Stephanie Newman Ph.D.

Apologies To Freud

Why Adolescents Overuse Technology, and What We Can Do About It

Find a neutral place for your teenager's phone during the night

Posted Jan 30, 2012

Electronic communications have risen to a place of supreme prominence in the lives of teens.

As the cyber world has exploded—think offices without walls, telecommuting, and multi-continent conference calls via Skype; Blackberries, iPhones, and laptops that allow us to work weekends and vacations, and the relative affordability of hand held devices—and it becomes apparent that the landscape of our professional and personal communications has forever changed. E-talk is our preferred mode of contact. And it is no different for teens.

Hand a teenager a mobile phone, offer free rein to text and i-chat, and others will immediately follow suit, whenever, wherever. The cellular arms race is on. In our perpetually plugged in world it can be tough to judge exactly how much screen time is too much. Even well-intentioned parents can find it difficult to figure out if an adolescent's cell phone use spells trouble. One way to spot a problem is to consider the warning signs: a Vampire-like failure to emerge from behind a closed bedroom door until the onset of dusk, a reduction in hours spent socializing or engaging in sports or hobbies, and a decline in grades are all tip offs that a teenager might be overusing technology.

Serious risks to health can also occur when texting goes unregulated day after day. "Problems with posture, potential for eye strain and obesity, as well as the possibility of serious social problems can result," says Dr. Alicia Rieger, a Westchester pediatrician at WestMed, a White Plains practice group. "If it is always machine-to- machine, adolescents may lose the ability to have a conversation, interact in traditional ways, or maintain eye contact."

What can parents do?
Talk to your teen: if you notice changes in mood, school performance, differences in time spent socializing, or problems with friendships, or if you see anything else that is of concern, step in and open up a dialogue. Constant texting can be a way of avoiding real life interactions. Sometimes an adolescent who is anxious or uncomfortable in certain situations will hide behind a hand-held to avoid someone or to put off having to face a group or circumstance that engenders negative feelings. Pay attention to when the texting occurs (is it constant? Does it usually happen during a family dinner? A carpool?).  Sometimes e-talk can be used to avoid a tense or uncomfortable situation, and the feelings that arise in connection with it. If you do notice texting going on at a particular time of day or in a particular type of situation, talk about it. Does your teen feel angry at a family member or is he or she having difficulty with a friend? Is there a subject in school that he or she is avoiding? Overuse of screen time can be a cover-up for an underlying emotional problem. And surly as they may appear, most teenagers will open up if they are approached in a non-angry, non-critical way. ("I notice you and Jake used to be really tight. Now you two just sit silently and text during carpool. Is something going on?"). 

Once the dialogue has been started, listen. Your adolescent's answers might well offer a key to what is going on emotionally--and might even surprise you.

If there is no particular time of day and the texting is constant, parents should not be shy about setting limits, particularly at nighttime. If kids break the rules, take away the phone. If i-chatting is interfereing with homework, remove the mobile from the bedroom. As a general rule, adolescents should not be allowed to keep phones on during the night. Many have reported waking up to check the inbox; and then being unable to fall back to sleep after reading upsetting messages. Best to find a neutral storage location like the dining room table--or anywhere that is not the bedroom during late night hours.

And don't just set limits at bedtime. Texting while operating a moving vehicle brings potential for disaster, and must be strictly monitored. If your adolescent drives, it is never a bad idea to observe him or her in action. Drop in unexpectedly at the end of the school day, or visit a local hangout or a team's practice location. Is your teenager holding a phone in one hand and a steering wheel in the other? If you do spot any electronic activity occuring behind the wheel, confiscate the phone immediately.

The dangers of cars and texting are well documented--for all of us. Last year a prominent California plastic surgeon plunged to his death in a car accident that was allegedly caused by his simultaneous texting and driving. Teenagers might underestimate the very real risk of pairing moving vehicles and technology. Add alcohol or other substances to the mix, and an already potentially dangerous situation has the potential to become even more lethal. 

So, opening up a dialogue as to what is going on emotionally with your teenager and setting limits are crucial to providing a home environment in which adolescents can grow and thrive.  It is also key to teach by example. In other words, step away from the blackberry. If your kid sees you cannot control yourself, he or she will think it is fine to give in to the urge to text--at meals, in the bathroom, and in the middle of the night. Insist on family time and the spoken word. And while it is true that in our increasingly overcommitted and stressed out society it has become harder and harder to make time to sit down for a family meal, or a quiet conversation, such activities are necessary to help teenagers feel safe and cared for.

And while it may be too late for those reading now, it is best to establish firm rules and boundaries before buying a hand-held device. Do not allow unlimited access, warn that it will be confiscated if grades take a hit, and explain the dangers of forwarding explicit messages (social drama and potential loss of friendships, for example), and of sexting, which teens often don't realize is dangerous-and permanently damaging to reputations and esteem.

Though taking your son's phone away, even for a few minutes, so you can enjoy a family meal or a brief chat might cause a loud and ugly blow- up, it can be just what he needs in order to keep his behavior and rollercoaster-like emotions under control. When discipline is firm and consistent, and when rules are enforced and explained, kids do their best and feel the most comfortable--despite their loud protests of "meanness" and their accusations of injustice.

Given teenagers' romance with technology and its potential risks to social and interpersonal growth, what if anything is the positive take-away? Pam Sheff PhD, a Senior Lecturer in Communications at the John's Hopkins Center for Leadership Education has noticed a decline in the written word of some of her students--as more and more abbreviations and jargon-filled statements have crept into academic assignments, but still she does not lament the proliferation of the slangy electronic word: "language is constantly evolving. Today people have gotten used to communicating in their particular shorthand. The rules of what we may think of as conventional seem archaic to adolescents and college students," she notes.

So can we expect our Presidents, cabinet members and diplomats fifty years hence to electronically "wink wink" and "rofl?" Not likely. "When teenagers and college students write and blog, their communications are not targeted to a conventional audience.  They are not writing for us," says Sheff. Once they become familiar with more formal, conventional writing, most can and will adapt to what's appropriate for any particular situation.

About the Author

Stephanie Newman, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst, as well as the author of Mad Men on the Couch.

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