There is a chorus of parents and educators who are worried about teenagers possibly being addicted to their texting and social media activities. Many believe that the constant need to be communicating online with their smartphones or other devices is causing teenagers to become anti-social; that they will lose the ability for authentic human interaction; and that they no longer know how to make eye-contact and have meaningful face-to-face interaction with peers. The reality is that internet communication is here to stay so parents need to know the difference between healthy versus addictive behavior. When handled maturely, much of what happens with their online communication can actually be healthy for teens emotionally, socially and intellectually. If, however a teenager is participating in an excessive, unhealthy way, it is important to understand why.
Teens that use online communication in a functional way are using it as an interactive way of engaging, connecting, communicating, sharing and discovering. These are teens with a strong inner core, created by a healthy dose of positive self-esteem and self-confidence. This emotional maturity means that they are likely to make good choices about:
- The percentage of their lives they spend on online activities.
- Who they communicate with.
- What they post.
- How they respond to communications.
- How much they share.
- Keeping their privacy.
- Knowing when to switch it off.
Teenagers that use online communication in a dysfunctional way:
- Spend a disproportionate amount of time glued to their screen, virtually to the exclusion of much else.
- Are lost in their own space, often to the point where they don’t see you or hear you.
- Can become very edgy and irritable when they are parted from their phone or iPad.
- Measure their self-worth by their online activity.
- Find it virtually impossible to put the iPad or mobile phone down when in company.
- Go to sleep too late because they cannot switch off.
- Use online activity as a way of gaining the attention and approval they crave. These teens need constant validation from others and often see online communication as a popularity contest – who can get the most texts, friend requests or get the most pictures tagged.
What Can Parents Do?
1. Don’t fear the worst.
Remember that this is a whole new world for you as a parent and perhaps you are looking at your teenager’s behavior through outdated lenses. (And by the way, be sure that your own online behavior is not addictive)!
2. Know your child
If you think may your teen may be addicted to social media, ask yourself whether this could be connected to poor self-esteem. Look for signs that may suggest that your teen feels inadequate. Does your teen try too hard to please his friends? Is she always anxious about what others think? Does he put himself down? Does she wish she were more like some of her peers?
3. Have the courage to treat the underlying cause.
It is not a good idea to be in denial if you think your teenager is grappling with poor self-confidence. Hoping they will grow out of it is not a useful strategy. If you believe your teen may have a self-esteem problem that is contributing to what appears to be an addiction to online communication, then seek skilled assistance with this. Find a skilled therapist/coach to help your child address the emotional issues, which he or she is probably aware of, but may have never spoken about.
4. Manage the social media conversation with your teen skillfully
Arguing with your teenager about online addiction or imposing restrictive rules will not bring about positive changes and will strain your relationship. Instead of labeling your child’s behavior as the problem, explain that it leaves you and others feeling left out for so many hours of the day and that you value the time you have to spend together. Ask for ideas about when you can spend time together free of phones and let them come up with suggestions of how, when and where.
To learn more or to register for Dr. Sandy’s FREE Online Webinar ”Solving Your Child’s Learning, Behavior and Mood Problems Without Drugs” (Feb 7 and 13, 7:15 – 8:15 PM) or live seminar (Feb 7, 2 to 4 PM, $49), go to www.parentstakecharge.com.