process of falling asleep.) And despite recommendations that screens be turned off at least an hour before turning out the lights, only 25 per cent of adult Australians do so. (‘Blue light’ apps are available but I doubt all 75% who use their phones just before sleep time use this feature.)

30% of adult Australians interact with their phones at night and almost half of the 18-24-year-old age group respond to messages during the night.
A third of us use our devices ‘always’ or ‘very often’ when spending time with friends, walking or watching TV.
Almost 25% of mobile consumers use their phones ‘always’ or ‘very often’ talking to friends and when eating at home, or eating out with family or friends.
And a disturbing 10% of us use our smartphones when crossing the road or driving.
Overall, 1 in 5 adult Australians admit to arguing with their partner at least monthly over their phone use.

The ABC’s Life Matters program has recently investigated children’s views of their parent’s phone usage and the material is published as an article ‘It makes me feel angry’: Kids speak out about their parents’ phone use. The program suggests that if the six- and seven-year-olds of Manor Lakes College, west of Melbourne, are anything to go by, many children feel “sad”, “ignored” and “angry” about their parents’ mobile phone use.

Kate Highfield, a senior lecturer in education at Swinburne University was interviewed on the program and she said she wasn’t surprised by the children’s responses. She explained that if a child’s view of a smartphone or tablet was watching media or playing games, they would assume that parents are doing the same.

Parents are a child’s first teacher and the most important model of what is appropriate behaviour and Highfield was clear that good communication was key when it came to smartphone use.
It would seem we are just nine years into a revolutionary change in social behaviours. Behaviours that affect all of us, adult, teenager and child alike.

Recently I have read papers that suggest that teenagers are struggling due to the advent of smartphones. One paper in question is published in the September 2017 edition of The Atlantic (I’m not sure why but a bit early). The article is Have Smartphones destroyed a generation, and it is written by Jean Twenge, Professor of Psychology at San Diego University. Her area of research is in generational differences.

Twenge proposes that the current generation of adolescent people are demonstrating significant differences with previous generations with reference both to their behaviours and to their emotional states. Her thesis is that “The arrival of the smartphone has radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives, from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health.”

She suggests that there has been a seismic shift for the current generation of teens. She writes “… the twin rise of the smartphone and social media has caused an earthquake of a magnitude we’ve not seen in a very long time, if ever. There is compelling evidence that the devices we’ve placed in young people’s hands are having profound effects on their lives—and making them seriously unhappy.”

A counter view is expressed by Alexandra Samuel, a technology writer, researcher and speaker. She is the author of Work Smarter with Social Media (Harvard Business Review Press, 2015), and is a regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review and The Wall Street Journal. Alex holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from Harvard University and a B.A. from Oberlin College.

Samuel’s article, Yes, Smartphones Are Destroying a Generation, But Not of Kids, suggests that levels of teen happiness and unhappiness are largely constant through 20 years, though there may be a slight dip recently. She describes a perspective similar to that provided by Deloitte’s data outlined above.

She suggests that as parents we need to consider another possible explanation for why our kids are increasingly disengaged. Samuel suggests it is because we’ve disengaged ourselves; we’re busy looking at our screens.

As parents, we are, indeed, influenced by competing demands. When busy, we can resort to a style of behaviour described by Zussmann in 1980, long before smartphones, in his publication Situational Determinants of Parental Behavior: Effects of Competing Cognitive Activity.

He describes behaviour that might be described as minimal parenting. At this level of parenting, positive behaviours are regarded as expendable and are curtailed when our limits are reached. Although we remain available to our children, we are slower to respond and interact with them for shorter periods. However, we continue to exert some control over the children, and negative behaviours may be increased in minimal parenting because they are seen as methods of obtaining compliance.

Zussman’s experiment suggests that when parents are distracted such as the Deloitte’s survey describes, it’s the encouragement of children that can suffer, more than the control.

Like many people, my constant screen interactions are a matter of professional obligation as well as a personal decision, so my life is a constant juggle between live, real world interactions with the people at home of an evening and social media.

Perhaps, it is us, as parents that need to develop habits we can model to our children that help our children understand and gain from the potential of social media, smartphones and whatever comes along next. Read Samuel’s article for a hint of what is next.

As parents, we have a role to be digital mentors to our children, actively encouraging them and offering support and guidance on how to use technology appropriately for their age. Mentoring our children means letting go of a one-size-fits-all approach and instead working on the online activities that enrich (not impoverish) your child.

Mentoring means talking regularly with your kids about how they can use the social media, digital access and apps responsibly at age-appropriate levels and with joyful success. My suggestion is to have these conversations based on the values of respect, responsibility, resilience, and care and empathy with reciprocity of expectations and behaviours as the goal.

Mentor parents recognise that their kids need digital skills if they’re going to thrive in a digital world and thoughtfully embrace technology in their own lives. They do so in order to offer guidance on the human and values-driven aspects of life, both online and in the physical world.