There isn’t a part of adolescence that isn’t affected by social media and gaming these days—so what are parents to do before it’s too late?
"ADHD study links teens' symptoms with digital media use" was the headline on CNN last week. I for one, was not surprised. Like any addictive behavior, there is always bound to be a correlation between that and mental health issues. Cause and effect; effect and cause. Between the brain connection to a behavior or substance and the brain to itself. As humans, we are wired to adapt, and as teens, currently "in development," the brain is actually growing and adapting in response to behaviors and outside stimuli in real time.
It was supposed to be the end of civilization—everyone was nose-deep in a newspaper or book, and riding the train or sitting in a cafe became more about me-time than interacting with your fellow neighbor. Sound familiar?
This was one of the legitimate fears from the 19th and 20th century (as far back as 1860), that as people became more reliant on literary and technological devices, they would be more stressed out as well as ignore each other on the trolleys, buses, and trains. The fear was that we would become less social because of reading—or because of the telegraph, phonograph, radio, 8-Track, cassette tape, computer, or...you get the point.
This means that we have a new type of person in society: one who gets daily satisfaction solely from online successes. This new aspect of real-life society is targeted and cultivated by our teenagers.
How Can Parents Tell?
The tell-tale signs of addiction to the internet and social media are within the range of compulsive-impulsive spectrum disorders. The earlier that the brain rewards itself for social and “personal best” achievements on computers and apps, the longer we will depend upon devices to get those rewards. There is a mental and emotional release when getting a top score or achieving likes and shares beyond normal.
But today’s “device in hand” society seems a bit more insidious and harmful, especially for your teen who is learning behaviors that may guide them for life.
It Starts Younger Than You Think
If your child grew up in the 2000s, chances are that they didn’t grow up watching you on your smartphone all the time. Your parents probably put you in front of the television or VCR too much during your formative years, but today is a bit different. The mass purchasing of smartphone and MP3 devices has been popular for not even twenty years, meaning that our fears and even our medical advice on how young children should see screen has changed with the times. At some point, even the least among us, age three to ninety-three, has had a device or was being put in front of one while the family ate out.
And then, all of the sudden, every parent bought a tablet or smartphone for junior because the more you see a product, and the more acceptable it becomes (and cheaper), the better you feel as a parent in letting it happen to your family.
Suffice to say, if your kids are under 20, then they have grown up seeing you and everyone in society holding, reading, and posting constantly on their devices.
Yes, Your teen Likely Has a Secret Account
From birth, we learn to be secretive, to lie, or to create narratives that justify behavior that might be though unacceptable. When it comes to online activity, parents can’t monitor their kids all the time, especially at school or when they’re with friends. Even monitoring apps and device-time parental controls can fail, or parents don’t use them properly.
So if you suspect that your teen, tween, or pre-teen is using a secret phone or account, take the time to address what you feel is behavior worthy of losing your trust or harming them. Or level with them about what they’re actually doing online that would cause them to be secretive.
There are plenty of people, games, and apps that will target your child in harmful ways, so if there is secrecy surrounding their online usage, then you have to be in control of how much time they spend and what apps and sites they visit.
Yes, Teens Are Spending Too Much Time Online
For a relatively new invention, the smartphone has taken over our lives. This means that your child, once “plugged in,” will begin to think about their accounts and games all the time. The internet is like anything in life in this: once a person is invested, they will allow it certain control over their thinking.
Staying online past bedtime, interacting with their smartphone as soon as they wake up, and using their smartphone at least once an hour are all signs that the device has become an indispensable way of life for the teen. Assume the best of your child but limit their time as best and as much as you can. Remind them that they can’t really experience life through that device—they have to “look up” more from their hand or lap.
Yes, Teens Are Distracted at Home, School, and Work
If your child’s grades have dipped or they seem despondent at home, and you suspect it’s because of the behavior and fallout from too much device time, you have your yes. Social apps aren’t just one or two sites anymore. All of the internet is social. From comment boxes to chatting on the newest site or messenger, we are all forever connected on almost every site, whether it’s meant to be social in nature or not. And companies are creating plenty of “kid chat” and kid-friendly internet platforms to share the wealth.
This translates to and has taken over all of our familiar social environments and levels of parenting—from kids checking their phones during halftime to them jumping to the screen every time there is a buzz, ring, ding, or pop. BBQs, Sunday drives, school functions, family dinner—every place is now a hub for spending those non-WiFi data minutes, even though we really are invested (somewhat) in the real-life social scene.
Yes, Teens Know Way More Than Adults About the Whole Social Media Thing
Whether it’s the newest post-Facebook, post-Twitter, advanced-Instagram app that you won’t know about until it’s not cool anymore, your kid is hipper than you at knowing exactly what the device is selling or offering at “free-mium” (apps that start free and then offer in-app purchases).
They are also the first generation to grow up with smartphones and the stress and anxiety that come with it. Never in human history have we acclimated to a device this quickly and widely, except maybe the pencil. And it is because of the new social norm of being device-ready citizens, that we have normalized new behavior, which your kids will emulate whether or not you do.
Yes, Have an Intervention for Your Teen if you Need to
The bottom line is that your child may become addicted to social media apps, video games, or online presence. The earlier you intervene, the better. If your pre-teen is talking about pressures and topics that you think might be wrong for their age group, set limits and be honest about what they’re actually doing online. If your teenager is showing signs of fatigue from late night gaming or posting and texting, then limit or suspend online activity until they understand how serious you are about their mental health and addictive characteristics.
Like all parenting and stages of teenage development, there is a learning and a social curve as well as the reality that whatever we do, we are creating our own path with our children. We do this all at the same time and continuously as we age. So, like anything, we need to be open and honest with our children about our fears and the reality of online life. Because if we don’t, we are ignoring what is often the biggest part of their life—that is, life online.