I am guessing that if you are reading this at least a bit of you is concerned….
…concerned perhaps that your teen is spending their time focused on a small screen and it is getting harder to get their attention. Perhaps you are worried that much of their outside of school socialising takes place online now rather than in person. You might be worried about what is happening to their brains, their self confidence, their attention span. Or worried about their safety because you don’t know who they are with or what they are up to 100% of the time.
These are the sorts of concerns I hear frequently from parents and as a mum of a 13 year old, I share. I sometimes feel limited by the fact I am unable to navigate the virtual world with the casual ease of a teenager.
Are we right to be worried? It is natural for teenagers to want to pull away, to find their identity away from us. It is also natural for us to worry. Have we given our young people the tools they need to survive and thrive in a changing world? This is a good question to ask. We may also wonder what role we still have as parents of teens in supporting, guiding and protecting without controlling, stifling and alienating?
What does the research say?
In the last decade, increasing mental distress and treatment for mental health conditions among youth in North America has paralleled a steep rise in the use of smartphones and social media by children and adolescents. Surveys carried out between 2013 and 2015 showed a link between poor self reported mental health/ life satisfaction and the use of Facebook. There is some evidence that social media platforms have been designed in highly sophisticated ways that use behavioural psychology, neuroscience and artificial intelligence — to promote behavioural reinforcement and behavioural addiction.
“Just like architectural and industrial design has certain patterns, so does behavioral design. The human mind is quite flexible. All social media platforms have ways to keep you coming back”, Ramsay Brown.
A 2018 study found adolescents to be checking social media an average of 71 times per day in the hope of a dopamine hit. This constant need to check is associated with the production of the stress hormone cortizol and is associated with higher levels of anxiety. This dopamine seeking behavior has been linked to lower attention span and a decrease in academic performance.
People often spend longer than they intend on social media: Our brains naturally sort tasks so that they have a beginning, middle and end, the infinite scrolling of social media removes the end cue making it hard for people to stop. This has been associated with poorer quality sleep, especially if the scrolling takes place late at night. Several studies have discovered a link between a decrease in sleep and episodes of low mood/depression in adolescents.
The habits we form as teenagers tend to last. There are some fascinating processes which take place in adolescents’ brains such as myelination, meaning the strengthening of neural pathways and synaptic pruning, the loss of synaptic connections no longer in use. Both processes exist to increase efficiency.
Build trust and create gaps in their screen use
When our young people are navigating adolescence remember that they still need us to provide a safe and secure base. The amount of time they want to spend with us is likely to decrease but it is crucial for their psychological well being that time with us each day is a priority: Time when you are together without devices, just hanging out. It is helpful if your teen associates these times with pleasure so find things you both enjoy like eating together or being in nature. A weekly ritual of going to a cafe for hot chocolate can be lovely and provide a safe space for our teenager to share their worries.
We need our teenagers to feel self assured enough to resist the pressures of their peers sometimes. According to research those who have received high levels of parental warmth and really clear boundaries are most likely to be confident enough to do this. In other words those who know beyond doubt that they are loved but also realise there are limits and boundaries. These boundaries should be an expression of the values we hold as parents and of the love we feel for our children.
Having a strong relationship with our teen means they are more likely to respect and care for us, therefore more likely to listen when we express a need or set a limit.
It also creates a space for dialogue, so that we can discuss and research the effects of social media with them. This means they can collaborate in making choices and are more likely to turn to us when they feel afraid or out of control. It is important that we, as adults, are honest about our own screen dependency if this is also an issue for you so we can be alongside our teen in overcoming it.
As a family you could start with small acts of rebellion against the social media algorithm such as giving up scrolling and just using the messaging features or only watching youtube content you have actively searched for rather than the videos the app recommends. Because many of the most popular social media platforms are designed to create dependency, teenagers may need our guidance to recognise and decrease this.
Start to create gaps in your screen use. Support your teen to find the discipline to have screen breaks, put away the phone and stare at the wall or look at the world around them. Help them to find the motivation within themselves by teaching them the link between times of low stimulation and creativity: How sometimes being a little bit bored can allow them to come up with new ideas or ways of thinking. The positive effects of time in nature and face to face interactions on wellbeing are things teenagers can start to learn more about and appreciate.
The primary experiences teenagers seek on social media are interaction and validation.
Face to face interactions where they feel safe, accepted and seen can be a good antidote. Finding activities and groups which make them feel good allows them to gather evidence that putting their devices away can actually make life more enjoyable. Help them to actively reflect on how they feel in real world interactions versus digital ones. Then they can become active participants in creating a life which leads to good mental health in the long term.
If your teen is not yet using social media my advice would be to delay this as much as possible. It can be helpful to meet with the parents of your child’s friends so that you can make agreements around social media use as a community. If their friends are not relying on it for social interaction/approval there will be less of a pull for your child to do so.
To sum up
The effects of social media use are significant enough to be of concern. A good place to start in learning about this with your teenager is the documentary The Social Dilemma and the associated work on the Centre For Humane Technology. Let’s start using our tech to our advantage instead of being swept along by the search for dopamine which ultimately leaves feeling empty. Make tech free time part of your family’s daily routine even if unfamiliar feelings of boredom rise to the surface. Having the courage to feel a little bit of discomfort in the gaps can lead to unexpected whims and ideas taking hold and the potential for a more rewarding adventure.
Contact me if this is an area you would like support with via firstname.lastname@example.org