Parents against phone addiction in young adolescents

Technology is having a negative impact on our children’s mental health…

Topic areas

Mental health and well-being is fast emerging as the single biggest public health issue affecting young people today, both here in the UK and globally.
— Bristol University (The Guardian, Aug 22nd)

The problem

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You may have read or heard on the news the rising concerns about mobile phone use in young people and the associations with mental health problems. Ideally, there would be a few watertight studies which confirmed the link and helped us as parents with our decision making. 

The majority of the current evidence on mental health in adolescents comes from correlational studies, studies that look at trends over time and possible causation. For example, the first evidence that smoking caused lung cancer came from looking at simple correlational graphs that showed lung cancer dramatically increased as the popularity of smoking went up. As you can see the increase in smoking is closely linked with an increase in lung cancer after approximately a 20 year time lag.

Figure 1

Figure 1


However, cigarettes were only recognised as the cause of the epidemic in the 1940s and 1950s. Despite the mounting evidence, cigarette manufacturers continually disputed the link as part of a conspiracy to salvage cigarette sales. 1

Could the link between smart phone usage and adolescent mental health be a similar story to that of smoking and lung cancer?

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Like smoking, smart phone and social media use is a new trend which has become rapidly popular and has huge financial implications for large companies.

The headlines are full of reports that smart phones are damaging our children’s health from head teachers to child psychologists.

A study from Pew Research Centre in 2015 found that 92% of US teenagers go on line almost daily, with 24% saying they are online “almost constantly.”2

A recent British survey found that 72% of students said they spent anything between 3 and 10 hours online on an average day during weekends and holidays.3

Smartphone ownership has increased to close to half of 5-15s, driven by increases among 5-7s and 8-11s.4

There are concerns that the blue light of smart phones and their constant bleeping at night are stopping our children sleeping; that their high speed technology is contributing to ADHD; and that social media and cyber bullying is contributing to rising levels of anxiety and depression in young people. One of the strongest arguments against phone usage is linked to the unexplained rise in anxiety and depression in teenagers across the globe. Never before have we seen such a rise in mental health problems in our young adults. Depressions and economic hardships haven’t caused this effect before, and neither has exam pressure or poor job prospects. 5

PAPAYA proposes that smart phone and social media use in adolescents is similar to the cover up on smoking in the 1950s. It is popular, alluring and seemingly benign; yet driven by huge financial opportunities and actually harmful, isolating and leads to disease of the body and mind. We cannot claim conclusive evidence or large randomised control trials, but we can speak common sense and observe correlations that we don’t believe can be ignored for much longer.




You only need to walk down the street to see the distraction smart phones are causing. Coffee shops are full of people looking at their phones instead of each other, whilst school teachers are battling for pupil’s attention. A generation is emerging where every spare moment is consumed by their phone. Phones are stopping our young people to sleep at night and cause them to miss out on real life experiences in the day.



Sleep deprivation is linked to poor thinking and reasoning, susceptibility to illness, weight gain and it also affects mood. People who don’t sleep enough are prone to depression and anxiety. Although we can’t prove the path of causation, smartphones could be causing a lack of sleep which leads to depression, or the phones could be causing depression which leads to lack of sleep. 5

In a recent survey almost half (45%) of students admit they check their mobile device after going to bed with 23% checking their devices more than 10 times a night.

Almost all (94%) of these students are on social media after going to bed. 6

This might be partly explained by the fact that the thousands of children we talk to in schools tell us that their parents often don’t know how much time they’re spending on their devices overnight, or what they are actually doing online. This is a new and hidden world which adults can find hard to penetrate.

Social media and smart phones in adolescents is this is a risk you can afford to take?

Loneliness & Cyberbullying

The NSPCC delivered 14% more counselling sessions for loneliness in 2017/18; something that Childline attribute to the rise in social media use.
— The daily mail (July 4th 2018)

Social media is vastly alluring; it plays on our intrinsic need for relationships, affirmation and connection. However, rather than filling this need, it  leaves impressionable adolescents disconnected and spending less time relating face to face with their peers and more time in isolation.

Adolescents are relying on Facebook likes and instagram followers to build their self-esteem and sense of self rather than through real connection with real people.

It is ebbing away at their free time (some 21 hours a week on their phones alone), allowing them to spend hours staring at a screen rather than pursuing other interests, which could contribute to a rise in wellbeing. Cyberbullying means that victims take the unhappiness home with them 24/7, something driving young people to depression and sometimes, very sadly, to take their own lives.

-45% of 12-15s who go online say that in the past 12 months they have seen ‘something hateful on the internet directed at a particular group of people.
-25% of 12-15s say they have been contacted online by someone they don’t know.
-10% say they have seen something of a sexual nature that made them feel uncomfortable, either online or on their mobile phone.
-25% of 12-15 year olds say they have been bullied; either face to face or on social media.
Offcom report 2017 4

Low Self-esteem

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Self-esteem is the way individuals perceive themselves and their self-value; it encompasses both self-confidence and self-acceptance. The root of many mental health problems is low self-esteem - it’s hard to feel happy if you don’t like yourself. However, self-esteem in young people is being damaged by their need for peer validation on social media and the constant comparison with others. 

People are comparing their realistic offline selves to the idealized online selves of others, which can be detrimental to well-being and self-evaluation.7

Recent studies have found that frequent Facebook users believe that other users are happier and more successful, especially when they do not know them very well offline. 7

A few days ago I met a patient who we will call John. He was intelligent, good looking and sporty. He had done well at school, was from a nice family and was now studying for a good degree. Yet, he was profoundly depressed. I spend time exploring the roots of his depression and could find none of the usual triggers. After an in-depth conversation I established he had a very poor view of himself and was constantly comparing himself to others on Instagram. He felt that no matter how hard he tried and how much he went to the gym his body didn’t look as good as his friends in their posts.
— Case study, Dr Susanna Davies

Social media and smart phones in adolescents is this is a risk you can afford to take?

Anxiety & Depression

Mental health and well-being is fast emerging as the single biggest public health issue affecting young people today, both here in the UK and globally.
— Bristol University (The Guardian, Aug 22)

There is little conclusive research available in the UK to track mental health symptoms in adolescents and young adults. However, anecdotally it is clear to see that mental health problems are on the increase in the young and old.

At 14, when children reported their own symptoms, 24% of girls and 9% of boys were suffering from symptoms of depression.8

In 2015, suicide was the most common cause of death for both boys (17% of all deaths) and girls (11% of all deaths) between 5 and 19. 2

According to NHS data more than 70,000 people under 18 took antidepressants last year including almost 2,000 primary aged children.
— The Times, reported on July 21st 2018

A recent large US study found those adolescents’ depressive symptoms, suicide-related outcomes, and suicide rates increased between 2010 and 2015, especially among females. It showed that adolescents who spent more time on new media (including social media and electronic devices such as smartphones) were more likely to report mental health issues, and that adolescents who spent more time on non-screen activities (in-person social interaction, sports/exercise, homework, print media, and attending religious services) were less likely. 9

All screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all non-screen activities are linked to more happiness. 5

Social media and smart phones in adolescents is this is a risk you can afford to take?


(1) Tob Control. 2012 Mar;21(2):87-91. doi: 10.1136/tobaccocontrol-2011-050338. The history of the discovery of the cigarette-lung cancer link: evidentiary traditions, corporate denial, global toll.Proctor RN1.

(2) by Amanda Lenhart







(9) Increases in Depressive Symptoms, Suicide-Related Outcomes, and Suicide Rates Among U.S. Adolescents After 2010 and Links to Increased New Media Screen Time - Jean M. Twenge, Thomas E. Joiner, Megan L. Rogers, Gabrielle N. Martin, 2018