Smartphones, teenagers, and parents

The title of the encounter organised by L’ideatorio, USI’s service for promoting scientific culture, and the USI Institute of Public Health was "Smartphones and Teenagers." "Though we could have called it -Smartphones and Parents- because it is parents who hand out smartphones and lead by example," explained Giovanni Pellegri, head of L’ideatorio. Parents and especially mothers, given the clear majority of women in attendance at the West Campus Auditorium.

During the evening, the use, and abuse, of smartphones by preadolescents and adolescents was addressed from two different viewpoints. On the one hand, the situation in Ticino, with the results of the MEDIATICINO2.0 study presented by researcher and lecturer Anne-Linda Camerini of the USI Institute of Public Health and the HappyB study presented by Laura Marciano , currently a post-doc at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health; on the other hand, the experience of writer and developmental psychotherapist Alberto Pellai.

MEDIATICINO2.0 is a study carried out by Università della Svizzera italiana with the support of the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF). Anne-Linda Camerini stressed the importance of the study, first of all, because it tells through data the situation in Ticino. The information we have on the diffusion and use of new technologies generally comes from other countries, often from the United States, where, however, the situation can be very different from that in Switzerland and Ticino. Moreover, it is research that collects data in the same children over time, starting from the fourth grade for a total of eight years: it is what in jargon is called a "longitudinal study" allowing to investigate the phenomenon’s evolution.

The starting point is the international recommendations for a balanced lifestyle during adolescence: one hour of physical activity, eight and a half hours of sleep and less than two hours in front of screens. More than half of the girls and boys involved in the study meet at least two recommendations, and about a third meet all three. Thanks to a collaboration with the Department of Education, Culture and Sports of the Canton of Ticino, the study verified the impact on school performance. There is a correlation between good results and compliance with the recommendations, especially concerning time spent in front of screens.

By analysing the data, it was possible to group girls and boys into four groups with similar characteristics regarding online and offline activities presented by Laura Marciano. The first group is the "social-recreational," with intense online activity, particularly on social media, and many activities with friends. We then have the "weekend onlineers", similar to the previous group but with less time online. The largest group is the "balanced"; finally, we have the "disinterested," whose activities were not identified by the research.

The "balanced" have the best academic performance and low levels of problematic smartphone use and are characterised by the most time spent on offline activities such as sports and reading and moderate use of social media. Moderate but not absent: Marciano explained that if you look at the relationship between smartphone use and well-being, you are looking at a "bell-shaped" or inverted "u-shaped" trend. In other words, the amount of time spent in front of screens, about an hour and a half, is optimal. However, one cannot clearly reduce it to the quantitative aspect but also consider how that time is spent with digital media. In this regard, the HappyB longitudinal study, funded by the SNSF and currently underway, gives initial results on positive and negative activities for youth happiness, with data collected in four high schools in Ticino and then processed at Harvard.

The topic was then addressed by Alberto Pellai. He presented his experience as a developmental psychotherapist, which led him to deal with very different situations. The result was a book written with his wife and psychopedagogist Barbara Tamborini. The conclusive argument of the book is already clear from the title ’Forbidden to children under 14’.

Indeed, smartphones have a substantial impact on the growth of teenagers. Technology should be carefully considered when the brain has not yet completed its development and is particularly sensitive to immediate gratification. To bring some practical examples, Pellai talked about the effect that certain video games can have in activating violent instinctive reactions and their consequences, and about the idea of a healthy sexual relationship from exposure to pornography focused on abuse and humiliation. We cannot consider the smartphone a morally neutral tool because it is an environment where we place our needs and desires.

The evening is part of a series of activities developed by L’ideatorio in collaboration with the USI Institute of Public Health as part of the AGORÀ project "Are you connected? Towards the conscious use of smartphones among children and adolescents," supported by the SNSF to promote dialogue between researchers and the public.

L’ideatorio also offers schools an educational workshop to address discussions with children.