Tackling Teenage SmartPhone Addiction

By Wiam Hasanain and Nora AlJindi

Source: Shutterstock


In this age of connectivity, 61% of parents classify their teens as “addicted” to their devices[1]. An overwhelming majority of teenagers – 80% to be exact – keep their mobile devices in their rooms. It is common for adolescents to reach for their phones upon waking, before sleeping, and during the night[2]. Such behavior is classified as Problematic Smartphone Use (PSU). Those who suffer from PSU tend to have anxiety, depression[3], poor physical health[4] , and deficient sleep quality[5].

Although 71% of adolescents are aware that developers intentionally design apps to be addictive[6], they are unable to control their dependence on smart phones. Teenagers view their devices as an integral medium to socialize, study, communicate and explore the world[7]. While the data is from a US study, anecdotal evidence from parents suggests teenage interaction with cell phones is common the world over.

Current Solutions

To preempt PSU at the individual level, some parents uninstall applications that take up the most time from their teens’. Others set boundaries for their children’s use of devices via parental control applications[8]. Ourpact is a parental control app that makes managing family devices at home possible. Through Ourpact parents can block internet access and specific apps with a click. Moreover they can schedule internet hours, monitor screen time and locate their children. In extreme cases, a copy of all messages sent or received can be obtained, too[9].

In some countries, the use of public policies to govern gaming and PSU addictions is common. In South Korea, the “Cinderella Act” prohibited users below the age of 16 from accessing gaming websites. This was later lifted in 2014[10]. Other solutions provided by the regional education offices range from in-school counseling to addiction camps.[11] The latter are facilities where attendees are stripped of all their tech devices for the duration of their stay. The approach focuses on finding alternative hobbies, such as art or sports.

Behavioral Interventions

Parents can help their teens by relying on behavioral science interventions. A starting point is to help them set explicit and measurable goals for daily/weekly smart phone usage. Specific goals are more likely to cause a change in behavior than those without a reference point, as stipulated by goal setting theory[12].

In tandem, jointly creating an action plan for teens to meet their phone usage goals can lessen teen’s usage of smart phones[13]. Per the Model of Action Phases, well-intentioned goals are challenging to implement unless there is a detailed plan on how to perform the desired actions[14].  Applications, such as Moment, that requests users to create daily actions linked to their goals for technology usage can aid in this. Teens can schedule time to catch up with their friends in person instead of online, or take up a new sport.

Forming implementation intentions[15], scenarios that define a good opportunity to act and a suitable response, are crucial to sticking to the action plan. Parents can create if-then scenarios with their teens to lower the “craving” for smart phones. A scenario may look like this, if I am asked by a friend to check their IG page then, I will say “sure, I’ll do that during my smart phone slot”.

Other techniques include creating an incentive. In a family setting, create a chart for the entire family with every member’s phone usage goals and achievements clearly displayed to enhance the sense of a friendly competition. Celebrating the winner each week in a manner that is meaningful to your family will positively reinforce the desired behavior. 

Lastly, defaults can be useful to change behavior in the environment. In a family setting, where children often reach for their phones at dinner time, change the default at dinner time to be sitting without looking at a smartphone.  Devices like Ransomly alter the settings of a room so that smartphones are blocked from using the internet[16].

Before applying any of these, we recommend role modeling the amount of phone usage you deem acceptable for your household. Teens will respond better if these “rules” are applied to everyone in the family, as opposed to only them.


Directing the teens’ smartphone addiction towards a healthier use of their devices is a mutual responsibility of both their schools as well as their homes. Getting used to having limitations on the use of their devices is a good start to get them acquainted with controlling their addiction. Furthermore, leading by example from parents and role models is critical to the spread of such “no-phone zone” culture. Deciding on where and when family members should all disconnect electronically to re-connect socially at home during their daily routine is important to fortify such culture. In addition, parents invest time and effort in spending enjoyable time with their teens with no electronic disturbances. Parents mirror the desired behavior to their children while practicing it more often. It is worth noting that around one third of variances in online media use are genetically influenced according to a UK study on a representative sample of 16 years old twins. The study expects that with time the environment will have a lesser role in determining online behavior at the expense of hereditary factors[17]

Understanding the reasons behind teens’ addiction is crucial to guiding their behavior towards a healthier use of their smartphones. Teens seek recognition, acceptance and belonging through their social media exposure and thus, are constantly checking their phones for any sort of emotional reward. By bridging this gap and enhancing their self-esteem through offline activities such as sports and community service, parents can fill the emotional tanks of their growing teens.




[1] Robb, M. R. (2019). The new normal: Parents, teens, screens, and sleep in the United States.
[2] Crone, E. A., & Dahl, R. E. (2012). Understanding adolescence as a period of social–affective engagement and goal flexibility. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 13(9), 636.
[3] Elhai, J. D., Dvorak, R. D., Levine, J. C., & Hall, B. J. (2017). Problematic smartphone use: A conceptual overview and systematic review of relations with anxiety and depression psychopathology. Journal of affective disorders, 207, 251-259.
[4] Kim, H. J., Min, J. Y., Kim, H. J., & Min, K. B. (2019). Association between psychological and self-assessed health status and smartphone overuse among Korean college students. Journal of Mental Health, 28(1), 11-16.
[5] Demirci, K., Akgönül, M., & Akpinar, A. (2015). Relationship of smartphone use severity with sleep quality, depression, and anxiety in university students. Journal of behavioral addictions, 4(2), 85-92.
[6]Teen Smartphone Addiction National Survey 2018, https://www.screeneducation.org/uploads/1/1/6/6/116602217/teen_smartphone_addiction_national_survey_2018_report_6.21.18_upload_version_1.2.pdf
[7] Wajcman, J., Bittman, M., Jones, P., Johnstone, L., & Brown, J. (2007). The impact of the mobile phone on work/life balance. Canberra: Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association & Australian National University.
[8] https://www.techadvisor.co.uk/feature/software/best-parental-control-software-3653840/
[9] https://ourpact.com/iphone-parental-controls-app/
[10] https://blogs.wsj.com/korearealtime/2014/09/02/south-korea-eases-rules-on-kids-late-night-gaming/
[11] https://www.npr.org/2019/08/13/748299817/hooked-on-the-internet-south-korean-teens-go-into-digital-detox
[12] Locke, E. A., Shaw, K. N., Saari, L. M., & Latham, G. P. (1981). Goal setting and task performance: 1969–1980. Psychological bulletin, 90(1), 125.
[13] https://phys.org/news/2018-12-behavioral-science-app.html
[14] Gollwitzer, P. M. (1990). Action phases and mind-sets. Handbook of motivation and cognition: Foundations of social behavior, 2, 53-92.
[15] Gollwitzer, P. M. (1999). Implementation intentions: strong effects of simple plans. American psychologist, 54(7), 493.
[16] https://www.wsj.com/articles/take-back-your-brain-from-social-media-1485968678
[17] Ayorech, Z., Von Stumm, S., Haworth, C. M. A., Davis, O. S. P., & Plomin, R. (2017). Personalized media: A genetically informative investigation of individual differences in online media use. PLOS ONE, 12(1), [e0168895]. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0168895


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