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Step away from the phone.
Image: Reuters/Edgard Garrido

Many parents believe their teens are too attached to their phones—maybe even addicted. In a surprise finding, a new report from the Pew Research Center shows that even teens think they have a problem.

According to the study, 60% of teens—those between the ages of 13 to 17—say that spending too much time online is a “major” problem facing their age group, with about nine in 10 teens dubbing it a problem. More than half of teens (54%) say they spend too much time on their cellphones, and 41% say they overdo it on social media.

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According to Common Sense Media, teens spend an average of nine hours a day online (paywall), compared to about six hours for those aged eight to 12 and 50 minutes for kids between 0 and eight. Any way you cut it, it’s a lot of time staring at a screen.

Exactly how concerned parents should be about their children’s screen time is a fraught question. Robert Lustig, a professor of pediatrics focused on endocrinology  at the University of Southern California and author of The Hacking of the American Mind, said at a conference in February that kids are definitely addicted. “It’s not a drug, but it might as well be. It works the same way… it has the same results,” he said.

Others have said that we have not reached the level of “addiction,” but that technology is still changing kids’ behavior in unhealthy ways. Tristan Harris, Google’s former in-house ethicist, co-founded the Center on Humane Technology. He often explains how tech companies design their products to get kids addicted.

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“When you wake up in the morning, you have certain goals for your life or for your kids,” he said at a conference about technology addiction earlier this year in Washington, DC. But when you open YouTube, “it doesn’t know any of those goals. It has one goal: to make you forget your goals and to keep you watching as many YouTube videos as possible.”

Recently, some major tech companies, including Google and Apple, have said they would introduce features to help parents and kids monitor and manage their time online.

Pew’s latest research suggests that teens are self-aware about the problem—but unable to rein themselves in. That makes sense when you consider that neurobiological and hormonal changes in teen brains elevate their desire to feel a sense of belonging, to be respected and admired (and how hopeless adults are at tearing themselves away from their phones). A startling 44% of teens tell Pew that they often check their phones for messages or notifications as soon as they wake up; 28% say they check at least sometimes.

The study, which included 743 US teens and 1,058 US parents of teens, was conducted between March 7 and April 10, 2018. In keeping with other findings, girls were more likely than boys to say they spend too much time on social media (47% vs. 35%) while boys were four times as likely to report spending too much time on video games (41% of boys vs. 11% of girls). The top emotion teens associated with not having access to their phones was anxiety (42%), with girls once again reporting more anxiety from phone deprivation than boys (49% to 35%).

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Meanwhile, parents are concerned about their kids’ smartphone use—and many are enforcing limits. About two-thirds of parents (65%) say they worry about their teen spending too much time in front of screens, and one-third say they worry a lot. More than half of parents (57%) say they put limits on their kids being online, or on their phones, with a quarter saying they often do this.

Perhaps most interesting was Pew’s findings on how kids feel about their parents’ use of technology. While 72% of parents say their teen is sometimes or often distracted by their phone while having real-life conversations, more than half (51%) of teens say the same about their parents. This raises the issue, highlighted by others including MIT professor Sherry Turkle, that parents would be smart to consider the technological behavior they model to their children.

There is some reassuring news in the study: Many teens are trying to cut back on their own, with 52% saying they have tried to reduce mobile phone use, and 57% saying they have tried to limit their use of social media. We all probably spend too much time online, but teens, at least, are trying to do something about it.