Off the Couch

Thoughts about the therapeutic process, and the dynamics of client-therapist interactions.

An Electronic Moratorium–Good or Bad Idea for Your Teen?

Can your teens survive without the cyber world?

A friend’s 14-year-old son is on his way to a four week electronic-free camping trip. Four weeks without a cellphone or a computer–no Instagram, Snapchat, Pheed, Keek, tweets, texts or selfies. In short, no electronic contact with friends or family other than a weekly phone call home to talk to parents in the old fashioned way. My friend says it will be the best thing that ever happened to him. “It’ll be good for him to learn to communicate without electronics,” she says. ”He’ll learn some real life people skills.”  Her husband, on the other hand, is worried. “I’m afraid he’ll be lost without that contact with his buddies,” he says. “It’s how he stays grounded.”

Which one of them is right? The data about whether technology has a harmful, helpful or simply neutral impact on contemporary adolescent development is somewhat contradictory. My PT colleague Peter Gray has a terrific post about some common myths the impact of social networking on teens. Some research suggests that Facebook can actually make teens feel lonely (for example, when they compare the number of their Facebook “friends” to those of their buddies online). But other studies show that they use social skills learned through texting and other electronic social interactions in face-to-face, real world interactions.

What seems clear is that teens struggle with normal adolescent developmental tasks both on and off-line. What are these tasks? Traditionally, psychology has defined three major tasks of adolescence: separation-individuation, identity formation and affect or emotion management. Let’s look at these tasks, and then we’ll talk about how they are played out in social media.

Separation-Individuation

We all know that teens are supposed to start separating from their family, developing new relationships, and finding their own individual identity. Yet many young people today are still very connected to their families, which can make some of the normal conflict of this phase even more difficult for everyone involved. Although this new closeness comes in for plenty of criticism (think “helicopter parents” for example), contemporary psychodynamic thinking, especially Relational and Attachment theories, have recognized the importance of ongoing, healthy attachments throughout life. In fact, one researcher has suggested that we change the term “separation-individuation” to “attachment-individuation,” since studies show that healthy attachment leads to successful individuation (I’ve written about this on other posts and in several recent articles, which I’ve listed below).

Affect-Regulation

At least in part because of technology, youngsters today are more articulate and sophisticated than ever before. They are often comfortable talking to a wide range of people and about a wide range of topics, and even those who never travel often know more about the larger world than do many of the adults in their lives. There is, however, a double edge to this precociousness. Despite what Daniel Goleman calls greater “emotional intelligence” many youngsters are surprisingly limited in their ability to use their verbal and intellectual skills, even their psychological sophistication, to manage either their emotions or the normal developmental tasks of their life stage. To some extent this difficulty is related to normal development of the brain, in which the capacity for reasoned judgment and thoughtful decision-making is not fully developed until about age twenty-five. In his book, Brainstorm:The power and purpose of the teenage brain, Daniel Siegel writes that a kind of “emotional confusion” or an inability to sort out and process affects is a normal component of adolescence.

Identity Formation

Identity development is a crucial task of adolescence. As they struggle to manage the storm of emotions that are part of this stage of life, and simultaneously deal with the stressors of preparing for college or finding work they may actually need more, not less parental involvement–but the assistance we can provide is very different from what we offered when they were younger. Because there is tremendous social pressure on both adolescents and their families to allow for more independence, parents, educators and clinicians often provide more space and less hands-on involvement than adolescents actually need in order to develop healthy, individuated yet connected, adult identities. At the same time, adolescents are (and should be) still struggling with a desire to separate and develop a sense of independence. According to a Pew Research Study, teens use the internet to share information about themselves with others, while seeking privacy from their parents.

What does all of this tell us about parenting teens in the age of social media?  

I have come to believe that the world of technological communication and social media is one more place where adolescents engage in these normal developmental struggles. In some ways, it is much like learning to drive and getting a driver’s license. Parents can and should help their teens learn to respect and negotiate social media. Like driving a car, this is a powerful and often exciting path to independence, but it can also be dangerous if not handled responsibly.

What is clear is that no matter what you think about these forms of communication, normal developmental dynamics, conflicts and stages of contemporary adolescence are often experienced through social media and cyber technology. The question is not whether or not to address these issues, but when and how to do so. These are not always simple decisions, given that they are complicated by our own relationships with social media as well as the often confusing data about their impact on adolescent development.

I find that it can be helpful for parents I work with to talk about their own feelings about social media. When you talk not only about your concerns, maybe even your embarrassment about not knowing all of the sites your kids visit, but also about the ways that you also enjoy technology, you make a better case to your kids. One of the hardest things for parents is to admit how often we are on our cell phones, Ipads and ereaders, but our children know that we are also caught up in the electronic world. Owning up to it can help our teens listen when we share worries that it somehow takes away from real life interactions. Then you need to listen openly, without criticism or judgment, to your teen’s efforts to explain his or her own feelings and thoughts about technology. This doesn’t mean you have to accept what your children say or what they want; but an open discussion in which you not only express your concerns but also listen to their beliefs can make reasonable concerns, rules and restrictions more tolerable.

Joanie Geltman, author of the book, A Survival Guide to Parenting Teens: Talking to Your Kids About Sexting, Drinking, Drugs and Other Things that Freak You Out, describes 4 “golden rules” or what I would call “golden questions” your children should ask themselves before they post anything on a social networking site:

  1. Will this post hurt someone’s feelings?
  2. Will this post feel threatening to anyone?
  3. Does this post give too much information about myself?
  4. Is there anything in this post that another person could misinterpret?

You might also want to build some electronic time-outs into your family life–but that means for you and all of the other adults in the household, as well as for the kids! Which takes us back to my friends and their son. What makes the camping trip make sense is that their son was part of the discussion and the final decision about whether or not to go the camp. He was a little worried about his time without contact with his friends (he didn’t say a word about not being able to text his parents); but he was also excited about the experience of roughing it. Being without electronics was only one part of the chance to check out his ability to live without the normal tools of his daily life.

I'd love to know what you think. What have you tried, and what has been most successful (and most unsuccessful)?

For further reading:

Diane Barth, LCSW:

Integration, connection and individuation in relational social work with college students, Clinical Social Work Journal, Vol. 42, pp.22-26.

Frozen In Time: Idealization and Parent-Blaming in the Therapeutic Process, Clinical Social Work Journal, Vol. 38, pp. 331-340.

danah boyd (she doesn’t capitalize her name): It’s complicated: The social lives of networked teens.

Joani Geltman: A Survival Guide to Parenting Teens: Talking to Your Kids About Sexting, Drinking, Drugs and Other Things that Freak You Out. 

Daniel Goleman: Emotional Intelligence: 10th Anniversary Edition

M.R. Hicks: The digital pandemic: Reestablishing face-to-face contact in the electronic age.

Daniel Siegel: Brainstorm: The power and purpose of the teenage brain.

Teaser image source: iStock Photo: 6378981

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F. Diane Barth, L.C.S.W., is a psychotherapist, teacher, and author in private practice in New York City.

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