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Family Matters 08/09/17

Technology and Teens: Parenting Changes You Should Make

Teen girls on their smartphones

Your daughter barely looks you in the eyes during a family outing. She's on her phone and laughing at social media posts. Should you be concerned?

According to San Diego State University professor, Dr. Jean Twenge, yes! Dr. Twenge has been studying teens raised in the era of smart phones and social media for the past 25 years. If you parent a teen, pay attention as the results of her research should lead to a call to action.

Dr. Twenge found that today's teens are different than the millennials who preceded them. While both generations grew up with the web, this generation of teens has had the continuous presence of phones and social media in their lives. That presence has shaped their lives in these eight ways:

1. How teens spend their time

Virtual spaces have replaced actual spaces. What this means is that the typical call to independence with teens leaving the house to congregate has changed. Twenge found that the need to go out is not as strong as "community" that is a touch away. As a result, this has changed social interactions, mental and physical health as noted below.

2. Teens are physically safer

Due to the twin rise of social media and smartphones, teens can spend more time in their bedrooms on the phone rather than going out. This means less chance for physically reckless behavior. From a pure safety point of view, teens are in the house and safe.

3. Teens are psychologically more vulnerable

Teen depression and suicide rates have skyrocketed since 2012. "Teens who spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy, and those who spend more time than average on nonscreen activities are more likely to be happy." The research indicates that the more time spent on screens, the more unhappy and at risk a teen is for depression. The reverse was also found to be true. The more time off screens, the happier a teen feels. However, teens who are social overall, tend to spend time on both social media and with real-life friends. But those on social media and not spending time with friends, become lonely. This data seems to be very clear. If your teen is very social, the screen time won't make much of a difference. But if your teen is using social media to socialize, there are mental health risks.

4. Changes in depression and suicide rates linked to social media use

"Teens who spend three hours a day or more on electronic devices are 35 percent more likely to have a risk factor for suicide, such as making a suicide plan." The thinking is that for those kids who feel left out, social media worsens that left out feeling. And when a teen, especially girls, are waiting for online affirmations and likes that don't come, they can become depressed even suicidal. Any teen vulnerable to feelings of isolation and depression is not being helped by social media use.

5. Phone use is cutting into sleep

Sleep problems impact a host of things, such as depression, memory, and more. Interrupted sleep prevents the body from doing what it needs to do. During sleep, our body removes harmful wastes from cellular metabolism and neutralizes them. Sleep helps in decision-making, organizes and solidifies long-term memories, and helps teens learn better. So if the light of a phone is keeping your teen awake or interrupting their sleep, learning is jeopardized. Put the phone away from the bed.

6. Less dating

Teens are dating much less than previous high school generations. Instead, teens "talk" in text on their phones. The good news is that the decline in dating has also led to a decline of sexual activity and the teen birth rate which is at an all-time low. However, this is not real-time socialization.

7. Teens are not working as much and earning their own money

Twenge noted that childhood is stretches into high school. Teens are waiting longer to take on the responsibilities of adulthood. She says that if your social life is lived on your phone, you can be more content to stay at home and delay independence. But then, are we preparing these teens for the responsibilities of adult life?

8. Teens have more leisure time than previous generations, but spend it on their phones

The problem is phones and social media don't really cut it when it comes to satisfying needs and relationships. This often leaves teens feeling alone and distressed. And even though teens are living at home, have more leisure time, they aren't closer to their parents. It appears they aren't fully present in their real-time relationships because they are connecting on a device.

Bottom line for anyone who knows or has a teen: Get off screens and engage with people who are present. Parents need to enforce screen use or teens will miss the importance of developing critical social skills in adolescence. Furthermore, your teen's mental health may be at stake.

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