This week, I received a call from the mom of a teenager expressing her concern about her son’s ‘total obsession with his online communication and social media’. ‘It’s like he is actually addicted’, she told me. “It is difficult to have a conversation with him anymore; his whole world revolves around his smartphone screen. How do I deal with this?’
There is a chorus of parents, grandparents, media and educators who are worried about teenagers possibly being addicted to their texting and social media activities. Among a long list of concerns are:
- It is making teenagers anti-social.
- They are not developing social skills to connect with others offline.
- Teens no longer know how to make eye-contact and have meaningful face-to-face interaction with peers.
- Their behavior is ill-mannered and yet they don’t seem to care because they are so obsessed.
In summary what many adults believe is that the constant need to be communicating online with their smartphones or other devices is a sign that teenagers are developing negative relationships with technology, that they are losing the ability for authentic human interaction and that being constantly online is bad for them physically, mentally and socially. Articles abound written by all kinds of behavioral and psychological experts encouraging parents to limit their teen’s involvement in social media and encourage “healthier” relationships.
Lets’ face it, internet communication is the teenager’s form of social communication and it is here to stay. In fact, much of what happens with online communication is healthy for teens emotionally, socially and intellectually. If, however a teenager is participating in an excessive, unhealthy way, it is important to understand why. I don’t believe that excessive online activity is the problem. I see this as being a symptom of emotional immaturity and low self-esteem that drives some teens to use online communication in a way that becomes dysfunctional.
The difference between Functional and dysfunctional online behavior.
This teenager that uses online communication in a functional way is using it as an exciting way of engaging, connecting, communicating, sharing and discovering. These are teens with a healthy dose of positive self-esteem and self-confidence. This strong inner core 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.
These teens do not use texting and social media, for example, as a way of defining who they are. They do not measure their ‘specialness’ by their Facebook page. Like most teens they love online communication in every form. At the same time, they also enjoy engaging with others personally.
Do these teens spend a great deal of time communicating online? Yes certainly they do but it does not completely take over their lives. They can switch off when they choose to – and there are times when they do choose to.
Is Your Teenager’s Online Behavior Dysfunctional?
Teenagers that appear to 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 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. They may see online communication as a popularity contest – who can get the most texts, friend requests or get the most pictures tagged.
Teens who do not believe in themselves, who have low self-confidence and who do not see themselves as being ‘okay’ and special, are emotionally vulnerable. Their sense of self comes from their online communication. These teenagers are at greater risk when it comes to how they approach social media. They enter into the whole social media scene with the different needs, hopes and expectations to those teens who have a healthy self-esteem. And they respond to online interactions differently compared to those with a good sense of self.
What Can Parents Do?
1. Don’t fear the worst.
There is a good chance that your teenager is behaving in exactly the way that teenagers are supposed to behave. 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)!
If you are a parent of a child who you think may be dysfunctionally addicted to social media, ask yourself whether this could be connected to stress created by 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? 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.
3. Have the courage to treat the underlying cause.
First, do your research so that you don’t jump to conclusions. If you do come to the conclusion that your teen may have a self-esteem problem that is creating what appears to be an addiction to online communication, then seek skilled assistance with this. Arguing with your teenager about his online addiction or imposing restrictive rules, will not bring about positive changes and will strain your relationship with him. Instead, find a skilled therapist to help your teenager 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
Too often the ‘online communication’ conversation creates unnecessary conflict and distance between you and your teen. Instead of labeling your child’s behavior as a problem, explain to your teenager how it feels to you (and his siblings and others) when he ignores you or acts as if you are not there. Ask for ideas about when you can spend time together with each other free of phones and let them come up with suggestions of how, when and where this could happen for a while each day.
Have this discussion in such a way that your teen gets the message that you are not against her online activity but that it leaves you feeling left out for so many hours of the day and that you value the time you have with her before she goes off to college.
Use your own behavior to teach them and show them that being fully present in the moment, and listening and speaking to one another is a special social skill and form of etiquette that will benefit them for the rest of their lives. You will be giving them a wondrous gift, if they can learn this from you.
I learn so much from your comments. Please let me know your thoughts on this topic.