written by Lauren Garfield, LMFT
It’s a familiar scene: you pick your teen up from school and try asking about their day, but their face is buried in their smartphone, and you get grunts or, at best, one-word answers. You know that the lure of their friends is partly to blame, and the internet is where everyone congregates. After all, you’re a hip parent who follows Chrissy Teigen and your favorite HGTV stars on Twitter! You’ve also heard of the dangers of the internet, cyberbullying, and internet addiction—and you just miss connecting with your teen!
A New Version of an Old Problem
Technology is new: teen development isn’t. Teens are still facing the same challenges and developmental tasks that they always have: primarily, identity formation. Teens begin to individuate from their families by favoring peers over family, experimenting with different ways of acting and thinking, evaluating their own values and beliefs, all while continuing to develop decision-making skills and impulse control. Peers’ opinions and fitting in become more important as teens evaluate their worth in relation to their social connections and achievements1. Technology has changed the context in which these tasks are completed.
Now, teens individuate by connecting with peers over text, social media, and video games. Some look to YouTubers to guide their tastes, and realize that anyone can have fame and be liked by millions. In 2016, 74% of teens had a smartphone, marking how pervasive technology has become2. What you were facing as a teen is not too far off from what your teen is facing, but now a screen offers continuous access to friends, cultural influences, and—with likes and favorites and knowledge of who is hanging out without them—evaluation of their worth. For adults, it’s hard to put the screen down for extended amounts of time; for teens trying to understand how they fit in the world around them, it can understandably be even more challenging.
We’re still learning about technology
It’s hard to know the long-term effects of something as new as smartphones, immersive video games, and social media. What we know, so far, is that the effects of technology on adolescents are mixed. There’s certainly danger online, everything from pro-eating disorder and self-harm websites to online relationships with unknown people with dangerous intentions. There’s also concern about behavioral addiction, as well as the use of screens to escape difficult feelings or experiences and thus not learning to tolerate and cope with them. Texting can feel “safer” than face-to-face social interactions, and may be helpful for some who are anxious, but at the expense of opportunities for failure and immediate feedback (which facilitate learning). In children, studies have shown impacts of screens on empathy, social skills, attention span, and perceived support by family members. Teens are more likely to view their peers’ negative behaviors as normal when they are seen repeatedly on social media3.
Technology isn’t all bad. It has been integrated into education to promote connectivity and creativity, allows us to stay in contact with others, and people in mental health support groups report increased amounts of social support and connectedness from online support groups. There appears to be a “U-shaped” relationship between social media use and depression: too much or too little social media use correlates with increased depressive symptoms, but a moderate amount (particularly when interacting with peers) is correlated with lower levels of depression3.
Analog Solutions to Digital Problems
The truth is that video games, tablets, and smartphones are here to stay and teens are using them—that’s not changing anytime soon. There are some “low tech” options parents have to try to help their teens balance their screen use.
- Modeling Turn off your own phone. If you want your teen to have a good idea of what appropriate screen use looks like, and how to eat a meal without checking texts, be a good role model.
- Put limits on phone time This will look different for every family. Maybe it means that phones are kept out of bedrooms at night, put away during dinner, or limited to a certain number of hours per week. Establish consequences ahead of time, and follow-through on them consistently but kindly.
- Build offline family connections Fill free time with family time, whether that’s dinner, family meetings, outings, game or movie nights—whatever works for your family. Positive family relationships can also be a protective factor against mental health and behavioral problems.
- Establish a contract Whether it’s before your child earns a phone, or after they’ve had one for a while, consider writing a contract for phone use that establishes guidelines you feel comfortable with, and consequences should these guidelines not be followed. There are many examples on-line. The American Academy of Pediatrics has an online tool that allows you to create a personalized plan for media use plan similar to a contract, and can be a great starting place4.
- Teach skills Consider yourself a mentor to your teen. First, be curious about what they like about their screens, and attempt to understand what drives them to use it (watch them play video games, for instance!). Second, consider ways of teaching ways to interact with screens that allows their needs to be met but promotes balance.
Digital Solutions to Digital Problems
- Unplug the wi-fi This solves some problems—particularly for devices that don’t have data plans, but may also be inconvenient to you or other family members. Still, it’s an option. Alternatively, use a device that can turn off/on the internet at certain times, for select devices, or after time limits have been reached.
- Get your teen a “dumb phone” Particularly for when established family guidelines for phone use have been violated, swapping your teen’s smartphone for a less smart one can be a good option—you’ll still be able to reach your teen, but the phone won’t have the same functionality. Or get a wi-fi-only device with no data plan so apps aren’t used as frequently outside the home, and you have access to wi-fi controls in the home.
- Parental controls Utilize parental controls within browsers, apps, or devices to limit your teen’s activity. Many are easily circumvented by tech savvy teens, so monitoring may be necessary. There are other types of parental control devices and software that allow you to more closely monitor your teen’s activity on their devices, including seeing all of their texts. Note that while these can be effective, they also can be intrusive in your teen’s autonomy and independence, and impact the trust between the two of you. Consider using these types of software if your other options have been exhausted, for instance if your teen has been involved in dangerous activity on- or offline.
Phone and screen use are responsibilities that require skill development, just like any other task. As a caregiver, you play a significant role in helping your children learn how to incorporate technology into their lives in safe, balanced, and healthy ways.
- Simpson, A.R. (2011). Raising teens. Retrieved from: http://hrweb.mit.edu/worklife/raising-teens/index.html
- Alter, A. (2017). Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping us Hooked. New York: Penguin Press.
- Reid Chassiakos Y, Radesky J, Christakis D, et al., AAP COUNCIL ON COMMUNICATIONS AND MEDIA. Children and Adolescents and Digital Media. Pediatrics. 2016;138(5): e20162593
- American Academy of Pediatrics. Family Media Plan.Retrieved from: https://www.healthychildren.org/English/media/Pages/default.aspx#home