The computer represents the ‘edge of parental power’. As parents, you may be starting to feel this loss of control in a number of different ways. You may no longer be familiar with all of your teen’s social group, as they don’t physically enter your home. You may no longer know all of your teen’s interests because they are keeping them hidden. You may not know or have control over what images, videos, personal information or details about your family have been posted online. According to current data, there was a staggering 1.38 billion smartphones were sold worldwide in 2020 alone. (“Smartphone sales worldwide | Statista”, 2022) The world is changing – or has changed, whether we like it or not.
The question remains, how do we begin to find ways of helping our young people maintain control in world dictated by chirping, beeping, vibrating, posting, tweeting, and scrolling?So, what are the signs that there might be something to worry about? As articulated in Clinical Psychologist Andrew Fuller’s fabulous text Here are a few pointers that could indicate your teen already has a problem balancing their online life with their face-to-face life:
- They often stay online longer than intended/permitted
- Family disputes about time spent online are becoming increasingly common
- They seem to prefer the excitement of the internet to time with friends or family, and often choose to spend time online over going out with others
- Schoolwork is suffering because of the amount of time they are spending online
- They become defensive or secretive when anyone asks them about what they do online
- They think life without their devices/the internet would be boring, empty and joyless
- They often snap, yell or act annoyed if someone interrupts them when they are online
- They deprive themselves of sleep in order to be online
- They seem depressed, moody or nervous when offline.
So what harm is it actually doing?Adolescence is a time when new and important pathways in the brain are being created. These pathways are built by repetitive action or process, and considering that some teens are spending upwards of 8 hours in front of a screen each day – they are certainly limiting the range of skills being practiced. Computer games and social media reward reactive and snap-decision making, over thoughtful, considered strategy. Screens increase distractibility, skimming and scanning. Some teens have become so fixed on social media that they have little time for anything else. School, family relationships and physical health can suffer, as they often deprive themselves of sleep and meaningful, authentic social contact. The idea of turning devices off, unplugging from the cyberworld and doing something else is a foreign concept to many teens, and any parent who has tried to treat their teen’s device addition will likely have experienced the fear, anger and rage that goes along with it. However, we must remember: Teens are physiologically incapable of regulating their own device usage, they need our help. According to Andrew Fuller, parents have three ways of controlling their teen’s device usage:
- Sit down with them as they use it
- Restrict access to sites offering violence and/or sexual images
- Restrict the amount of time young people can access the internet each day.
Some Practical suggestions:Ready for the hard-core approach? Delete social media apps such as Facebook and Instagram from our phones. If we want to use them, we can fire up our laptops. Not feeling quite that brave? Try these options:
- Start by helping the teen earn ‘free’ device access by completing specific tasks – homework, sports and social activities. Enjoying some ‘green time’ before being rewarded with some ‘screen time’
- Consider using internet usage controls on home routers to limit the hours of internet access for each device in the household. For example, blocking your teen’s laptop and phone from having access to the internet between 10pm and 7am. (Seek advice from your internet provider/network at home)
- Try turning off all notifications on their mobile devices– they only exist to encourage us to maintain regular contact with specific apps
- Remove all addictive apps from home screens, hide them away. Out of sight, out of mind
- If heading out as a family, try leaving (at least some of the) mobile phones at home. Invest in time spent together, face to face
- Model this behaviour. We ‘grown-ups’ can benefit just as much from switching off our own devices and spending some quality time together as a family. Read a book, go for a walk, get out together and give yourself a break from the screens too. Your brain will thank you for it later.