by Jeff Devens

This article was first published in Journeys Summer 2018.

A tradition dating back to 1911 involved coal miners carrying caged canaries into mines for safety. If there were any dangerous gases, such as methane or carbon monoxide, the canaries would display signs of distress warning miners conditions were unsafe. Over the past few years, I’ve grown increasingly concerned with adolescent technology use. Perhaps I’m nostalgic, reflecting on my social interactions as a teen and am finding it disconcerting how youth are engaging with technology. For the record, I’m not a Luddite, nor am I opposed to technology use. My reservations stem from an understanding of adolescent development. 
Psychologist Erik Erikson noted the primary task of adolescence is to solve The Identity Vs. Role Confusion Crisis. This process involves teens constructing their identity by finding a community and fostering meaningful relationships. This period is marked by intense, introspective heart and head searching. Teens are looking to answer the fundamental question, Who am I? They do this by trying on new roles, pursuing developing interests, and vying for the attention and affirmation of others. Historically, identity development was primarily bound by geographic proximity (i.e., playground, peers, sports and arts, religious affiliation, schools, neighborhood, etc.), this is no longer the case. 

Today's teens are also experimenting with facets of their developing identities through online mediums removed from these boundaries. Take, for example, Snapchat and Instagram. A recent survey from the University of Chicago found of those ages 13 through 17, nearly three-quarters use both Snapchat and Instagram. Teens aren't using these apps to share; they're using them to show: Look at me. Look who I'm with. Look at what I’m doing. Do I have value in your eyes? The comments and “likes,” of others serve as a barometer for their emotional state. The images they share, along with comments posted, are preserved for all time. Think about that for a moment. Every image, every comment, preserved for all time. What if they share explicit photos of themselves or others, or make disparaging comments? Sadly, this is what some teens did before the advent of social media, and this is what teens today are doing with social media. Most will learn through error but herein lies the problem. There is no delete, no erasing of comments or photos shared online, no do-over. Some kids get this only after the fact. Most teens will learn, but at what cost? For example, Harvard College rescinded admission offers to at least ten prospective members of the class of 2021 after the students traded sexually explicit memes and messages that targeted some members of minority groups in a “private” Facebook group chat. All that work, all that effort, only to be rejected after being accepted because of comments made online. There is no privacy when it comes to online activities. 

A common refrain of parents frustrated with their child's technology use is: my child is addicted! What constitutes internet addiction? Neuroscientist Frances Jensen (MD) notes in her most recent book, The Teenage Brain; internet addiction involves the same reward center as drugs, namely the neurochemical dopamine, which promotes a pleasurable response and overtime creates dependency. At some level, dependence implies biochemical mechanisms at work, but addiction manifests in observable patterns of behavior which persist despite negative consequences. The term Internet Addiction Disorder is under review by the American Psychological Association but is not, at present, formally recognized as a disorder. Countries such as China and South Korea, however, do recognize Internet addiction as a clinical disorder. South Korea established the first comprehensive, national prevention programs for internet addiction and estimated that upwards of 20 percent of the country’s teenagers are addicted to smartphones. While the field of Internet addiction research evolves, there are diagnostic tools counselors and parents can utilize which may aid in further understanding the severity of internet related issues.

Addiction specialist, Dr. Nicholas Kardaras, offers in his book, Glow Kids, 10 signs parents should look for to determine if their child may have a screen or tech addiction problem:

1. Are they staying up later and later to stay on the computer or smart phone?

2. Do they get fidgety, anxious, and angry if they don’t have their device?

3. Is tech usage negatively impacting their schoolwork, family life, or other activities or interests?

4. Are they indicating that they have a difficult time getting virtual imagery out of their heads?

5. Are they dreaming of virtual imagery?

6. Are they hiding their screen use or hiding their devices from you?

7. Do they seem to be having a more difficult time regulating their emotions?

8. Do they seem more apathetic and bored more easily?

9. Are they perpetually tired yet also wired?

10. Are teachers and counselors concerned by behaviors and tech use in school?

Review the above questions, noting your degree of affirmative responses. If you believe there are significant internet issues the next step would be to establish boundaries.

Abstinence from technology isn’t recommended, but putting in place healthy boundaries is. These may include:

  • Having a set time for all tech to be turned off each night.
  • Providing a charging place for phones and computers away from access throughout the night.
  • Establishing a common study area for school-related tasks when tech is necessary.
  • Ongoing monitoring and reinforcing of emotional regulation as a result of online activities.
  • Establishing boundaries regarding access to tech on weekends and breaks.

As awkward as it may feel, as difficult as it may be to relate, parents must remain engaged. Try understanding your child's tech use from a developmental perspective. What are they attempting to gain as a result of being connected? Our kids are counting on us and other caring adults to guide them

  • counseling
  • social emotional
  • tech
  • tech in education
  • technology
  • teenagers



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