Teens and Tech: Navigating a Complicated, Connected World
For Stephen Gray Wallace, there are only two certainties in the discussion over the role technology plays in the lives of children. First, it impacts virtually every aspect of their young lives and second, it is here to stay.
Wallace is a writer, speaker and psychologist, as well as the president and director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE) a national collaborative of institutions, organizations and corporations committed to increasing positive youth outcomes and reducing negative risk behaviors.
“The digital age is a game changer,” he said. “It has changed the way kids interact with parents, how they learn, how they socialize or don’t socialize.”
The impact of the tech revolution is undeniable. What is up for debate, however, is whether that impact is hurting children more than it’s helping them.
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Teens and Tech: A Double-Edged Sword
“Is technology good, or not?” Wallace asked. “It depends on how it’s used. If kids are using tech to access information for schoolwork, it’s good. If it helps them stay in touch with peers in a healthy, social way, that’s good. If they are using tech to become addicted to porn, that’s not good. So, tech has pluses and minuses.”
As a frame of reference, Wallace cited a recent article in Time that profiled men who spent their entire childhoods saturated with instant access to hardcore pornography. As young adults, they’re finding it difficult to maintain healthy relationships after spending their impressionable formative years consuming pornagraphy in quantities never before experienced by any generation.
Wallace — who was a pioneering researcher on the dangers of texting and driving — knows that teens face tech-based threats that are far more immediate than the potential for unhealthy sexual development.
“We know young kids are texting, Snapchatting, using cameras and videos while driving,” Wallace said. “So therein lies a lot of danger — and that’s just as it relates to tech and cars.”
But it’s not all doom and gloom — technology offers some powerful upsides that mitigate at least some of the dangers.
“Technology such as Teensafe is available for parents to monitor driving behaviors of teens — how fast they’re going, where they’re going, etc.,” Wallace said. “Parents just aren’t, in many cases, able to keep up with tech. The minute they figure out Facebook, their kids are on Snapchat. When they figure that out, they’ve moved on to another app. There’s always a new app, a new gadget.”
A single monitoring app can give frazzled parents a break from trying to keep up with constantly evolving teen tech.
Technology, FOMO and Childhoods in Isolation
In an article he wrote for the Huffington Post, Wallace pointed out that today’s children spend less time outside every day than the average prisoner. Physical, hands-on, sensory-rich play with other kids — and the essential skills that that are learned along the way — has largely been replaced with solitary, indoor time spent on devices.
This unnatural and potentially damaging indoor solitude during formative years is the result of unprecedented levels of stress in children and teens.
“Part of that stress comes from technology and what kids call FOMO — fear of missing out,” Wallace said. “They are always on their electronic devices. They want to have instant access to their friends, and their friends to them. If they don’t have that, they are missing out on something, if they don’t respond to a text message, they feel they are missing out on what other kids are doing.”
When children do get out, parents often contribute to the problem by reinforcing the idea that kids must always be connected.
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Creating Good Digital Citizens: What Can Parents Do?
First and foremost, parents should remember that their children are navigating a complicated, dangerous landscape that no previous generation was ever forced to endure.
“They have very little opportunity to make mistakes,” Wallace said. “They are constantly monitored, supervised and in touch with both the adults and peers in their lives.”
According to Wallace, parents should work to turn their kids into good “digital citizens” who are instilled with a sense of responsibility to help foster a healthy digital world. Parents should:
- Be good role models: If parents text while driving or are distracted with their phones during dinner, their children are likely to do the same.
- Create and enforce tech-free zones: Establish no-device times, such as during dinner using the Teensafe app.
- Establish expectations: Explain what behavior is appropriate, what behavior isn’t appropriate and the distinct line between the two.
- Communicate: Engage children in dialogue about what’s going on in their lives. Start early and talk often. If you wait until high school to discuss the dangers of alcohol or drugs, for example, it may be too late. If a teen gets his or her first smartphone at 11, the parents should be talking about it at nine or 10.
- Engage in situational role play: Rehearse potentially dangerous scenarios that teens are likely to encounter, like what to do if they get an email from someone they don’t know.
- Make sure they sleep: one of the biggest dangers associated with tech is that teens stay up too late and get too little sleep because they are using their devices in their rooms after they’ve “gone to bed.”
Parenting in the digital age is no easy task — but it’s also not easy to be a kid. Technology prevents grave dangers to children and opens them up to making mistakes that they can never unmake. But technology also provides powerful tools for parents to monitor their kids and help them through the journey to adulthood.