Taming Tween Texting and Tech Troubles

Ready to hurl that phone out the window?

Posted Mar 15, 2016

Between the Snapchat, Instagram, Finstagram (fake Instagram accounts), and Twitter feeds, parents are struggling to keep up with the ever-emerging social media technologies.  While Facebook has been mastered by our grandmothers by now, the complexity and range of platforms have boomed.  This has left tweens drowning in an alternate reality world, with their parents trying to aim the lifesaver in the right direction of choppy waters.

Not only have these medias led to a near obsession with being on their phones, iPads, and laptops, but they have opened up new forms of social media bullying, sleep problems, and in more extreme cases depression and anxiety.  Parents are ready to hurl the devices out the window.  And rightly so.

The developing tween brain is just starting to develop its abilities of executive function in the frontal lobe (thinking, planning, decision-making).  It’s still figuring out the world and how to react, often resorting to limbically-driven impulses (our primitive "second" brain).  So take this example:  Sally has a pretty good day at school, comes home, gets a snack and decides to relax before starting her homework.  She scans through Instagram as she loves looking at photos of puppies.  That's when she sees a photo of herself appear on the feed.  It was taken at school from behind when she wasn't aware, with a nasty hashtag (#fat). 

Instantaneously, she is triggered (and what adult wouldn’t be either).  Her heart rate increases, she feels a drop in her stomach, and her eyes fill with tears.  She is at a stage of learning to control her displays of emotion too because she “doesn’t want to be a baby.”  So she quickly runs upstairs and hides away.  She is overcome with emotion so strong that she doesn’t know what to do about it.  She had heard about cutting from friends at school and so takes her older sister’s razor blade to see if helps.

In the scenario above, the trigger was social media.  Sometimes the trigger can occur on the playground, the bus, or the classroom.  After all, this is also how it occurred in generations past.  Now, there is back and forth. Screen shots of texts bandied about, posted publicly, and things escalate quickly.  Tweens says things online that they’d never say to each other face to face.  It is not unrealistic for parents to consider taking drastic measures to ameliorate these concerns.

So how do they go about it?  An easy to use model for initiating change comes from the well-known Prochaska and Diclemente transtheoretical change model.  They describe the stages as involving the following: pre-contemplation; contemplation; preparation; action; and maintenance.  While often used in the context of changing health behaviors (e.g., quitting smoking) the stages still hold up when it comes to changing tween technology behaviors.

From wikimedia
Source: From wikimedia

Pre-contemplation:  This is the stage where often individuals don’t realize there is a problem at all.  It is the smoker unaware that smoking can really impact their health or the texter not seeing an issue with texts keeping them up at night. 

Contemplation:  The individual starts to get an inkling that there is a problem.  This is a very powerful stage because now we have recognition of a problem.  There may not be an immediate jump to action, but a smoker might start considering how they are coughing often or getting sick more easily.  The tween technology hound is seeing that too many screens be it the iPad, television, or iPhone are keeping her up at night.  She might realize all those lights going off with alerts are creating anxiety.

Preparation:  In this phase, we start planning to make the changes.  The smoker might not feel ready to quit until after a big performance evaluation at work.  The tween might start talking to friends about not being available 24/7 or think about what apps to delete off of their phones.

Action:  At last, we have that magical leap.  Granted, it is important to make those changes reasonable and occur gradually for the best impact.  Cold-turkey is not for everyone.  Maybe the smoker decreases a few cigarettes and adds some nicotine gum in.  The texter deletes apps, sleeps with the phone in another room, or (wait for it!) gets a dumb phone.  No apps, internet, or anything!  A bold but critical move for many to make. 

Maintenance: In this phase, we are aware of possible triggers and look for ways to combat them as they can lead to relapse.  Perhaps we move away from friend groups that engage in those risky behaviors or spend more time cultivating new interests and coping strategies.  Maintenance is a key phase that keeps the behavior going.  Perhaps the smoker is now a gum chewer.  But instead, every time they become anxious or crave something, they learn to go for a run or take a sip of water instead.  Maybe the tween techie moves away from video games altogether and instead joins the chess team and interacts with individuals one-on-one instead.

Often times in therapy, we spend ample time in merely the contemplation stage.  Believe it or not, sometimes months and years can go by before someone is really ready to confront their struggles head on.  But this doesn’t mean the work isn’t effective.  Sometimes it takes talking things out, exploring every possible scenario to see that change is not only possible but safe as well.  So go forth and be bold.  Have tough conversations with children and loved ones.  Realize it takes time and patience.  But at the end of the road what awaits is a fuller, more engaged life brimming with possibilities.

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