Stephanie Newman Ph.D.

Apologies To Freud

Does Technology Harm Teen Relationships?

Is the perpetually connected teen an isolated teen?

Posted Jan 16, 2012

Ask any parent. Stories involving constant texting, silent carpools, and disturbing missives hitting the inbox at 2 a.m. have become commonplace. Teens and their phones are attached at the hip--or palm.

Take 14 year old Jason, a friendly, sporty Midwesterner, who admits to exchanging "17,000 plus" texts in one year (50 to 100 a day) with Sara. Though he calls her his "girlfriend," the two have never been out on a date, and when they are together, always in a group setting, it is usually in someone's basement or at a coffee shop, where inevitably the duo sit side by side, tapping away at their smart phones.

Likewise with Kim, a pretty, confidant, 15 year old cheerleader from parts south, who recently learned that her best friend, Erin's, father had just been in a car accident when Lisa texted her with the news. Consider that while the texts were flying, Kim, Erin, and Lisa were all carpooling to practice. Though they were sitting in backseat of the same car, few words were exchanged during the ride.

And then there's Jenna, a lively 17 year old, who has gotten into the habit of keeping her phone on at all hours, and not just on the weekends. "It could be something important," she says, noting that she checks her messages every time she hears the "swoosh" of the in-box. And as a rule Jenna's connectivity lasts long into the evening. On one recent night, in fact, she viewed her I-phone at 2 a.m.; only to learn that the guy she was crushing on had just started seeing someone else. She could not fall back to sleep for the rest of the night.

Dylan, Jenna's younger brother, describes himself as "addicted" to his I-Phone. As the final school bell begins to ring, he checks his messages. Dylan has just turned 10 years old.

Many adolescents acknowledge that they spend more time texting than speaking--whether to peers or other living, breathing human beings. For the members of this cohort, reading, sports, and family activities have fallen by the wayside. So it seems apparent that teens are having a love affair with their phones--and the trend does not appear to be slowing down or reversing any time soon. But does the constant need to stay connected actually have an adverse impact on adolescent interpersonal relationships?

Put a phone in an impulsive teenager's hand and you could be inviting social difficulties. If they are not offered the proper guidance and subjected to continuous monitoring, teens can unwittingly fall into some common social pitfalls, like saying something they quickly come to regret about a friend or classmate. Gossip used to involve whispering juicy tidbits in an expectant ear. Now, snarky messages can be forwarded--ad infinitum. "She said WHAT?!" is exponentially magnified as the fighting, drama, and hurt feelings spread through groups of friends, entire classes at school, and then into neighboring towns. Friendships are lost in the time it takes to press "send."

Another problem: rogue messages. Adolescents can take a friend's phone and, posing as someone else, send a hurtful or damning message. What used to be called "phony phone calls" ("Hey, anyone have Prince Albert in a Can?" You better let him out before he suffocates" Guffaw.) have now become serious business, with the potential to stir up arguments and harm relationships. Legal difficulties are another possible risk, as bullying can and does occur via text. In the old days, when a teenager said something regrettable, it was unfortunate and emotionally painful--with the embarrassment usually lasting for a day or two. Now, though, off the cuff remarks sent in text form can immediately go viral, and brief social exchanges can make their way on to U-tube--where they remain forever indelible. There are no take-backs in cyber space. 

And as we now know, sexting (the sending of provocative and explicit photos by phone) occurs far more frequently than parents of teens want to admit. One impulsive decision by an emotional, insecure, unsuspecting, or naïve adolescent can tarnish an otherwise good reputation for decades to come.

We don't yet know the long term effects to an individual's self esteem when he or she has been the target of devaluing text messages from several classmates at once, though hate messages sent via text, have in combination with cyber bullying on facebook and other websites, allegedly been implicated in the tragic deaths of a handful of teens. But we do know that hour after hour staring wordlessly at a screen means less energy spent exercising, less time relaxing with family and one on one with friends, and less hours practicing creative pursuits. If increasing periods of isolation are understood to be connected to serious psychological problems like depression and anxiety the question becomes is the perpetually connected teen an isolated teen?

Some adolescents believe that texting and I-chatting allows them to interact and keep in touch with others. "I feel like even if I don't have time to hang out with one of my friends I know about her from looking at Facebook and exchanging a few quick texts," notes one sixteen year old. Her classmate agrees, "When I text with someone for awhile, it makes me feel like we are close. If they write to me a lot, I know they like me, and that feels good." Many young men and women in this age group feel that texting and i-chatting are also a way to keep in touch with friends who live far away.

Watching our adolescents, heads bowed over their hand held devices, one cannot help but wonder: How can they possibly learn to make eye contact, engage others in social banter, or perfect the art of conversation; all skills that we know they will one day need to navigate the work place and the world? Can an always plugged-in teen ever form intimate ties? Is a laugh shared more gratifying than a "lol" and corresponding "ROFLMAO?" Are we as a society going to hell in a hand basket?

Next Up: Why the explosion of teens and technology overuse is happening and what can we do about it?