Our Young Athletes are Addicted to Tech. Time To Take Our Head Out Of The Sand And Address Its Harmful Impact.
Excessive smartphone & screen time has snuck up on us. It is having a detrimental effect on mental and physical health & performance. Now what?
The memory is crystal clear like it was yesterday. The 14u boys team had just finished a drill during practice and were brought in by the head coach to get instructions for the next step. While the ball players were gathering, one of them walked over to his gear on the side of the gym and picked up his phone. He wandered back to the group while scrolling through the phone. At that time, as an assistant coach on that team, I thought “oh boy, things have changed”. My son who was on that team did not have a phone yet. As parents, we had resisted handing over a phone, but that was becoming harder.
That was 8 years ago, and the pressure for young people to have a phone was well underway. My gut was telling me this was an issue that at the very least needed more discussion, more education. The impact on the young athletes attention span alone was going to require a strategy to deal with this new distractor.
I refer to the smart phone infiltration of our society as the “great sneak up”, as I cannot think of anything that has crept up on us all so quickly without us almost not even knowing it while having such a massive impact on our lives.
And yet here we are in 2021 and I don’t know of any social media instructional offered in school. Yet, is there a more pressing topic in our society today, especially on the tail end of a pandemic?
· From October 2021: 66% of smartphone users are addicted to their phones.
These stats are prior to the pandemic:
· Most adults spend almost 12 hours a day or more consuming electronic media, according to the Nielsen Total Audience Report.
· Teens spend an average of seven hours and 22 minutes on their phones a day, and tweens -- ages 8 to 12 -- are not far behind, at four hours and 44 minutes daily, according to a new report by Common Sense Media.
How do we deal with the impact of smartphones on our physical and mental health?
When it comes to our young people, first we must understand it:
There are many well documented reasons why children under 10 should not have a cell phone. Some of these include it changes their creative minds, affects their sleep, impedes their ability to learn, causes an addiction, minimizes their ability to deal with consequences, indirectly causes obesity, has a negative impact on mental health, causes behavioral problems, desensitizes them to violence. These are significant and I have not mentioned the impact on social interaction or lack thereof.
This is alarming and makes sense when we think about it. That is one major point here, we need to think about this impact.
What is not obvious is the impact smart phones have on our parenting and coaching. Distracted parenting is a thing, and it certainly can sneak up on us. One of my challenges when smartphones became the norm in the business world was how it interrupted my family time. Truth be told it snuck up on me, and it interrupted without me knowing it. I got upset about it, and thankfully, I started turning it off to be more present at home. Being present and interacting with our children and athletes is one of the most important skills in their development. Yet, this is compromised every time we get distracted by our phones.
From the above linked article:
1. “Language is the single best predictor of school achievement, and the key to strong language skills are those back-and-forth fluent conversations between young children and adults.”
2. “Toddlers cannot learn when we break the flow of conversations by picking up our cellphones or looking at the text that whizzes by our screens,”
The impact of the smartphone is not limited to those under 10. My 14u example above is just the tip of the iceberg. One major research finding is that prolonged use of smartphones causes mental fatigue and reduces the physical and technical performance of young footballers.
This Master’s Thesis in 2020 from the Norwegian School of Sports Sciences looked at the topic:
Only a few studies in which athletes’ use of smartphones and associated features (e.g., video calling, texting, social media, training apps) have been reported (Gould, Nalepa, & Mignano, 2020). Even fewer researchers have attempted to address the potential implications of smartphone usage on athletes’ performance outcomes. These few existing studies suggest that social media usage prior to sport events could disrupt or inhibit concentration (Encel, Mesango, & Brown, 2017), decision-making (Fortes et al., 2019) and sleep quality (Jones, Kirschen, Kancharla & Hale, 2019; Schaefer, 2018), leading to conditions where less than optimal performance is likely.
The main findings of the thesis showed that athletes have multifaceted and nuanced experiences with their smartphones. Social media applications (e.g., Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook) accounted for a staggering amount of the participants’ total smartphone usage over the assessed nine-month period. Most athletes had two or more social media-related apps in their top three most frequently used apps. The findings revealed that the prevalence of overnight smartphone usage from 12 am to 6 am compromised up to twenty percent of total active screen time.
Data analysis suggested that social media usage was associated with more harmful than helpful effects on mental health and performance than other smartphone features and applications that the athletes utilized.
The findings allude to associated changes in self-regulation capacity. Finally, the findings revealed a gap between real-time and self-perceived smartphone usage, The overall findings provide the fundamentals for the development of guiding principles for smartphone usage for athletes and sports programs, and suggest areas of future research.
We have covered the mental impact of smartphones, the impact of distracted coaching/parenting but what about the physical impact?
According to Dr. Tommy John, there is significant impact of cell phones on posture and spine alignment that adds force/pressure to the neck and shoulders from all that phone usage (leaning forward, rounded shoulders).
Dr. John talks below of the average 9-10 year old coming to his office with 4 inches of forward head lean, which translates to 40 lbs. of extra pressure on their shoulders and neck.
That might tighten things up there (not in a good way). This has a major impact for shoulder athletes for example.
More importantly, in the 6-minute clip below, Dr. John speaks of the affected spinal cord function caused by the forward head lean. This interferes with the signals sent to the brain around movements and function.
Lastly, excessive cell phone time reduces the strength of our immune system. The brain interprets bits of information at an incredible pace during screen time, which impacts immune system in a big way. According to Dr. John, the constant sympathetic state your brain is in during screen time reduces our ability to fight off other threats to our body.
Some of the fixes recommended by Dr. John including reducing screen time, or self-monitoring. This was one of the findings above mentioned Masters thesis, where athletes had limited control over self-regulation of smart phone time. One theory could be is that they are not educated on the need and/or impact of self-regulating or lack thereof
In sports, coaches speak to athletes about improving performance and getting better, especially at the higher/older levels. Would our teen athlete, who practices so hard, be willing to reduce smartphone time as a performance enhancer?
Other fixes for the physical impact of smartphones include laying on your stomach in working on computer or cell phone to put body in a more natural position. Another recommendation when texting is to hold phone at eye level.
Lastly, I am a big proponent of improving posture through mobility and strength work. Exercises like wall slides and band pull aparts go a long way to minimizing the damage of being hunched over.
The news is not all bad. Awareness of the detrimental effects of excessive smartphone usage is starting to mount. More and more organizations are starting to address the impact of smart phones on mental and physical health and performance. The University of Syracuse for example has implanted a plan for their athletes to handle their tech addiction.
Inside the SU weight room hangs a sign that symbolizes some of the changing mindset on use of smartphones:
“Don’t post about it, be about it.”
SU has a sports psychologist speak to their athletes from every team. Ja
The sports psychologist, Jarrod Spencer talk to the athletes about how constant phone usage can hurt athletes’ abilities to stay focused on the field. Spencer said players should limit themselves to an hour or two of screen time if they want to be at their best.
Athletes are starting to get the message. As women’s soccer student athlete Georgia Allen is quoted in the same article: “The obsession over phones can damage team environments,” Allen said. “We go into team meetings and people are on their phones. We need to remind one another: no phones. Every minute counts.”
The time is now for youth teams and organizations to have more than just a policy on social media. It is time for coaching modules to include the impact of smartphones on physical and mental health and performance. If we are about development, then the smartphone in hindering development most of the time.
Feel free to use some of the research findings cited in this article to support your educational module.
Final thought: As always, the behavior we model as coaches, parents and teachers with our phones is a major factor in influence those we lead. We must walk the walk in all aspects of our leadership. Smartphones are no exception.
Here is Dr. Tommy John’s information 6 minute clip on the physical impact of todays smartphone usage in our young athletes: