Local Group Takes on Teens’ Biggest Addiction: Their Phones

It’s no secret the youth of America are spending more and more time on smartphones. What’s becoming clearer, though, is the harm phones are causing them. As mothers, and smartphones users themselves, the founders of HeadsUp Rivertowns (Wendy Hart, Lisa Wade, and Allison Waguespack) instinctively know the implicit dangers posed by constant online access.  

“You’re addicted to the little endorphin hit you get when you look at your phone, because we get that little hit when we get a piece of new information,” said Allison Waguespack. “When you have it, it’s like crack in your pocket. You can get that hit over and over again whenever you’re at a stoplight, or waiting in line for the checkout, or when you have a free second to get an endorphin hit.” 

This availability to a quick online fix is what motivated them to create HeadsUp Rivertowns and bring awareness to schools and encourage parents to set better guidelines about phone usage. This intervention is particularly needed for growing minds. “The thing about delaying phones is brain development,” said Wendy Hart. “The prefrontal cortex doesn’t fully develop until you’re 25, and that’s where you make your rational decisions. You’re giving them (young people) something that they really aren’t physically, developmentally able to control.” 

Numbers behind the research back up these concerns. A recent study by the Pew Research Center found 95% of teens said they have a smartphone or access to one, and 45% of teens said they are online nearly constantly. Another study in the journal Preventive Medicine Reports showed young people who spend seven hours or more on screens are more than twice as likely to be diagnosed with depression or anxiety than those using screens for only an hour. The study also concluded young people on screens (excluding doing schoolwork) for a minimum of seven hours a day were more easily distracted, less emotionally stable, and had difficultly completing normal tasks and making friends.  

HeadsUp Founders Lisa, Allison and Wendy

Launched last October, HeadsUp Rivertowns currently works with schools in Dobbs Ferry, Hastings, Irvington, and Tarrytown/Sleepy Hollow. Its purpose is primarily to educate kids and their parents and suggest limits which families can use to as a starting to point to find what works best for them. Irvington’s PTSA quickly jumped on board with HeadsUp’s mission, adopting their message and pushing their initiatives like Wait Till 8th, which advises parents to hold off until kids are in eighth grade before buying them smartphones.  

“It’s a part of our world now. Just like sex education became part of public school curriculum, we should also have technology curriculum because there’s a lot of etiquette that kids need to learn about,” Lisa Wade said. Indeed, teaching about this growing concern is seen as synonymous to warning about drugs and alcohol to Waguespack, who said, “Screen addiction is a real addiction. There is fort myers substance abuse programs for the ones dealing with addiction. They have rehabs for it now.” 

Outside of schools, HeadsUp aims to get communities involved. “It’s easier to do with numbers. It’s not something we can do in a box,” said Hart. Suggested activities for parents include Screen Free Sunday—a challenge for families to spend the day together each week sans phone—and perhaps their biggest initiative, Gray for a Day. For this, users turn their phone screens to grayscale mode on the first Thursday of every month to make them less enticing.  

HeadsUp suggests parents test the effectiveness of switching to grayscale mode themselves. “Do it, try it for an hour and then switch back to color and it’s this sensory overload that happens in your brain, and that’s what’s happening each time you look at it, but you don’t realize because it’s so dramatic when you go from gray,” said Waguespack. “One student was talking to me about when he went to gray, and he said, ’I didn’t like it, because it’s like reading a book. I don’t really like to read when I’m not in school.’ In my mind, I was like that’s exactly the point, it’s taking that endorphin rush out of the experience of reading and just dumbing it down for your brain, but your brain needs that. Your brain can’t work overstimulated, and we’re so overstimulated.” 

Getting to grayscale isn’t so easy, which is intentionally done by phone manufacturers. As Wade said, “These are major companies with a lot of money behind them and they staff expert psychologists, specifically to get us on our phones and to get us addicted.” It takes several steps to get to the mode on iOS and Android devices, but once you find it, you can set up a shortcut toggle to easily access it. To aid you in going gray, HeadsUp includes instructions on how to find the mode on your phones by clicking on “Gray for a Day” under “Initiatives” at the top of their organization’s web site.   

While the group gets access to some PTSA money, they’re looking to fundraise for other projects to promote smartphone overuse awareness, like bringing in experts to speak at schools. They hope to expand HeadsUp to other areas, but for now, they’re solely focused on individual schools in their surrounding communities. Other groups have warned about screen time, but HeadsUp Rivertowns sets themselves apart by offering tips to prevent potential long-term hazards, not avoid the unavoidable reality of kids owning smartphones. 

“We look at the immediate need,” said Wade. “I’m sending my kid to walk to school this morning, and wouldn’t it be nice if he could just text me back, knowing that he’s arrived? It starts with that, then spirals down into there’s Fortnite (see Fortnite story) on that phone, and there’s Snapchat, and that phone is in the classroom, and how did this happen and what can I do about it?” 

The HeadsUp founders also recognize kids aren’t the only ones at fault, and they ask parents to serve as better role models. Waguespack said, “I was having a conversation with someone the other day, and they were like, ‘I can’t read The New York Times Magazine articles anymore; they’re too long. I used to love them, but now I can’t focus long enough to read them.’” 

“Technology isn’t bad. It’s how we’re using it. We need to not stop using it, but use it in a smart way,” said Wade. 

For more information about HeadsUp Rivertowns, including tips on fighting phone addiction and links to articles covering its dangers, see www.headsuprivertowns.com. 

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About the Author: Jon Jackson