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Are Teens Worse Off Than Ever Before? Part III

In my earlier posts, I discussed the unprecedented social, cultural, and economic pressures teens face today. In this post, I will explore the positive and negative impacts of new technologies (especially social media and smartphones) on teen mental health.

Have You Heard of These Apps?

SnapChat, Vine, Tumblr, WhatsApp, ooVoo, Kik, Whisper, Yik Yak, Instagram, Pinterest...if you’ve spoken with a teenager recently, you’ve probably heard these names mentioned and not known what half of them meant. As it becomes more the rule than the exception for teens to have smartphones, you find increasing numbers of them absolutely glued to their screens engaging in texting, sexting, sharing, trolling, and chatting with friends, frenemies and strangers.

Of course, adolescence is an important and painfully confusing period of identity development in which peer relationships are elevated to the highest importance in a teen’s psyche. That there are apps that help teens retreat into their private social worlds is not intrinsically worrisome, and most of what happens on them is just the virtual equivalent of what happens in “real-life”. But there are a few notable exceptions to this.

The Benefits of Technology

One of those most painful aspects of being a teen is social alienation and identity confusion. It can be hard to make friends, because doing so usually requires assimilation into ruthless social hierarchies—a skill many teens are neither adept at nor interested in developing. Those lucky enough to grow up in cosmopolitan urban areas may find that their cities offer them many opportunities to connect with like-minded peers, which can help alleviate the arbitrary and relatively small social pool of the High School they happen to be dumped into. Those in smaller cities and towns, however, may feel socially marooned.

Social media, and the internet more generally, has created amazing opportunities for teens to connect to social groups that speak to them, find and begin to emulate role models, and instill a sense of hope in broader horizons beyond High School. This has provided relief to countless LGBTQ kids and racial minorities.

The Harms of Technology

As many cultural critics have noted, technology itself is not harmful, but rather it is how it’s used that causes problems. Here, briefly, are just a few of them:

Cyber Addiction

I recently wrote about the impact of new technologies on mental health, and it isn’t pretty. This applies every bit as much for teenagers, and probably more, as their brains and bodies are in a critical stage of development. Teens are trying to understand their thoughts, feelings, urges and identities, and it is a very distressing time; anything that provides relief from this distress is going to have enormous appeal. And while some traditional addictions may be out of reach or unpalatable, becoming emotionally dependent on so-called smart technology provides an appealing alternative. This is dangerous, because teens may use technology as a form of self-regulation and self-medication. As a coping tool, this is fine, but an over-reliance on technology will, like other addictions, prevent teens from developing the necessary skills to understand and tolerate their feelings and begin to think more critically about the consequences of their actions on themselves and others.

Nature Deprivation and Immobility

The idea that technology is depriving children of something essential to well being (i.e., a connection to nature and a healthy level of physical activity) is not new – certainly this fear was rampant when televisions became popular in the 1950s. Before that, comic books were a concern. The adult collective psyche seems archetypally programmed to fret about our children’s welfare in an ever-changing world.

So is smart technology and social media fundamentally different from these older diversions? Reasonable people can disagree; though studies do indicate that kids today are less physically fit than their parents.

As kids find more and more instant gratification from their devices and train their nervous systems to expect that, the appeal of the slow, contemplative and wonderous aspects of nature immersion lose their appeal.

Sexting & CyberBullying

Precocious sexuality and bullying have adapted to the digital age. There are now new and more secretive ways of exploring sexuality, through “sexting”, which can insulate teens from their parents’ ability to monitor their contact to make sure it is appropriate, consensual and not harmful. Sexting is especially troubling when one considers the “digital footprint” we all leave, and the potentially damaging effects it can have long-term (would you want a naked picture of your teenage self floating around in the world?)

The same goes with cyber-bullying, which can be done maliciously and anonymously, and increase teens’ risk of depression, self-harm and suicide. Bullies are, by definition, short on empathy, but transferring the abusive dynamics to a digital format further shields bullies from seeing the impact of their behavior; this in turn discourages self-regulation, and intensifies the degree and frequency of assaults.

Erosion of Social Skills

Finally, all of this contributes to the arrested development of social skills such as developing confidence, conversational grace, tolerating conflict and discomfort, maintaining eye contact and attention. Just consider the “Rule of Threes” discussed in this brilliant essay on how technology is harming our social connections:

When college students explain to me how dividing their attention plays out in the dining hall, some refer to a “rule of three.” In a conversation among five or six people at dinner, you have to check that three people are paying attention — heads up — before you give yourself permission to look down at your phone. So conversation proceeds, but with different people having their heads up at different times. The effect is what you would expect: Conversation is kept relatively light, on topics where people feel they can drop in and out.

As adults, the harm in this may not seem as obvious, because we had the opportunity to develop our social skills during critical developmental periods in a pre-smartphone era. Adding smart technology into our rotine later in life has not had the same affect as it would have when we were teens, just beginning to learn about ourselves and how to relate to others.

Limit Screen Time

If you are a teen or a parent, I hope you will think critically about technology in your life and be mindful of when and how you engage with it. As I said in the beginning of this post, smart technology is not inherently bad, but we need to recognize its subtle power in our lives and take active steps to combat it. Read here for more ideas about how to limit screen time.

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