Owning and communicating on a smartphone is a very normal part of life and for young people, their childhood and adolescence has coincided with this rise in mobile technology. An Ofcom report found that 83% of 12-15 year olds now own their own smartphones and 69% have a social media profile.

Moderate smartphone use can have many benefits for young people, helping them to make and maintain friendships, gain support and connect with people with similar life experiences. However, when smartphone use becomes excessive, it can increase emotional distress, lead to higher rates of anxiety and depressive symptoms, reduce self-esteem and significantly disrupt sleep. These negative effects can then cause a vicious circle; if young people are struggling with difficult emotions as a result of their smartphone use, this can then lead to them becoming withdrawn and using their smartphones even more as a means of escaping the ‘real world’ and their feelings.

Dr Hayley van Zwanenberg, Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist at Priory Wellbeing Centre Oxford, says: “I have seen a rise in young patients citing use of social media as a major contributing factor to their developing depression, anxiety and eating disorders.”

The pressure to be ‘perfect’

When Priory consultants recently visited a school, they found that many young people felt that it was normal and necessary to alter their photos before putting them on social media.

When a young person spends time scrolling through retouched photos of peers, celebrities and influencers on social media, they can start to judge themselves against what they see, leaving them feeling ‘less than’. As they come to believe that their appearance and life are ‘not enough’ in comparison to what they scroll past on their smartphones, their confidence can take a hit.

Lowered self-esteem can then lead to a young person attempting to copy the ‘perfect’ photos they see on social media. As well as doctoring social media images, some go to more extreme lengths to imitate the photos in real life, dramatically changing their appearance or their body in an attempt to ‘fit in’. This can lead to self-esteem and body issues, as well as the development of mental health conditions and eating disorders.

Appearing ‘popular’

For many young people, the number of ‘likes’, views, comments and followers that they get equates to their level of popularity amongst their peers. This can lead young people to place their entire self-worth on the amount of positive engagement they receive on social media.

Over time, the pressure of this popularity contest can lead to ongoing stress and anxiety, as young people feel as though they can’t disconnect from their phone for fear of being left out or missing out. This pressure has been known to result in young people posting more extreme photos and videos, and leaving their profiles public, in order to receive a greater number of responses.

‘Inescapable’ cyberbullying

A survey by the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) and Digital Awareness UK found that 57% of the young people they asked had received abusive comments online.

Cyberbullying exposes a young person to extreme stress and anxiety on a daily basis, which can dramatically impact their school and home life as well as their emotional health. It can leave the young person feeling on-edge and distracted, causing them to repeatedly think about and check their phone as the fear of what is being said about them online remains at the forefront of their mind.

Being bullied, whether offline or online, can also reinforce a young person’s belief that they are ‘less than’, and significantly reduce their self-esteem.

How to encourage young people to switch off their smartphones

When a young person uses a smartphone, it stimulates the ‘reward centre’ of the brain. The ‘likes’ and other positive engagement they receive causes a spike in dopamine, the brain’s ‘feel-good chemical’. This, in turn, motivates them to spend more time on their phone in order to experience this rush of excitement again and again.

While it is important to encourage young people to step away from their smartphones, we understand that this can be an ongoing battle. A recent Priory Group survey found that more than half of parents who have 10 to 18 year olds argue weekly with their children about the time they spend in front of a screen. Around a quarter say they argue with their child every day.

To tackle excessive smartphone use, it is important for young people to be active, investigate the real world, and interact with peers face-to face.

Encouraging a child to take part in youth clubs, sports groups or activities with their friends gives them more opportunities to meet and socialise with people. Also spending time together as a family away from screens can help them to connect with the real world. Rather than relying on technology for hits of dopamine, these experiences allow them to get bursts of happiness by connecting with family and friends and engaging in hobbies that they enjoy.

Getting a child to take part in hobbies and activities away from their phone can also boost their self-esteem. They can start to recognise their own skills and qualities, and come to understand their own self-worth, rather than constantly comparing themselves to others.

It is also worth helping young people to learn how to regulate their own use rather than saying when they should and shouldn’t be on their smartphone. Involving them in discussions, educating them about pros and cons, and talking to them about taking responsibility themselves and setting their own boundaries is often more effective than dictating rules.