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John Duffy, Psy.D. Headshot

The Devil You Know: Embracing Your Teen's Screens

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A few months ago, the "NBC Nightly News" ran a very informative piece on the effects of electronics on the brain of today's teenager. We all know that teenagers have abundant access to technology that was considered far-off and space-aged just a few short years ago. Further, many teens alarm their parents, concerned that they use computers and cell phones far too often. And research bears out the excessive use. In the piece, Dr. Nancy Snyderman states that teens expose themselves to media 7 and a half hours a day, which is alarming enough, but when multiple devices are taken into effect, that average jumps to 11 hours per day. That's some eye strain!

In my clinical practice, I see frequent referrals in which parents are deeply concerned with their teen's overuse of electronics. They cite myriad fears, including stress, lack of attention to schoolwork, too little face-to-face contact with others, a decrease in social skills, and brain damage. Their concerns are not wholly unfounded. In fact, I have worked with many teens who sit across from me, cell phone in hand, deftly answering texts, often one after another, while carrying on a conversation with me. When I ask some teens to turn their phone off during sessions, there is often protest: "I've got an important text I'm waiting for," or, "My girlfriend expects me to be available."

I agree with many of my clients' parents. Sometimes, it's just too much. Too much for teens to take in. Too much data, all at once. Too much contact. And, dare I say, too much availability.

Further, because headlines highlight the terrible risks associated with all of this technology (Facebook predators, brutal bullying with deadly consequences, errant photos that can result in an expulsion from school [or Congress]), parents approach it all from a point of fear. Most parents try to limit their teenagers' exposure to screens, capping monthly text messages and drawing boundaries around computer time. This is a fine idea and, in fact, I agree that most teens spend way, way too much time staring at small screens.

But, there is another side to this story. Though very useful and informative, the NBC piece fails to mention the most taxing element of all of this for parents. In my experience, the problem for parents lies primarily in how little they know about the technology their children use. I worked recently with a mother and her 16-year-old daughter. The mom complained that her daughter was staring at Facebook while doing homework. I asked the daughter whom she chatted with during these hours, and the mom was immediately perplexed. When I asked her daughter to explain Facebook Chat to her mom, the latter was aghast. She had no idea that her daughter was "talking" with peers while working, or that this had been going on for years.

I have witnessed countless similar examples. Parental anxiety is driven by what they don't know and don't understand, and underscored by the scary headlines. So, what can parents do to counterbalance their fears? Well, I encourage my clients' parents to set up makeshift tutorials, in which their teenager teaches them about the technology they use. Teenagers like to be experts, and I've found that they are very good teachers.

Several parents have suggested to me that they do not want to learn how to text, how Facebook works, or how to play "Call of Duty." They may feel it's all a colossal waste of time. Perhaps they disapprove of their child's use of electronic devices, or the language they use.

I typically tell them that not only is most every teen deeply involved in today's tech-based culture, but none of this is going away. Our teens enjoy it, yes, but they also know nothing different. And the teenager who is not involved is often left out. Cell phones and Facebook undoubtedly matters, quite a bit, to your teen. So, if you choose to ignore it, you may miss an important element of your teen's life. I think parents need to get on the Tech Train before it leaves the station. And after all, unless you're the Zuckerbergs, none of this was your child's idea in the first place. It's just a part of their culture.

I worked with one father in particular who struggled quite a bit in relating to his teenage daughter. An old-fashioned guy, he wanted her to stare at screens less. He wanted her friends and boyfriends to call the house, instead of her cell phone, so that he could get to know them. His daughter, on the other hand, felt her father was deeply out of touch with today's realities. As a result, father and daughter rarely spoke, and when they did, there was conflict. I convinced him to make use of his technological enemies, the cell phone in particular. She was a seasoned texter, so we hypothesized that she may text her father back if he texted her.

Reluctantly, he began texting once or twice a day, a basic "How r u?" or "Howz ur day?" She ignored him for a few days, but soon began texting back. Emboldened, he texted "I love you" on occasion. In one instance, he received an "I love you" back.

He told me he was sold on texting from then on.

And really, there's not so much to be afraid of here, if you're an informed parent. Research cited in the NBC piece shows that some of this multitasking actually enhances brain development. Just imagine how flexible one's thinking must be if he can do homework and text simultaneously, for instance. And the teen brain is also becoming ever more expert at culling useful information from chatter, another useful skill in a developing brain. The news is not all bad.

So, I encourage parents to embrace today's technology. Learn all about it from your child. Take the fear out of the equations, so that the boundaries you set are reasonable. It may make your life easier, but, more importantly, it may help you to stay connected to your teen.