This time on 5 Minute Insight we are tackling a subject that is on almost every Mom’s mind who is raising a teen: Could my teen be addicted to technology?
Sheri Damon, a licensed mental health counselor, Foundation for Learning and Inspiring Health and Healing, FLIHH.
Sheri has over 28 years of experience working with women, children, and families. She is an expert in treating eating disorders, technology addiction and healthy technology use, as well as women experiencing distress with child rearing/child behavior difficulties. Her work across these various areas has inspired creative interventions, a cognitive-behavioral, mind and body approach to therapy and attention to the numerous intervening life factors in healing.
RSG: Your presentation, “Power to Disconnect,” has been extremely well received with parents and teachers throughout New England. Can you tell us what the theme is of the presentation? What are your goals for the audience?
SD: My main theme is that we need to learn to develop healthy habits with technology. It is an important function in our daily life and it’s not going away. This may seem counterintuitive to what most parents think I might say. The key to developing healthy habits starts with truly understanding how technology impacts the body and brain. Everything has to be in balance. I like to compare overuse of technology to overeating vegetables. In general, vegetables are very healthy. However, if we ate only veggies as our sole source of food, we would get sick. Our bodies wouldn’t be able to process them effectively.
I read about people wanting to completely rid their lives of technology. Some commit their lives to living off the grid. This is wonderful if it is what you can and want to do, but it may not be realistic for everyone. I don’t know about you, but I’ve come to rely on things like Google Maps, Waze, etc. There are some very valid reasons why we should have technology in our lives.
I don’t go into a room filled with a group of parents and say that they should take away their teens’ technology devices. For some, removal may be needed, but not in every situation. It’s also unrealistic to put an age requirement on it. Each individual matures at a different rate and parents have their own strategy for their kids. Technology provides a tremendous amount of benefit. However, parents need to set boundaries and understand how technology can impact their child.
RSG: We can’t talk about technology addiction without addressing the tween/teen brain and how they process information. How are their brains different than ours and how can we understand this better to help our children? How can we determine if our teen is addicted to technology?
SD: There is a wide body of research examining the development of the brain. Thanks to these researchers and amazing brain scanning technology, we know that the tween/teen’s brain is different from the average adult. The mind of today’s teen is heavily focused on emotional connection. They are concerned with worries like: What do my friends think of me? What do other people think of me? I need to know what’s going on at all times!
The reality is our brains continue to grow and develop from tween, to teen, to our early 20s. The prefrontal cortex, the part of our brains that controls thinking, planning, predicting, consequences of actions, impulses and self-control is one of the last areas to mature. Impulsiveness can be normal for teens. It is how their brain is supposed to act.
RSG: How does this emotional overload play a part in what could lead to technology addiction in our tween/teen’s lives? How do we identify the signs/symptoms/signals?
SD: The number one thing we can’t do is quantify time spent on technology as addiction. We need to look at things like compulsivity of behaviors. If the tween/teen’s device is taken away do they withdraw from people, become irritable, aggressive? Are they not involved in activities or taking care of responsibilities?
RSG: Can technology addiction come in different forms?
SD: Yes, there are many ways to label technology addiction. The main categories fall under:
- Internet addiction: An over-dependence on Internet-connected devices like browsing, playing online games, research using the Internet.
- Content addiction: This form of technology addiction results in people becoming obsessed with consuming topic-oriented content. A good example is the past presidential election. There were many people who could not tear themselves away from social media, reading everything they could about the presidential election.
- Social media addiction: This is probably the one most parents are concerned about – and they should be. It happens when people cannot stop using apps/sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, etc. Their work or academic performance may suffer because they are distracted by social channels and they cannot perform normal activities as a result.
Here’s a great TedX Talk on Internet addiction.
RSG: I’d love to hear more (and I’m sure my readers would too) about social media addiction. How can we recognize it in our teens? What steps can we take to break the dependency from their devices?
SD: I’d love to come back and do an entire post on social media addiction because it is that involved. With that said, if you feel like your teen is shirking their responsibilities, ditching work, slacking off when it comes to self-care because they are distracted by social media, you might have a right to be concerned. If it is impeding on daily function, that is usually a sign that there is addiction.
The most important step a parent can take is to encourage their tweens/teen to seek out a variety of interests. Parents need to help teens identify interest areas outside of technology that will tap into using different parts of their brains. This could be exercise, art, reading, etc.
RSG: Another big concern of tween/teen parents is cyber bullying. Can you tell us how we can protect our teens from this? Are there coping skills we can use when/if it happens?
SD: Again, I can devote an entire blog on this topic. And, I will, if you’ll have me. 😉 The simple answer is: we want to encourage kids to never put anything on technology/social media that they wouldn’t be comfortable reading on a highway billboard. If they can say to themselves that they are okay with all of their friends, family and complete strangers reading what they wrote on the side of the highway, then they are fine. They probably wouldn’t want to see a name they had called someone on that billboard, but they may be okay with it reading: “I’m sad because you were mean to me today.”
Encourage open communication with your teen. Find out what’s being “said” to them on social media and talk about it with them. Before technology we would have encouraged our teens to talk to us about troubling discussions they had with friends. The fact that the words are on a device should not change the need for parents to be involved. Parents should be inquiring (not in a judgmental way) about the sites their kids are using and provide general supervision over what they are seeing and doing.
RSG: What do you think about parents reading teens’ social media posts, texts, etc.?
SD: I’d prefer that the parent be open and upfront with their kids. Saying something like, “It’s our job to protect you and make sure that you don’t get into trouble using technology. As a result, we’d like to have your passwords. Just know, on occasion, we may be popping in to see what you are doing/saying.”
Not being honest with your child about your intentions is the same as teaching your kids to be dishonest. On the flip side, depending upon your teen’s age, you need to sit down and discuss what you feel you should be able to see. Steer clear of things like conversations with a boyfriend that might not be appropriate for you to read. Open communication is the answer.
RSG: With summer quickly approaching, how do we find ways to keep our kids off their devices 24 hours a day?
SD: It is essential for a teen’s brain to have balancing activities. If your teen is on Snapchat, playing Xbox, etc. for two hours a day, you need to make sure that they spend at least the same amount of time out in nature doing some sort of different brain activity.
Spending all their time on technology will result in anxious, stressed out kids. Technology consumption lights up that “fight or flight” mechanism in the brain. If your teen is one who tends to be on the more anxious/stressed side of things, technology will make it much more pronounced. I recommend a 1-to-2 technology/other activity ratio for those types of kids. Replace technology time and double it with movement, air, exercise, creative pursuits, etc.
Once kids find something else to connect with they usually don’t mind putting down the technology device to pursue it. I’d break it down like this:
- Set the technology limit upfront. It could be a 1-to-1 or 1-to-2 ratio, whatever you think is best for your teen.
- Brainstorm with your child. Help her to identify other activities that use different parts of the brain: creativity, memory, and/or movement.
- Once the limit has been set and they’ve had an opportunity to do different things, they feel better. Most likely it will result in them building connections with people or activities that will fill them up in a positive way.
Essential Mom Advice:
SD: We all need to be mindful about instilling equilibrium in our lives. A parent who is constantly working, checking email and texting is not any better than a kid who won’t unplug from Snapchat. We all need to stop, sit down, and breathe. There is no perfect equation for rest vs. work vs. exercise. We just need to be aware that too much of anything is never a good thing.
Thank you for your time chatting with us today. We hope you will come back again to share more of your insight with us!
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