Teens & Tech

by Alexis Irias in
woman sitting leaning forehead on knee

My 16-year-old niece (who was ten at the time) inspired me to think about digital behavior. Specifically how technology may be affecting the youth's development. I had the opportunity to get to know her more when we both lived in Washington D.C. During our interactions, whether it was in family settings or one-on-one, I observed curiously as she'd play MindCraft, as she'd reach for her mom's phone at dinner, and as she'd find that life on-screen was seemingly more entertaining than off-screen.

This led me to become an unofficial researcher of human and digital behavior- I'd observe the youth at restaurants, airports, and waiting rooms. Taking mental note on how they experienced boredom or didn't... I

I've always been fascinated by the way kids think. They can carry an innate wisdom in their simplicity that I worry may disappear if kids are recognizing a digital butterfly before a real-life one, if they are valuing digital interactions over physical ones, if they are unable to be bored.

Generation Z, The Digital Natives

Technology plays a significant role in this population’s daily life. As true digital natives, they have been exposed to and are active participants of the internet, social networks, and mobile devices for as long as they can remember. Born after 1997, the oldest GenZer was 10 when the iPhone first launched. By the time they were teens, on-demand entertainment and communication were the norms.

Parents find themselves at a loss on how to promote the mindful use of technology for their children since they are often also struggling with the digital innovations that have become a regular part of their life. Life has taken an "always-on" quality which is resulting in an increase in mental fatigue and a loss of patience to manage their children's boredom and tantrums. The easy solution is to let them tune out while parents, oftentimes, do the same. No judgment here, even though I'm not a parent, I empathize.

According to a Pew Research Center study, “A majority of parents in the United States (66%) – which include those who have at least one child under the age of 18, but who may also have an adult child or children – say that parenting is harder today than it was 20 years ago, with many in this group citing technology as a reason why.”

In a world where both parents and teens are unaware of how to regulate their technology use, it seems imperative to educate adolescents about how to go about achieving healthy relationships with social media platforms and our devices.  

The promotion of digital safety is also important to touch on with this population. In the article “How Parents Monitor Their Teen’s Digital Behavior,” it is stated that Some 39% of parents say they turn to parental controls or other technological tools to block, filter, or monitor their teen’s online activities. And even fewer parents report using parental controls to restrict their teen’s use of his or her cellphone (16%) or using monitoring tools on their teen’s cellphone to track his or her location (16%).

I don't want to discredit the benefits that social media can have as a source of social support and connectivity, especially during the present times we are living through. The pandemic has proven the value of digital tools during times of physical social isolation. While recognizing the importance of digital technologies for increased connectivity in this unique time of history, it's also important to acknowledge the adverse health effects overuse of screen-time can create.

We've likely heard about the effect screen-time has on the brain in regards to dopamine and melatonin. Simplified, dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is known as the “feel-good chemical. Social media sites, mobile apps, and video games are intentionally crafted to trigger a variable reward which is one of the things that contributes to addiction. I worry that if kids/teens are overstimulated by their digital devices in their youth, will they be capable of being happy, satisfied, able to experience pleasure by the simple (and real) things in adulthood?

The Effect of Screen Time

We are just now starting to uncover the negative effects of screen time and increased digital use. We can compare this to how popular cigarettes were in the 1950s where there was little evidence of any negative side-effects related to this lifestyle choice.

Even when we hear or comment on how frequently devices use is bad for us, we rarely back this with scientific and biological reasoning. We may have a vague idea that there is a link between screen time and things such as obesity or thinning the area of the brain in charge of critical thinking, or melatonin secretion, but we are challenged with finding a simple way to communicate this to the youth.

 Dr. Jennifer Cross warns, “Too much time spent on social media as well as lack of sleep can affect behavior and cognitive performance in school and interfere with learning. It has also been shown that excessive screen time and sleep deprivation are linked to obesity, which in turn can affect self-esteem and lead to social isolation and more screen time.”

According to The Sleep Foundation, 4 out of 10 Americans take their cellphone to bed with them when trying to fall asleep. This is most common for adolescents and adults from the ages of 13 to 29. 

The Challenges of a Digital Life

Kids are exposed to pretty much everything and anything these days. Curious about what something looks like? Just google it. This can be a source of education and also an opportunity for kids to know a little too much a little too soon.

Another emerging issue among teens, particularly teenage girls is the increased use of selfies and social media filters which have created a phenomenon called "Social Media Dysmorphia,” where individuals are drastically changing the shapes of their noses, eyes, chins, and/or lips, as well as adding dramatic makeup and smoothing out their complexions through both online applications and plastic surgery. Anxiety around body image increases in puberty and is exasperated by social media. Problematic digital behavior affects various vital aspects of life.

According to Solstice East, a residential treatment center for teen girls, “88% of girls say they compare themselves to images in the media, and half claim that they feel negatively affected by this (Solstice East, n.d) .

Add cyber-bullying to this equation According to Pew Research, .59% of U.S. teens have been bullied or harassed online. Contrary to previous generations, bullying no longer ends at school. It follows you home through your device and oftentimes can live on forever depending on what platform the bullying is happening.

The last two-years have been somewhat intense for teens with the pandemic, school closures, social isolation, separation from family and familial events, racial trauma, and economic upheaval. Additionally, the pandemic has brought teens into a completely new reality of an always-on existence. It's worth questioning how all of this has affected teens mental health. Has it made them more resilient? Or has it brought them to a place of distrust and defeat?

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