Text in which the author defends ideas and reaches conclusions based on his / her interpretation of facts and data

Why smartphones must be forbidden until the age of 16

As a clinical psychologist, I have been fighting on the front lines against teen suicide for a decade, and I have seen how the abuse of screens causes young people to miss out on life-coping skills, and deteriorates their mental health

uso del celular en menores de edad
Ana Galvañ

As a clinical psychologist, I have been devoting the last 10 years to the direct care of families with children under 18 years of age who decide to end their lives, or try to. In these years I have witnessed how resources for the care of people at risk of suicide have increased with the development of multiple suicide prevention plans, suicide hotlines, the creation of survivor associations and more. Yet, at the same time, I have seen all these efforts crushed. We are facing increasingly worrying figures. As coordinator of the Care Program for Suicidal Behavior in Minors at the Sant Joan de Déu Hospital in Barcelona, I am very familiar with this: in our emergency rooms we have gone from dealing with 250 episodes of suicidal behavior (thinking about it, making threats, taking steps and attempting it) in 2014, to 1,000 episodes in 2022.

In recent years, the influence of screens has come up with growing frequency when trying to explain how a minor can get to the point of wanting to take their own life. No, screens did not invent suicide, nor are they responsible for its existence. Still, in childhood and adolescence, they do seem to be, in part, one of the factors behind its rise, hand in hand with the increase in the new forms of violence to which they are exposed, and also, very importantly, the loss of life-coping skills. While suicide prevention provides minors with strategies to make the world a habitable place, screens rob many of them of their tools and deprive them of opportunities to acquire these skills. This is, in my opinion, the hidden cause.

In my office, I have been listening to these boys and girls carefully. They talk about situations of cyberbullying, sexual assaults made worse by the humiliation of being recorded and shared, the influence of countless social media profiles that encourage suicide. A deeper reality has emerged: now, they come with greater feelings of emptiness, with a completely passive attitude towards the world, incapable of coming up with ideas for their own situations, waiting for a kind of external, magical solution, in addition to their lack of a will to live, of a hunger for new experiences, saturated with content that has no meaning, no narrative.

Some of the causes have already been described in scientific studies and trials. Reading The Digital Cretin Factory, by Michel Desmurget, a doctor in neuroscience and director of the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research, yielded more than 1,082 bibliographical references that shed light on my daily life. A report (Increases in Depressive Symptoms, Suicide-Related Outcomes, and Suicide Rates Among US Adolescents After 2010), with data from half a million teens between the ages of 13 and 18, led by Jean M. Twenge, a psychologist from the University of San Diego, concluded that teenagers who spend more time in front of screens are more likely to develop significant mental health problems than those who devote more time to other activities.

The majority of teenage girls in the United States (57%) report having feelings of hopelessness and sadness (Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2021). The prevalence of suicidal ideation has been increasing in the United States between 2008 and 2019, rising from 9.2% to 18%, according to several studies (Suicide and Suicide Behavior, Nock et al, 2008; Global Lifetime and 12-Month Prevalence of Suicidal Behavior in Children and Adolescents between 1989 and 2018: A Meta-Analysis, Lim et al, 2019).

And how do screens impact them? Some have delays in their neurodevelopment, as found by the Associació Catalana de Llars d’Infants, the most important association of daycare centers in Catalonia, Spain, in a survey carried out among 110 daycare centers that was published on October 13. Among the surveyed centers, 80% detected a correlation between the number of children with a general level of underdevelopment and their overexposure to screens, which increases year after year. Here I want to highlight something that this survey points out: when parents, alerted by the centers, take the screens away from their children (to eat or while in the car, for instance), they improve. In other words, if rectified early, the damage is minimized.

The study Association Between Screen Time and Children’s Performance on a Developmental Screening Test (2019), published by the Journal of the American Medical Association, with data from 2,500 children between one and one and a half years of age, confirms that screen time can affect a child’s ability to develop optimally.

A large percentage of children between the ages of six and 12 eat with a screen or a mobile device in front of them, with the overweight and obesity problems this entails. In my experience, the internal processes of negotiation, emotional management and frustration tolerance that are put into practice by a child who is sitting in front of a plate without wanting to be there, following the instructions of an adult, are essential for their adult life. Not to mention the importance of being aware of the act of eating itself and the narrative capacity of small things, an activity with a beginning, middle and end, as well as the tolerance to waiting, which in therapy requires a training process in which the child is given waiting times that increase progressively, first training them to hold on for five minutes, then 10... yes, some skills must be trained, and what better training to wait than a trip by car or public transportation, those endless “Are we there yet?”

A screen is not a resource to make a child eat, nor for them to be entertained on a car trip. A screen is an obstacle in the development of their resources to tolerate daily life. The same thing happens with boredom, a great source of imagination and the driving force of creativity. The screen is not a resource to fend off boredom; it is the best way to hinder the development of their own resources, and imagination’s greatest enemy.

The inclusion of an element as powerful as screens in the lives of our minors took place without hesitation, without the basic question: why? Someone trusting and naive might believe that the tech giants are intensely competing for the behavioral surplus of the age of surveillance capitalism that American sociologist Shoshana Zuboff warns about. That they do it at such a speed that it prevents them from carrying out studies to analyze the consequences of their innovations. In Stolen Focus, Scottish author Johann Hari interviewed important Silicon Valley developers who were unable to stay in business. Some even confronted their peers. But they were deceiving themselves: they were not facing them. They were facing the guilt for what they had been doing. They were facing their past selves.

Steve Jobs used to limit how much technology his children used at home, as he told The New York Times journalist Nick Bilton. It is also a well-known fact that in many Silicon Valley schools, minors have access to blackboards and chalk, not screens. It does not seem very ethical to do business with something that more and more studies point out can cause harm to children. Nor is it to blame other parents, calling them irresponsible, ignorant and incompetent, in a sort of logical/sinister philosophy of “I protect mine, let others protect theirs.”

There is nothing simpler than considering devices to be something simple. To underestimate their power and their potential for penetration and interference in different human spheres. No, screens are not a simple explanation for the increase in discomfort detected in our minors. As we have seen, they interfere with the development of their skills during early childhood and adolescence. And we subject those minors with fewer resources to face life to immeasurable risks, exposing them to images of unattainable success, to constant comparison, to the propaganda and manipulation of radical groups, with early exposure to scenes of violence and sex, or both at the same time, with a greater risk of perpetrating violence against others and against themselves, and with a greater tendency to expose themselves to situations of victimization.

Adolescence is a difficult stage, and that does not seem likely to change; from an evolutionary standpoint, that is way it has to be. But now, scientific evidence is also linking the disproportionate increase in this malaise to the abuse of screen time. And it is clear that we are not responding accordingly. The way we allow it or passively hope that the matter to resolve itself is outrageous. More so when the hours our children spend in front of screens continue to increase (the Covid-19 pandemic played a role in this trend). In the United States, the estimated daily screen time is nine hours for 11- to 14-year-olds and three hours for children under two years of age (Technology in education: A tool on whose terms?, UNESCO, 2023). The same goes with the age when children are given their first device, which in some environments is occurring earlier and earlier.

The arguments that have been used to get access to our children are also simple. For instance, that screens are, or can be, a resource for children and teenagers, who will need them to get ahead in life. This idea could not be more attractive to parents, providers of resources par excellence. However, childhood and adolescence are two stages of continued development in which the opportunities to improve one’s own resources are much more important than the provision of external resources. Any help or resource that aims to make the challenges of childhood or adolescence easier can have the serious potential of preventing that person from developing a skill. When did we think that distraction, that great enemy of learning, could improve academic performance? That the best way to learn is to ignore the learning process? How will I be able to face the next thing I have to learn?

In terms of relationships, the dynamic is exactly the same. Screens have been promoted as a resource to socialize and interact. We have even been told that when we are looking at a screen we are connected. That was another brilliant piece of advertising engineering. Now it turns out that when I lose sight of my parents during childhood, when I lose sight of my siblings and friends, when the tip of my finger touches a cold screen, I am more connected than when I touch other hands, someone’s skin. I am more connected when I look at a screen than when I look into someone’s eyes. No, in childhood and adolescence, screens do not promote communication, friendship or family relationships.

Thanks to the courage of some school principals, we have seen that the only thing that happens when you take the phones away from a group of minors is that life continues its course, and interaction, movement and visible conflict emerge with force. During childhood and adolescence, all the time spent looking at a screen is time away from the development of social skills, from the development of empathy.

There is a way to prevent suicide in childhood and adolescence that requires very few resources. The best way, from my point of view, is none other than the prohibition of smartphones until the age of 16, with a restrictive regulation of use between the ages of 16 and 18. Before the age of six, a child should never have access to a screen, and after that age no more than half an hour a day. Never before going to school, never at least two hours before going to bed, never in multitasking mode (while eating, traveling or doing homework, for example). As for me, I have cleared my house of all the screens that used to be available so that my Spanish-speaking children could watch Paw Patrol in English on the grounds that it would help with their language skills. How wrong I was.

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