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Half of teens 'feel addicted' to smartphones. What's to be done?

Teen smartphone addiction: A new poll suggests teen smartphone use is worrying their parents – and themselves. Half of teens asked in a poll said they 'feel addicted' to their smartphones.

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Michael Nathanson plays on the iPad with his son, Beckett, in the living room of their home on Jan. 15, 2013 in Somerville, Mass. Beckett learned how to unlock his parent's smartphone with the swipe of his finger at nine months old. A new poll suggests teen smartphone use is worrying their parents – and themselves.

Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor

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Many Americans have become so compulsive in their smartphone use that, rather than being technology "users," they are instead being "used" by their mobile devices.

"What people don’t realize is that their smartphone is shaping them, it’s conditioning them," says David Greenfield, founder of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction and assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine. "As a culture we have crossed the tipping point of overusing the technology." 

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Smartphone use by American teenagers is reaching new heights that undermine family relationships, according to a poll by Common Sense, a non-profit that advocates for 21st-century children and families. The study surveyed adults and teenagers from the same households – 620 of each – to study not only how much smartphone use is happening, but also its influence on families. 

Half of teens said they "feel addicted" to their smartphones, and a third of families in the poll argue about it every day. 

Also enlightening was the poll's data on parents' use of digital devices, which suggests many take a "do as I say, not as I do" approach to mobile devices and parenting. Although 66 percent of parents think their teen is too connected to a mobile device, they are not doing much better, as 51 percent of teens said they have watched their parents use smartphones while driving.

"Families are a little bit remiss in not setting boundaries," Dr. Greenfield says. “I think families have been sucked into the whole idea of 'a family that has phones together stays together.'"

While phones can enable family connections across geographic distance, most people do not use their smartphones for conversation, and 72 percent of teens and 48 percent of parents surveyed felt they had to respond to messages or notifications on their cell phones immediately. This leads to families that are present physically but not truly interacting.

Personal technology is growing ever-more pervasive, and although stopping the avalanche of digital connection is not possible – or necessarily even desirable – smartphone users can set boundaries. Parents increasingly need to teach their children about "moderated use" of smartphones, in the same way they teach healthy eating.

"We set limits," Greenfield says. "If we don’t, it’s not going to set limits on its own."

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Parents can help their children by modeling good digital habits, wrote Amy Joyce, the editor of On Parenting, for The Washington Post. Making sure media use is age-appropriate and then discussing the content can help teenagers become responsible consumers rather than "passive users."

"Connect with your kids and support learning by talking about what they’re seeing, reading, and playing," Ms. Joyce wrote. "Encourage kids to question and consider media messages to better understand the role media plays in their own lives."

Setting boundaries, such as no phones at the dinner table or a 9 p.m. media curfew, can also help, Joyce wrote. Excessive digital multitasking can be curbed, perhaps with smartphones being put away during homework time.

Setting such boundaries means the user is controlling the Internet, rather than being controlled by the device.

"I think boundaries are critical," Greenfield says. "We have to make decisions about mindful computing.”