Teens today seem all but transfixed by their computers and handheld devices, and parents can sometimes feel like they spend more time staring at the top of their kids’ heads, than they ever do communicating face-to-face. But how much of teens’ laser-like focus on social media and the web amounts to harmless virtual socializing, and when should parents worry that their teens might be crossing tech lines?
Here to answer that question, is Stephanie Newman, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst, who writes and speaks on topics related to parenting, teens, bullying, and technology. Newman is also the author of “Mad Men on the Couch,” a psychological analysis of the hit television show, and a contributor to a forthcoming book on teens and technology.
Parents often worry that their hyper-connected teens are spending too much time alone in their rooms, however teens’ online activity is typically focused on engagement and connection through group chats, contests, and public endorsements (likes). In other words, screen time is mostly social time spent with friends virtual and real.
Identifying Internet Overuse
However, if your teenage displays any of the following behaviors, it’s time to intervene:
- Stops engaging in other activities.
- Becomes isolated.
- Stays up all night staring at a screen.
- Becomes agitated when access is denied.
Who is at risk?
Popular kids and their more isolated counterparts are both at risk of internet overuse, albeit for very different reasons.
Popular kids can devote hours to posting photos and updates on social media sites. Kids who are lonely, socially anxious or bullied, however, are often desperate to connect; they may engage in online activity such as gaming or chat rooms, to the exclusion of all else.
The Big Picture
Someone struggling with internet abuse may have an underlying depression or be experiencing social difficulties; most psychological problems don’t occur in a vacuum. No one knows your child better than you. Stay attuned to changes in mood or attitude. Watch for any slippage in grades, increased school absences, or periods of withdrawal--all are indicators of a student’s underlying psychological state. On the most concrete level, notice behavior. Someone who is struggling might shy away from activities previously enjoyed.
If You Suspect Your Teenager Has a Problem
1. Set limits on screen time.
2. Take the computer out of the bedroom, and place it in a common area so your adolescent cannot indulge into the night.
3. Confiscate the phone--and not just at bedtime or during meals. Screens and moving vehicles don’t go together.
4. Model good behavior: step away from the iPhone during meals and family time, and don’t text while driving.
Know What Your Teen Is Using
Parents and guardians need a passing familiarity with social sites and apps (see the glossary below). Cyberbullies use these platforms to engage in nasty or harmful electronic communications, always with disturbing results.
Given the prevalence of cyberbullying, monitoring teens’ online activity is important. Teens who have been bullied online have complained of depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. Cases have tragically resulted in suicide. And while bullying can take many forms, disparaging electronic communications have included pointed anonymous communications (“you are ugly; go kill yourself”), and posts dedicated to “hating” a specific individual.
If you ask, your teen may disclose their favorite outlets or let you follow a feed--just don’t comment publicly. Spyware programs also allow parents to track electronic goings on.
Talk To Your Teen About Additional Risks
- Chatting online with strangers exposes adolescents to advances by sexual and financial predators.
- Photos and texts are easily forwarded; teens sending nude or compromising photos (sexting) put their reputations and relationships at risk. Teens who send or receive sexually explicit images can also find themselves on the wrong side of sexting and child pornography laws; it is important that your teen understands how serious the consequences can be.
Glossary: Know What Your Teen Is Using
Instagram, Twitter: Used for posting messages and photos. Mudslinging occurs.
iChat: Allows filming and live streaming.
Vine: A video-sharing site. Teens need to be careful of compromising footage.
Ask.fm: A hugely popular site where teens can pose questions anonymously, and often, abusively.
Snapchat: This app became popular because users could post photos which disappeared after 10 second photos; however, unsuspecting posters learned the hard way that their snaps could be captured.
Tumblr: Users collect and post photos and catalogue images.
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