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Technology & Teenagers

How much is too much? How safe are they online? What are they doing? Are they OK?

For many these questions trigger a tsunami of fear, anxiety and apprehension.

There has been a wealth of research over the last decade and some convincing and terrifying statistics published. It would make sense to quote some here but I won’t. Our brains are very good at seeing and remembering only what we want to see. It’s one of the very reasons why technology use is so controversial and evocative – with a one click search and rapid scan of the top results you can find evidence to confirm almost all of your darkest fears in less than a few seconds. And once you have that “evidence” in mind, the opposing narrative that shrouds it is often side-lined and disregarded.

So in this 5 minute read I am here to ask you, what will it take to rip up the rulebook, throw-out pre-existing thoughts and fears, and take a fresh approach to handling your teenager’s technology use?

It starts, as always, with a closer look at what’s going on with you. It’s not about your teenager and their digital dabblings…it’s about you. Where does the stress, guilt and fear really come from?

To help you explore this, let’s take a look at some common (and arguable inevitable) thinking traps parents can fall into when navigating teenage technology usage.

Are you thinking in black & white?

Are you categorising technology use as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’. ‘Good’ screen time might be school work whilst ‘Bad’ might be anything done after 9pm. Without a middle ground it doesn’t take long to stack up an imbalance where ‘bad’ tech use outweighs the good. In reality, the time your teenager spends online is never clear cut and that is the very reason why there is a lack of consensus in the scientific world over what constitutes healthy usage.

When thinking about time spent on devices, it’s useful to consider whether time online is:

  • actively engaging versus passively observing?

  • requiring constant attention or is fleeting/interrupted?

  • purposeful and intentional or impulsive and spontaneous?

  • socially enhancing or socially isolating?

  • self-affirming or self-harming?

As with most things in life, too much of anything is likely to tip us off balance.

Are you making assumptions?

I know I wouldn’t want to be studying French at 2am or playing Xbox for 12 hours straight and I know that if I did decide to do things I would not be my same sunny-self afterwards. So I can assume the same is true for my child right? Unfortunately not. This thinking trap is often compared fortune telling or jumping to conclusions. Many of our fears around technology use are deep rooted based on our own experiences of using tech along with our absorption of the media messages we are swamped with regarding ‘tech addiction’. The idea that your teenager will end up depressed and anxious if they spend too much time online can be overwhelming and terrifying. This can also lead to a hearty dose of catastrophizing where we magnify the negative impact of screen use while minimising or ignoring the positive impacts. Everybody has a threshold of what they can handle while still functioning healthily - mentally, emotionally and physically. Your teenager’s threshold will likely to differ to yours...and that’s OK.

Try asking yourself:

  • What are your assumptions?

  • Are you predicting the worst case scenario?

  • Where is the evidence for this happening?

  • Is technology use interfering with ‘normal daily life’?

  • Where is there an opportunity to increase self-control and awareness?

Is tech use the band aid or the blood?

This is really an issue of causality or as I like to say, a classic case of chicken and egg. Which comes first – the technology use or the ‘symptoms’? Is the technology the cause of any ill affect or is it an antidote to something else?

The idea of technology providing a way to self-medicate is not new; there have been many a parallel drawn between devise usage and behaviours such as substance use and gambling. Put simply when we want to feel better we seek out a guaranteed route to feel good and we each have our ‘go to’ way to do this. The science behind why focusses highly on the role of dopamine as a reward chemical released in our brains when we do something pleasurable such as placing a bet or an Instagram post. When we do these things we trigger a dopamine release that gives us a sudden and intense rush of pleasure causing us to want to repeat that action to experience the same ‘hit’. Technology supergiants know this and have exploited this secret weapon to design apps and games that keep us coming back. Over time, it can take longer or more intense exposure to experience the same sense of euphoria and in a small number of individuals this can create a real sense of ‘need’ that disrupts well-intentioned choices about behaviour.

How much of your teenagers device usage is within their conscious control? Probably not as much as we would like. So it would be easy and convenient then to blame the technology creators for taking away our ability to make choices about our online activity? But are we really helpless victims of this digital era?

As an adult it is perhaps easier to rebel against that idea and stamp a metaphorical foot down in rage at the thought that Facebook is controlling our wants and needs…but take a moment to spend a minute in your teenager’s shoes. How easy is it for them to distinguish what they are choosing to do themselves and what they are coaxed into doing via clever app design and involuntary biochemical wizardry?

Changing the narrative

So we have established that technology use in teens is not a simple to understand, simple to fix type problem. If it was someone would be very rich by now. And whilst all of this deeper understanding around how to think about technology use is great, it still doesn’t change the fact that the fear your child is experiencing digital addiction is not going away and neither is the desire to step in and force them to change their ways in order to prevent lifelong mental health repercussions. Admit it, you were thinking that…

So what if your child is experiencing tech addiction, what then? When does technology use cross the line and become an addiction? Is technology addiction even a real ‘thing’?

The literature surrounding this is wildly conflicting with estimates for prevalence of technology addiction in the general population ranging from 0.03% to a whopping 38%. This is largely down to vague descriptions of addiction and variance in how it is measured/reported. Like with any typical addiction, for as long as the ‘user’ remains coherent and controlled in their decision to seek more ‘hits’ their usage is unlikely to be a long-term problem.

What if there was a simple switch in terminology, from talking about digital addiction to digital bad habits? The word addiction is emotionally captivating and perhaps a dangerous label to dish out. But bad habits? Well we all have them…

Habits form through repetition and reinforcement; they become so engrained that they no longer require conscious effort to initiate. They’re sticky and difficult to change despite our best intentions because our brains need to (re)learn alternatives to take their place. Tech habits are no different. In fact they are even tougher to crack as they have been built, maintained and solidified into every aspect of our daily lives. How many times a day do you aimlessly log onto a social network, news site or app without independently choosing to do so? It’s not surprising when our devices are so close to hand, magnetically drawing us in…

Technology habits are not bad per se but they could do with some regular maintenance – like a car has an MOT. A quick check-in may help you to understand whether your tech habits are:

  • Fit for purpose

  • Matching what you want from your device

  • Under your conscious awareness

  • Stopping you from delivering in other areas of your life

In summary

Tech addiction is an unsafe usage beyond conscious control and it needs to be avoided/eliminated (potentially through the use of third party professional help). Tech habits on the other hand can be worked with, moulded, trained, and continuously evaluated and evolved. There is no end game with habits; it’s a lifelong work in progress.

As a parent it is exceptionally hard to work in opposition with the tech companies who have designed sophisticated systems that deliberately set to steal your attention. To them every extra second someone spends on their game/site/app is more money in the bank so you can bet they have invested heavily to win the war.

The complexity and individual nature of the beast makes robust, scientific facts hard to nail down and let’s be honest, even if you did start quoting statistics at your teen would they really listen?

Which means only one thing…in the absence of validated truths we fill in the gaps with our own fears and judgements – reflecting on this to determine where you are ‘stuck’ is the first step towards digital harmony, now and beyond the nest.

So how will you avoid a stand-off with your teen and build healthy habits for life? As always, feel free to drop me an email or book a call and we can discuss.

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