The Current

When does a teenager's cellphone use become an addiction?

In the world of smartphones and teenagers, we're asking: Who's in charge?
You're not alone if there's a teenager in your life who simply will not or cannot put down their smartphone. But when does it become a technology addiction? (Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)

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When the Toronto District School Board blocked all Wi-Fi and network access to Snapchat, Netflix and Instagram in schools until the end of June, many students had to deal with withdrawal from their phones for the first time.

Consider the panic when a Victoria, B.C., school announced it's implementing a cold turkey approach: banning cellphones altogether from its schools next September.

Lisa Pont works with young people who struggle with what she calls "problematic use" of cellphones and other technology. She says there are signs parents can look for to judge if a teen's love of technology has crossed a line.

"They may be choosing their phone over other things that they used to do," says Pont, a social worker at Toronto's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

She suggests looking for "changes in their mood or if they're irritable when they're away from their phone, lower grades, being tired because they're not sleeping as much." 

RelatedWhy technology is addictive and what to do about it

Pont doesn't advice parents that take a teenager's cellphone away, but rather find a middle ground. 
Are you a teenager who feels the constant pull of your cellphone? Let us know your thoughts on this story. (Kevin Coombs/Reuters)

"I think there are things that you can do that can make it less tempting," Pont tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

"Things like not keeping their phones with them at night ... Things like turning off alerts or putting their phones in airplane mode when they're studying ... Anything that can help people focus."

John Laprise has studied the history of technology and points out that previous technologies — everything from landlines to televisions to even the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons — have caused concerns over their effects on teenagers' mental health.

"I think [the concern] is overblown," Laprise tells Tremonti.

"I think it plays into this moral panic aspect."

He does suggest parents keep up an ongoing conversation with their children about their smartphone habits, from safety to making the best use of their time online.

But he points out that teenagers benefit from cellphones too — especially those who are in the "out group" in their school or community.

"Smartphones enable those people to build their own self-confidence in the course of using their technology," says Laprise.

And though he says technology can be a double-edged sword for those facing bullying, it can provide a support system.

"If you're facing any kind of discrimination, online you can find other people who have suffered similar discrimination," he explains.

"You build a bond with those people and you find support where it might be difficult to publicly ask for support from a peer group, or your peer group may be very, very small in real life. But you can find the larger peer group online that can be supportive and helpful."

Listen to the full segment at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Karin Marley and Willow Smith.

Take the challenge: Guess how much you use your phone, then track your use for 24 hours with one of these suggested apps. Let us know your results.