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3 Ways Tech Can Support Teens Right Now

How teens and parents can navigate tech during this unprecedented time.

Hopelab, used with permission.
Source: Hopelab, used with permission.

In many ways, the mental health of young people is being challenged in unprecedented ways. A recent report from the health insurer, Cigna found that 79 percent of Gen Z Americans experience at least one of the key clinical indicators of loneliness. That means today’s young people are the loneliest generation yet. It’s easy to blame technology and social media for this, yet these tools have become so important for teens during this year of physical isolation.

That can be a tough challenge for parents. What are they to do about it?

Here are some ways that tech can improve the lives of teens and strategies parents can use to promote these uses.

1. Help teens use tech to help bring friends together for deep, meaningful connections.

I recently watched a 2018 TedXOakland Talk by 15-year-old Ilana Nguyen, a student at Stanford Online High School. The majority of her social connections are facilitated by technology, but she argues that technology has fostered deep meaningful connections between her and her friends and that she is not at all lonely as a result.

Does this mean that the majority of teens’ connections should be online? Well, no—but it does suggest that technology can help friends have deep connections when they aren’t able to connect in person.

So how can you use this insight with your teen(s)? Try encouraging your teen to make a plan to call a friend if they are feeling down rather than jumping on social media. Also, try to make sure that the connections your teen is having online are as social as possible. For example, earlier today I facilitated a FaceTime call between my oldest son, his best friend, and his cousin. Not only would the cousin and friend not otherwise have met each other, but the children were able to have a conversation that was more meaningful and fun than if one person was having a tech-enabled interaction such as playing a video game by themselves.

And the result? They were able to see each other without masks and actually talk about things they cared about. After the call, my son was happier than I had seen him in days. That’s because teens need to connect with friends in ways that are deeper than those offered via social media, videos, or video games alone.

2. Help teens use social media and apps for healthy, safe intervention that improves health and wellbeing.

Social media can provide a supportive environment where young people are able to get interventions for health and wellbeing that actually work. For example, my research lab at UC San Francisco produced a program of research showing promise in using social media to help young adults quit smoking and reduce heavy drinking; a tailored intervention for LGBTQ+ young people was more effective than one without tailoring.

Part of what makes social media interventions effective appears to be the live connection with a counselor who can boost the messaging that takes place in posts or between users by explaining the “why” of behavior change skills and increase motivation. In this way, social media can bring people together who may not otherwise have been able to connect with each other to support changes in the real world.

One way parents can make use of these resources is by encouraging teens to enroll in university-backed research on the safe use of technology to support mental health. Parents might also invite their teens to use apps that research has shown to support mental health. Check out The Anxiety and Depression Association of America’s review of apps to find the right ones for your teens and the PsyberGuide to search and filter apps that show promise or efficacy for adolescents. But remember, the effectiveness of mental health apps is still unclear, so parents should be cautious when recommending an app that has not been tested with a teen population or reviewed by experts.

3. Support the use of beneficial video games, in small doses.

A 2014 review on the positive effects of video game play showed video games can lead to improvements in thinking, motivation, emotion, and social life. Video games have only gotten better since that paper was published, and are now even being used in therapeutic treatment. For example, in early 2020, the first video game-based treatment for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) was approved by the FDA. A clinical trial with 348 children and teens diagnosed with ADHD showed that those who interacted with the video game over a month showed improved attention compared to those in a control group that played a different game.

What video games might parents support? Well, soon parents whose children are diagnosed with ADHD will be able to ask their health care providers about using this video game in treatment.

Tech for Good

It makes sense that parents might feel a bit lost in the sea of tech and teens today. But there are some ways to take advantage of tech’s ability to bring people together, to help existing relationships go deeper, and to relieve the stress we are all experiencing as a result of a worldwide pandemic. Teens, in particular, can be supported through tech solutions that can help to fill the void of the loss of in-person connection during COVID.


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