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6 Common Worries About Technology and Teens

What's the Reality?

Technology and teens. If you are anything like me, on any given day you vacillate wildly between, “Technology is amazing! What a time to be alive!” and, “Throw. It. Out. The. Window.” Such is parenting life in the digital age.

News headlines exacerbate our ambivalence. Media reports convince us that social media is the key to our children’s undoing on one day and the next day declare that there is no effect at all. This means that we are often left to our worries, our gut, and some creative problem solving to navigate digital challenges.

The reality though is that we are starting to get some good data and evidence that helps us better understand the nuances of our children’s digitally connected lives. In some cases, the data reinforce our concerns and in others, calm them.

A teen and technology listening to headphones while on her phone

Here’s a snapshot of six worries. What do we currently know? What can we do about it?

Worry #1

Kids don’t have real friendships anymore. They spend all their time hanging out with strangers online.

Reality: The vast majority of young people “extend” friendships from the real world into the online world. That’s not to say that they don’t have any online only friends, but for most kids most of the time, they are coming home from school and connecting with the same kids they just saw in the hallways. These online friendships usually mirror similar qualities to their offline friendships as well. Plus, the latest evidence shows that kids who regularly socialize online also regularly socialize in the real world, dispelling worries that online friendships are displacing real world ones.

So what? This doesn’t mean that we don’t talk to our kids about safety and online strangers. However it shouldn’t dominate the dialogue entirely. Ask your child whom they game and socialize with online, knowing that strong friendships (both online and offline) are a huge protective factor for adolescents. While texting may seem like a less quality interaction to you, it is far better than kids roaming the internet alone. Balance your relief that online friendships aren’t bad with support for face to face time too. Young people report barriers to hanging out in real life including transportation, schedule, and lack of opportunities. Ask what gets in the way and see if you can help.

Worry #2

Kids do things online that they would never do face to face.

Reality: Bullying and harassment are a problem that we should not ignore when it comes to technology and teens. Certainly as humans, we rely on a series of finely orchestrated emotional cues to interpret and respond to others. In the absence of these cues, we may underestimate the hurt that we cause online. That said, for the most part cyberbullying incidents mirror and magnify offline dynamics. In other words, kids who are targeted by bullying behaviors online are likely experiencing the same at school or in their community. This doesn’t mean that the cyber components of bullying behaviors aren’t an issue. Research shows that online bullying can magnify victimization because of access to private space, large online audiences, and the permanent record it leaves.

So what? Talk early and often about the actual skills and strategies for building friendships (including face to face communication) as well as respect and courage online and offline. Resist the urge to blame mobile devices for the problem entirely and focus as much on the humans who use them.

Worry #3

Young people today don’t actually get involved in politics. They just click things online and think that they are changing the world.

Reality: While many argue that not enough young people engage in the political process in large numbers overall, a recent review of over 100 studies showed that young people who engage in digital media are more likely than their peers to participate in civic and political life. It turns out that clicking “like” on something is correlated with offline action. Engaging young people in digital civics projects might actually ignite more young people’s participation in the real thing.

So what? Instead of just limiting your child’s media use, ask them what they are doing online and what they care most about. How can they learn more about social and political issues online from reliable sources? Connect them to programming and classes around media literacy which helps boost young people’s online civic action. Learn from your teen’s online activism and ask how you can get involved too.

Worry #4

Social media causes teenagers to be anxious and depressed.

Reality: It’s complicated. Some studies have shown that more time with social media is correlated with more mental health problems. That said, the effect is fairly small and how, when and why young people use technology shapes outcomes in real ways. Sleep disruption, exposure to harassment, body image, and a young person’s emotional investment in social media appear to predict more negative outcomes. We need more research to determine if social media use makes youth more anxious or if anxious youth are more likely to use the internet more often.

So what? Rather than just assuming that social media is making your child more anxious and depressed, take a more nuanced look at your child’s digital life and mental health. Pay attention to how, when, and why your child uses social media. If your child is already living with anxiety or depression, work collaboratively with your teen and their mental health professional to evaluate the role that social media is playing in either boosting or undermining their wellness strategies.

Worry #5

Technology and teens are a bad combination when it comes to sleep.

Reality: It’s true! Young people who sleep with their phones in their bedrooms go to sleep later and are more likely to have disrupted sleep. One in three teens sleep with their phone in their bed and the same proportion wake up to check their mobile devices overnight. (By the way, adults are no better.) Since sleep is so important for emotional regulation, academic success, and physical health, there is no doubt that we should protect teens’ sleep.

So what? This one is hard – but getting devices out of the bedroom at night is exactly what your child’s brain needs to rest, recover, and rejuvenate. Find ways to sleep better and stick with them.

Worry #6

Kids can’t focus anymore because of all these screens.

Reality: First the good news, current laboratory research indicates that screens haven’t fundamentally changed the brain’s capacity to focus attention. That said, kids don’t live in labs. They live in real life with phones in their pockets that create a magnetic pull for kids’ attention, making them less likely to work to focus their attention on other things. Research is clear that there is a cognitive cost to our habitual multitasking. Our brains are built for one thing at a time and multitasking leads to more errors, less retention, more mental drain, and increase distractibility.

So what? Check out our tips for reducing distractions for times when kids need to focus their attention like during homework and play.