Parents worry about the impact technology may have on their toddlers' development. Our preschoolers are learning new skills quickly, and we don’t want them spending hours staring at an iPad. Adolescence is a crucial period of rapid growth. Unfortunately, too few people are paying attention to how teenagers' use of technology affects them. It's more intimate and intense than a 3-year old playing with his iPhone. Experts worry that teens are becoming more anxious and less self-confident due to the use of text messages and social media.
According to young people, there may be reasons to worry. The Royal Society for Public Health conducted a survey asking 14-24-year-olds in the UK about how social media platforms had affected their health and well-being. According to the survey, Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook all lead to higher levels of anxiety, depression, and poor body image, as well as loneliness.
Teenagers can keep themselves busy from after school to well into the night. Teens are always online, on their phones and texting. They share, trolling, scroll, tweet, and even share their homework when they're not. While teens did have an Instagram account before everyone else, they found it easier to chat on the phone or in person while at the mall. Although it may seem like they were just wasting their time, what they were actually doing was trying new skills and succeeding in tiny, real-time interactions that many kids are missing. Modern teens learn to communicate with each other through screens.
"As a species, we are highly tuned to reading social cues," Dr. Catherine Steiner Adair, a clinical psychologist who is also the author of The Big Disconnect says. There is no doubt that children are lacking essential social skills. Although texting and internet communication does not create a nonverbal learning disorder, it can place everyone in a nonverbal disability context where body language, facial expressions, and even the smallest vocal reactions are invisible.
Reduce the risk
Although it is true that indirect communication can create a barrier to clear communication, it's not the only problem. Making friends is an important part of growing up. Friendship requires some risk taking. This applies to making new friends, but also for keeping friendships. It takes courage to share your feelings with the other person and listen to their perspective when there are big or small problems. It is important to be able to cross these lines. This is what makes friendship exciting and fun, but also frightening. Dr. Steiner Adair notes that healthy self-esteem includes being able to express your thoughts and feelings even when it is difficult or uncomfortable.
But when friendship is conducted online and through texts, kids are doing this in a context stripped of many of the most personal--and sometimes intimidating--aspects of communication. Because you are texting, it is easier to be cautious and keep your mind on the other person. The effect your words have on another person is not visible or heard. Each party can take longer to respond because the conversation is not happening in real-time. It's no wonder children say it is too intense to call someone on the telephone. You need more direct communication and it can feel frightening if you aren’t used.
If kids aren't getting enough practice relating to people and getting their needs met in person and in real time, many of them will grow up to be adults who are anxious about our species' primary means of communication--talking. As people age, they become more vulnerable to social negotiations as they navigate romantic relationships and work.
Cyberbullying and the imposter Syndrome
Another danger is that kids are more likely to communicate in indirect ways. Dr. Donna Wick, a developmental and clinical psychologist, says that kids text all kinds of things that you wouldn't in a million years consider saying to someone's face. This is especially true for girls who are less likely to agree with one another in "real life".
"You want to teach them how to disagree without jeopardizing their relationship. But what social media is teaching is that they are able to disagree in more extreme ways and that can jeopardize their relationship. She says it's exactly what they don't want to see happen.
Dr. Steiner Adair agrees that girls are at greatest risk. Dr. Steiner-Adair says that girls are more likely to be socialized to compare themselves to others, and in particular to build their identities. She also warns that lack of self-esteem is often to blame. "Relational aggression is often caused by insecurity, feeling bad about yourself, and trying to make others feel better.
Teens value peer acceptance. Many of them are as concerned about their image and appearance as politicians running for office. To them, it can feel just as serious. You can't help but be amazed at how many kids are receiving actual polling data about their looks via "likes." It's hard to imagine anyone not wanting to look better. Children can spend hours enhancing their online identity, trying to project a perfect image. Teenage girls go through hundreds of photos and decide which ones they want to share online. Boys try to get more attention, pushing the boundaries in an already chaotic online environment. Children gang up on one another.
This is something adolescents have done since childhood. But with social media, they now have more options and more traps than ever. It only increases the pressure when kids look at their social media feeds and see how amazing everyone is. While we are used to worrying about unrealistic ideals that magazines models present to our children, what happens when the next-door child is also photoshopped? What happens when your profile isn't representative of the person you really feel?
Dr. Wick says, "Adolescence, and especially the early twenties, are the years when you are acutely aware that there are contrasts between who and what you actually are." It's similar to what psychologists call the "imposter syndrome". You realize you are actually good at certain things as you age and gain more mastery. The gap between you and your peers will hopefully shrink. Imagine your deepest darkest fear being that you're not as good as what you see. Then imagine that you need to be that way all the time. It can be exhausting.
Dr. Steiner Adair says that self-esteem is about consolidating who you really are.
Stalking (and being ignored)
One of the biggest changes that new technology has brought about, especially with smartphones, is that we're never alone. Children can update their status and share what they are reading, listening to and watching. They also have apps that allow their friends to see their exact location on a map. Even if someone isn't trying keep his friends up to date, they're still able to reach him via text messages. This results in kids feeling hyper connected to one another. It feels like there is always something happening and the conversation doesn't need to end.
Dr. Wick notes that no matter what we think about the "relationships" maintained on social media, children never get a break. That can cause anxiety. Everybody needs some time to relax from the demands of intimacy or connection. It's easy for anxiety to grow if you don't get that.
In the midst of all this hyperconnection, it's easy to feel lonely. One thing is that kids know with depressing certainty if they are being ignored. The silence that can result from waiting for a response to your message is deafening. This silent treatment could be an insult to a strategy or a side effect of an online relationship.
"In the olden days, when a boy was going through a breakup with you, he needed to have a conversation. Dr. Wick says that he at least had to call. Dr. Wick says, "He might disappear from your screen these days and you never get the 'What' conversation." Children often imagine the worst of themselves.
Even if the conversation ends, anxiety can still be caused by being in a state of constant waiting. It can be difficult to feel like we are being put on the back burner. We put others back there and our human need for communication is effectively delegated there.
What can parents do to help their children succeed?
The best way for parents to reduce the risk associated with technology use is to limit their own usage. This was the consensus of both experts who were interviewed. Parents have to be an example of healthy computer use. We check our emails and phones too often, either out of genuine interest or because we are anxious. Our faces should be seen by our children, not our heads glued to a screen. Technology-free zones should be established in the home and no one can use the phone during the day. Dr. Steiner Adair recommends that you don't go to the door after work and start a conversation. Dr. Steiner-Adair advises that you don't go in after work and say "hi" quickly and then check your email. You should give them your complete attention until they get out the door. You shouldn't be talking on your phones while driving to and from school.
Limiting your time spent on computers provides a healthy counterpoint in today's tech-obsessed society. It also strengthens the parent-child bond, and makes children feel safer. Your kids need to know you are there to listen to their problems, share their day or just give them a reality check.
Dr. Steiner Adair warns that it is the "mini-moments" of disconnection when parents become too focused on their screens and devices, which can dilute the parent-child bond. You might not like the results when your children start to turn to the internet for information or help. Dr. Steiner Adair says that technology can provide your children with more information than you can and doesn't reflect your values. It won't be sensitive or developmentalally appropriate to your child's personality.
Dr. Wick also recommends that you delay the age at which your child first uses alcohol. Dr. Wick advises that the age of first use be delayed as much as possible. She advises against reading text messages unless there are serious concerns. "If there is a reason to be concerned, then that's fine. But it must be a valid reason. Parents who spy on their children are common. Trusting your children is the first step for parents. It is extremely damaging for the relationship to not give your child the benefit of the doubt. It is important to feel that your parents believe you are a good child.
Online, the best advice to help kids develop healthy self-esteem is getting them involved in something they are interested in. It could be sports or music or taking apart computers or volunteering--anything that sparks an interest and gives them confidence. Children will be happier and more prepared to succeed in real life if they feel confident about their abilities and not how they look or what they have. The fact that most of these activities involve interacting with peers face to face is the cherry on top.