By Reid Goldsborough

A poll of more than 1,200 U.S. parents and children by Common Sense Media, a San Francisco nonprofit that offers educational materials on digital media and safe technology for children, highlights a problem that's getting increasingly old: We're raising a generation of young people addicted to their smartphones and other digital devices.

In reporting its findings, Common Sense Media says overreliance on portable digital technology can cause problems, including unsafe driving, shoddy homework, and compromised family time. Multitasking while using a smartphone can hinder your ability to focus and prevent the formation of memories. Infrequent in-person interaction can interfere with the development of empathy.

Here are some of the poll’s key findings:

  • 50 percent of American teenagers feel addicted to their smartphones (most check devices at least every hour and feel pressured to respond immediately to messages received).
  • American children between 8 and 12 say they spend an average of six hours a day using digital media.
  • Teens between ages 13 and 18 spend nine hours a day using digital media.
  • Nearly 60 percent of parents of children between ages 12 and 18 say their kids can't give up their phones.
  • One-third of parents and children say they argue daily about screen time.

Because of their need to connect with their peers, teens are especially vulnerable to the instant gratification smartphones can provide through texting and social media posting. The irony is these fleeting virtual connections can damage your ability to connect in real life. But teens aren't the only ones affected. The Common Sense Media poll found that while 50 percent of children say they can't put their phones down, 27 percent of adults say the same about themselves. An astonishing 56 percent of adults say they check their smartphones while driving.

What to do? As with other aspects of parenting, part of the solution lies with setting boundaries for children. This also can be said about adult self-control, setting boundaries for our own behavior.

But it's not easy. The poll indicates half of parents and one-third of teens say they "very often" or "occasionally" try to cut down on the amount of time they spend with their devices.

Completely banning portable digital technology isn't a practical solution. Despite the problems, the upsides of the technology are too great. We just need better balance.

Common Sense Media offers these specific suggestions:

  • Talk about it. Have in-person discussions with your family about the role different media play in our lives. Lessons might not be learned instantly, but most children want to do the right thing.
  • Delve deep. Help kids understand the importance of concentration and delayed gratification. Dealing with boredom is an important life skill, no matter what people do in life. Focusing helps with homework, friendship-building, and driving as well as being a surgeon, roofer, or homemaker.
  • Create limits. Declare tech-free zones and times. For instance, when at the dinner table, tell children their phones have to stay in their pockets. Create an honor system where phones are used when doing homework only if the messaging is homework related. Prohibit phone use after a certain time, such as 9 or 10 p.m., which has the added benefit of facilitating sleep.
  • Set a good example. Never text while driving, which today is as much a contributor to car accidents as alcohol. Follow the law in your state or community about handheld voice talking while driving.
  • Seek outside help when appropriate. Sometimes children (and adults) become deeply dependent on digital technology in a way that harms their overall lives, and they are unable to change on their own. These days, many teachers, school counselors, clergy, and mental health professionals have experience helping others find a good balance here.  

—Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at reidgoldsborough@gmail.com or www.reidgold.com.