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How Do I Get My Teenager to “Let go”, “Look up” & Not “Like”

I watched with nostalgia as a group of teenage girls passed me by while I was drinking my delicious latte at a table in the food court the other day. It was like watching myself as a young girl with my peers fifteen years ago. They were all dressed similarly to each other (in clothes probably acquired in group shopping sprees, likely paid for by mom), and their hair was styled almost exactly the same (probably done in the same bathroom with the same brushes and hair products). They even carried identical bags from the stores they had been shopping in. There was one thing, though, that separated this scene from the memories of my own so many years ago… their cell phones.

Seemingly glued to their hands, heads angled down, thumbs flying effortlessly over glass screens- and none of them looking at each other or making any eye contact! Let me be clear: I am not so past this generational age that I don’t have that tell-tale curvature to my neck while I browse through apps and websites and photos on my own devices, so I can sympathize. But I am far enough beyond it that my best communication device at their age was a pager! Remember pagers??

Parents with teenagers old enough to be living in this mediated technology age know the dilemma. They have sometimes become accustomed to speaking to the side of their children’s heads, their eyes meeting young earlobes, and receiving the classic teenage short-responses and grunts. All the while though, the teens are clearly engaged in conversation through text messages and “liking” statuses and photos on Instagram, re-tweeting the latest celebrity posting, or viewing videos posted to Youtube, Tumblr, Vine, or Snapchat.

We all know that teens and adolescents today are very attached to their technological worlds. We might even have accusatory thoughts and expressions of frustration that denote concern over addictive-type behaviors regarding smart devices. Did you know that it is actually a “love” relationship being experienced with that cell phone? An article published in 2011 in the New York Times described the science behind that attachment to the devices. Brain mapping studies completed on 16 subjects showed that “… the most striking [finding of] all was the flurry of activation in the insular cortex of the brain, which is associated with feelings of love and compassion. The subjects’ brains responded to the sound of their phones as they would respond to the presence or proximity of a girlfriend, boyfriend or family member. In short, the subjects didn’t demonstrate the classic brain-based signs of addiction. Instead, they loved their iPhones.”

Can you now understand how important this technological connection has become for your teen? It gives them meaning, a sense of identity, a connection to friends, family, and the world at large. Since anything and everything can be found on the internet, we have good cause to wonder about the very real risks and downsides to this kind of immediate and constant gratification that comes alongside the magic of instantaneous information and connections. As parents and guardians, how do we work with these very real experiences and challenges?

We all know well enough that taking away these devices from young teens and adolescents doesn’t alleviate the problem. Technology exists in their day to day lives with friends, computers, and television, whether or not that is an unpleasant truth. As we cannot hover over our children at all times, in what ways – and at what opportunities – can we affect the changes that give kids the most concrete chances at a well-balanced emotional and socially developing life?

Technology distances us from the person on the other end of that “send” button. Think of the risks of an email drafted to express hurt or “hot-button” emotions directed at a loved one with whom we have had a falling out. There is too much room for misinterpretation, misunderstanding, and most risky, the rapid reflex response that comes with defenses protecting our egos and feelings. Jim Taylor, PhD of a Psychology Today posting tells us that “at a more visceral level, online life lacks the complexity and, well, untidiness of real life. It seems too safe, too clean, too controllable.” He’s very right. And our teenagers and very young adults (and sometimes kids as early and 7, 8, and 9) are experiencing social cueing, development, and frustration tolerance in an online forum, where they are missing out on the substance and richness of what real-life interpersonal interactions offer our brains, emotions and souls.

Taylor goes on to express my exact thoughts with the finesse of a mental health professional: “Real life, by contrast, is inherently complicated and messy. There are the sensations, emotions, thoughts, and behaviors over which children only have so much control. Real life is undefined, unstructured, and unrestricted. There is frustration, sadness, anger, and fear. There is also excitement, contentment, and love. Real life encompasses the fullest and richest of experiences, unfiltered and uncensored. When you ensure that your children experience this unmediated life, you allow them to learn and practice the skills necessary to navigate that sometimes chaotic life. Without those skills, children will be unprepared for real life as they progress through childhood and into adulthood.”

It seems that fighting the social media and technological war with our youngsters might be a lost cause, so we are left to responsibly explore other options. Maybe one of the answers is to embrace this real and very entrenched part of our modern lives, and meet our children where they are at with their social development… both mediated and unmediated.

Nicole J. Cappas, MFTI
Alana Epstein, LCSW

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