Are smartphones the new cigarettes?

By Kathleen Tullie, Senior Director of Social Purpose Reebok and founder & executive director, BOKS

Those of you that are my age can probably remember a time when buying a pack of cigarettes was the norm – “lighting up” was a welcome break in the day – and no one looked down on you for doing so. I realize the younger you are, the less believable this scenario is. But believe me, there was a time that no one really knew that cigarettes were bad for you.

Today, I look around at the tops of people’s heads (as they stare down at the light from their phones) and can’t help but wonder if this new version of “lighting up” is going the way of cigarettes? In the future will your smartphone come with a Surgeon’s General Warning? Will MTV start a Truth campaign to educate young people to the dangers of technology? Will technology providers like Apple and Facebook be demonized like Tobacco companies? This may sound ridiculous, but the more research that comes out on the effects of technology, the more real this becomes.

For example, Jean Twenge, Professor of Psychology, San Diego State University and her colleagues, recently published and in-depth research paper called – “Increases in Depressive Symptoms, Suicide-Related Outcomes, and Suicide Rates Among U.S. Adolescents After 2010 and Links to Increased New Media Screen Time.” In this extensive research, Twenge found a direct correlation between the rapid adoption of smartphone use and an equally rapid increase in teen depression and suicide rates (according to the Pew Research Center, smartphone ownership crossed the 50 percent threshold in late 2012 – right when teen depression and suicide began to increase).

Solely blaming screen time for a generation’s unhappiness seems like a stretch – but it’s not just the screen time that’s of concern it’s what screen time is replacing – physical activity and social connections. According to the research, 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 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.

I’m not a subject matter expert and I won’t pretend to have the answers on the appropriate amount of time you should allow your children to use their devices (if you want more on that I’d recommend Anya Kamenetz’s The Art of Screen Time). But what I can recommend, and I have found myself a bit of an expert in, is movement as medicine.

Recently, Mass General Hospital and Harvard Medical School conducted a study on children who participated in physical activity first thing in the morning for 3 days a week – in addition to improved BMI, participants also had better scores regarding their engagement in schoolwork, and significant improvements in mood, vitality and energy.

I have seen firsthand through my work with BOKS, that morning exercise makes children happier, more social and more engaged in classroom activities. This was true 9 years ago when we started the program and it’s even more important today, as sport and fitness now represent one of the only times in our day when we put down our screens and truly live in the moment.

The need for movement in the days of screen addiction became very clear in a recent study of young girls and boys in the UK. Experts warned that there is a “direct correlation” between a lack of physical activity by young British girls and them having poorer mental health and lower aspirations than their male counterparts. While data also shows that girls are more likely to own and actively use smartphones than boys.

I’m not saying we should all completely get rid of our phones or start wearing the tech-equivalent of a nicotine patch (technology has many benefits including the power to connect people in new ways). What I am saying is that we need to encourage balance in our children at a young age. Even if your child isn’t into sports – encouraging them to put their phones down and move will not only benefit their bodies and minds but will force them to take a break from “lighting up” on their screens – which we should all be doing every day.