The Major Issues with Teenagers’ Cell Phone Use (and What to Do About It)

June 7, 2024

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As much as cell phones have revolutionized the way we communicate and access information, they also present a lot of challenges, particularly for our youth. As a clinical social worker, I see teenagers face four key issues with these devices: bullying, reduced coping skills, self-esteem issues, and the impact on brain development.

Bullying

With the rise of social media and various communication apps, bullying has taken on a new form. It lurks behind screens and invades the safety of teenagers’ homes. Cyberbullying, whether it’s through hurtful messages, spreading rumors or sharing embarrassing photos, is having devastating effects on a teenager’s mental health. The constant connection provided by cell phones means that there’s no escaping that type of harassment, leading to increased mental health challenges for young people.

Reduced Coping Skills

Teenagers are turning to their phones as a crutch during challenging times, instead of developing healthy coping mechanisms. Instead of facing difficult situations head-on, they’re texting their parents to pick them up or using their phones as a means of escape in social settings. While it may provide temporary relief, it prevents them from learning how to navigate and overcome life’s obstacles. It also hinders their growth and resilience. 

Now, when it comes to safety or truly challenging situations, it is completely appropriate to reach out to an adult to come get them. However, I’ve personally seen a rise in school avoidance with parents wanting to support their children no matter what. I was raised in a time where the school secretary had to call your parent, and that extra step of inconvenience was enough for me to find a way to push through. If I had had a cell phone in middle or high school, I can guarantee I would have texted my mom to pick me up if I was having an off day. I can guarantee she wouldn’t have questioned me and would have picked me up. 

But, I needed to learn how to sit in the uncomfortable to find my personal strength and resilience, and that ultimately helped me. When we give teenagers an out, they’ll take it. It’s not because they’re lazy or rude, but because they are still developing their sense of self, their confidence, their voice and their coping skills. 

Self Esteem

Every teenager has social media apps on their phone. These spaces have become battlegrounds for comparison, where teenagers constantly measure their worth against carefully-curated images and highlight reels of their peers. The pressure to fit in and portray a perfect life online can take a toll on their self esteem and lead to feelings of inadequacy, loneliness, and especially body-image issues.

The dopamine hit from likes and comments may offer momentary validation, but it’s fleeting and often leaves teenagers craving more. This is an issue not only for teenagers, but adults as well. I know I am very present on social media, and it is a balance and a challenge that I’ve worked through personally in my adult years. Social media was only present when I was a senior in high school, so my generation caught the tail end; these kids today have so many more challenges than we ever had.

Brain Development

Now, those previous points are important, but why they are important comes back to a teenager’s brain development. It’s helpful to understand the neuroscience behind it all. The teenage brain is still developing – plain and simple. So excessive phone use, especially during this critical period of development, can have detrimental effects on the brain. Studies have shown that heavy phone and social media use can lead to decreased attention spans, impaired cognitive function, and even changes in brain structure.

Key Aspects of Teenage Brain Development

  1. Prefrontal Cortex Development:
    • The prefrontal cortex, responsible for executive functions like planning, impulse control, and decision-making, is still maturing during adolescence. This part of the brain does not fully develop until the mid-20s. Giving an adolescent free rein with a cell phone when this part of their brain is still developing is like giving a toddler free access to paint and then wondering why everything in sight is painted. Their brains are still learning and adapting to how to set boundaries.
  2. Limbic System Sensitivity:
    • The limbic system, which includes structures such as the amygdala (a part of our brain that processes a lot of emotions), is involved in emotional responses and reward processing. The limbic system is a group of brain structures that play a key role in emotions, memories, and how we respond to rewards and punishments. For teenagers, the limbic system is particularly important for understanding impulse control and emotional responses.
    • Think of the limbic system as the brain’s emotional engine. It’s the part that revs up when teenagers feel strong emotions like excitement, anger or fear. It’s also the part that makes activities feel rewarding and fun. In teenagers, the limbic system is very active and sensitive. This means they often experience emotions more intensely and may act on impulses more quickly than adults. For example, if something feels exciting or rewarding, a teenager’s limbic system might push them to do it right away without thinking about the consequences.
    • The prefrontal cortex that we talked about earlier helps to calm down the limbic system and make more thoughtful decisions. But again, the prefrontal cortex is still developing.

Neuroscientific Evidence

  1. Brain Imaging Studies:
    • Functional MRI (fMRI) studies have shown that excessive use of social media and smartphones is associated with alterations in brain regions related to attention, impulse control and emotion regulation.
  2. Dopamine Pathways:
    • Dopamine is a chemical in the brain that helps send signals between nerve cells. It’s often called a “feel-good” chemical because it plays a big role in how we feel pleasure and happiness. Here’s a simple way to understand it:
      1. Imagine dopamine as a messenger in your brain that delivers happy or exciting news. When you do something enjoyable, like eating your favorite food, playing a fun game or getting a compliment, your brain releases dopamine. This release makes you feel good and encourages you to do those activities again because they are rewarding.
      2. Dopamine also helps with other important functions like movement, learning and motivation. For example, it helps you focus on tasks and feel motivated to complete them. Dopamine is like a special helper in your brain that makes you feel happy, helps you move, and keeps you motivated.
    • Research indicates that the use of cell phones and social media activates the same dopamine pathways as addictive substances. This reinforces repetitive behavior and makes it difficult for teenagers to disengage from these platforms.
  3. Impact on Cognitive Control:
    • Studies have demonstrated that multitasking with digital devices can impair cognitive control and memory retention. This can, in turn, affect academic performance and learning outcomes.

Impacts of Cell Phones and Social Media

  1. Distraction and Reduced Attention Span:
    • The constant notifications and the immediate gratification can impair teenagers’ ability to focus and maintain attention. This can negatively impact academic performance and cognitive development.
  2. Sleep Disruption:
    • Exposure to blue light from screens can interfere with the production of melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep. Poor sleep can affect mood, cognitive function, and overall health.
    • Constant connection and responding can lead to stress and anxiety.
  3. Addictive Behaviors:
    • The design of social media platforms leverages the brain’s reward system, making it highly addictive. The release of dopamine in response to likes, comments and shares can reinforce compulsive use and lead to addictive behaviors.

So, with the neuroscience piece, we are asking teenagers – who are still developing their decision-making, impulse control and emotional regulation part of their brain – to be responsible with a tool that provides an addictive amount of dopamine and restructures their cognitive pathways. Something we often see as innocent is actually the most harmful item for our youth. Even the most mature adolescents need adult intervention and support surrounding cell phone use.

So, what can we do about these issues? 

As parents, educators and members of society, we have a responsibility to educate and empower our teenagers to navigate the digital world safely. We need to teach them about the importance of kindness and empathy online, encourage them to develop healthy coping skills, and foster a positive sense of self esteem that isn’t reliant on external validation. We also need to set limits and boundaries on screen time and model healthy phone habits ourselves, showing them that life exists beyond the confines of a screen.

While cell phones offer unparalleled convenience and connectivity, they also pose significant challenges for our teenagers. From cyberbullying to self-esteem issues and the impact on brain development, the negative effects cannot be ignored. It’s time for us to take action, to advocate for responsible phone use, and to create a digital environment that nurtures rather than harms our youth. Together, we can empower our teenagers to thrive in a digital age while preserving their mental health and well being.


This content was originally presented by our counselor Amanda in partnership with MREC at their Town Hall Discussion. You can watch and listen to the presentation and discussion here:

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