Is Technology Isolating Your Teenager?

Does your lounge room look like the picture at the top of this post?

Have you ever found yourself looking at your family who are all in one room yet every set of eyes is focused on different screen and immersed in an activity of conversation that does not involve any one else in the room?

Maybe you have had this experience; you are midway through a conversation with your teenager, there phone beeps and vibrates, and without saying a word your teen shifts their gaze from you to the screen in their hand and then starts typing with their thumb, completely oblivious to what you are saying.

These are very 21st century scenarios, and scenarios that are causing an understandable degree of angst and confusion.

Amongst the ever-present hysteria about online predators and sexting there is a growing concern about the effect technology is having on how teenagers relate.

You don’t have to look far to find sentiments expressed about the negative relational effects increased technology use is having on today’s teenagers.

“Young people spend so much time online they feel as lonely as the elderly” was a headline last year in England’s Daily Mail.

“Antisocial Networking” was the headline in a similar article in the New York Times article in 2010.

One of the most common requests from parents in our recent survey was for information about the effects increased digital technology use is having on teenagers and what it means for their development.
So in this article I thought I would examine the claims that technology is having a negative effect on how teenagers relate.

Let me state upfront that I think technology is having a very significant impact on how teenagers are growing up.

However I do not think one of those issues is relational isolation.  Rather than being somehow relationally impoverished, I think technology is overwhelming today’s teenagers with an abundance of social opportunity that they are struggling to manage.

The Technology Tether

Far from being isolated, teenagers see digital networks as a means of constant connection to those who are important to them.

Social technology researchers Alice Marwick and danah boyd claim their research shows teens still prefer to hang out in person, but mobile and online technology keeps them tethered to their loved ones when distance or curfews prevent them from meeting face to face.

For many teenagers the availability of technology is synonymous with their sense of connectedness with others. A measure of how integral teens consider technology to be to their social life was evident in a survey conducted by the International Center for Media and the Public Agenda that found being cut off from the Internet for just 24 hours made teens feel more alone and isolated.

This tethered experience also allows parents greater access to their teenager’s social lives than in previous generations.  Far from being more disconnected from their teenagers, digital technology is actually creating the opposite problem; teens are never free from the digital umbilical cord. As I have written about before one of the significant dangers technology presents to teenagers is the increased struggle for autonomy because now parents have the ability to connect to their teenager wherever they might be.

Previous generations of parents where left waiting up late at night for their teen to arrive home, where as today the anxiety is instantly relieved via a mobile phone. Once parent had to glean what they could in passing conversation about the happenings in their teenager’s social life, today’s parents demand access to their teen’s social network profiles and act as secret cyber chaperones.

Doing What Teenagers Do – In a Different Space

Teenagers have always spent time hanging out together.  It is completely normal behavior for teens to want to spend time together chatting, being silly, sharing gossip, flirting, bragging, comparing stories and all the other stuff of being a teenager.

When I was teenager there were passing notes, getting your friends to convey a message, getting in trouble for spending to long on the home phone, and hanging out at the local milk bar.  These where the devices and avenues we used to communicate when we were teens because that is what was available.

Technology now allows teens to do all the same things but on a completely different scale and all within one medium.

What many parents don’t want to acknowledge these days is that there is a less unsupervised space for many teens than once there was.  For kids who are unable to roam the neighborhood, or who live in entirely different suburbs to their friends, the online space provides opportunity to just hangout together with a sense of freedom and privacy.

Confidence to Explore Their Identity

In her new book “Alone Together” Sherry Turkle argues that even though technology affords increased levels of connectedness it is actually fostering a new form of isolation and aloneness.

Part of Turkle’s argument is people prefer technology because it enables individuals a greater degree of control than they might otherwise have in a face-to-face real time conversation. By using emails, texts, and status updates we are able to edit, cultivate and curate how we come across to others.

This is a valid observation, and worthy of more discussion than we have room for here. However when it comes to teenagers the capacity to have control may in fact present improved opportunities for teens to reach out and connect.

When we consider the heightened level of self-consciousness and awkwardness associated with adolescence, the ability to control the content and presentation of a message offers an opportunity for teens to express themselves without fear of embarrassment or the message being drowned out by a zit on their forehead. This prompts greater willingness to share and engage socially.  These processes of self-expression are at the core of the adolescent task of establishing identity.

Technology doesn’t just afford control, it allows connection and association with people who previously would have been unknown or unreachable. For teens that find themselves isolated in the playground, or different to their immediate peers, the opportunity to build affirming like-minded social groups anywhere in the world is a huge advantage in resolving doubts about who they are that previous generations did not have.

Not Isolated – Hyper Connected

The problem of teenagers and technology is not one of isolation, but of hyper-connectivity. Technology is not creating relational isolation, it is instead producing relational saturation.

Relationships are the lifeblood of adolescence. Teens can never have enough time with their peers. The potential for 24/7 communication offered by the online world has removed the relational release valves for teens.

Once upon a time the intensity of teenage relationships had time-outs and cool off periods imposed by everyone needing to go home to separate bedrooms in separate houses at the end of the day. The break in physical proximity provided a rest from the relational immediacy. Time to cool down, think things through, talk to some one else (even if that someone else was just an annoying little sister) provided a cooling off period from the issues of the day.

Physical proximity also limited the scope of relational intensity to a small number of people at a time.  Only so many bodies can fit around a lunch table, or hear someone whispering.

But technology has overcome these limitations of time and space. Relational intensity can continue no matter where a teen is in relation to their social group. Not only does technology enable relating to continue at any time in any place, but it also facilitates multiple conversations and conversations with large groups.

Social networks are now exponentially more active and more extensive than at any other point in history. The increased scope of this social activity is producing increased anxiety.

The fear of missing out or being left out of the loop has always being there for teenagers.  In a digitally connected society the fear is constant. Constant communication generates a felt need to be constantly checking for fear of missing out. Not only do teens feel like they need to be checking, they also need to keep asserting their own presence less they be forgotten or moved slightly towards the outer of their social circle.

The relentless stream of information and opportunity means teenagers today are in danger of swamped by their relationships rather than isolated from them.

Some of the down sides of this hyper connected lifestyle are well documented. The opportunity for images and texts to go viral and create a digital memory that is hard to erase. The risks posed by a combination of poor impulse control, ready access to a camera, and the ability to broadcast instantly. The extension of bullying from the playground to cyberspace means a more pervasive and potentially damaging experience for young victims. All of these risks are real and learning to manage them has become a necessary life skill for current and future generations.

However the impact goes beyond specific instances of high-risk behavior and cyber bullying.   Heightened self-consciousness combined with impulse control that is under development and a peer-centric identity means for teenagers the need to stay connected is very, very, powerful. This powerful need can be hard for teenagers to manage by themselves.

The everyday risk faced by teens is being overwhelmed or permanently distracted by their social world. The normal dramas of teenage life become amplified and prolonged. Their capacity to focus on the physical present can be continually undermined by the virtual present.

What teenagers need from parents is assistance to regulate and manage their social interactions.  By this I don’t mean medalling in their relationships, but helping them step out of the digital communication stream from time to time and focus on something else or even nothing at all.

What Parents Can Do

With this in mind here are some basic guidelines for parents to help their teenagers manage their hyper-connected social lives.

  •  Have clear limits on when and where devices with screens can be used. i.e. no phones at the dinner table, no phones or laptops in the bedroom after lights out etc.
  • Make your teenager aware of their distractedness and the effects it has. Don’t just yell at them for not paying attention to you, help them learn it is okay not to respond to every beep or vibration.
  •  Model the behavior you expect from your teenagers. It is not only teens that are addicted to checking Facebook, so are many adults.  If there is rule about no phones at the meal table it must apply to adults also.
  •  Build time into the weekly routine where the whole family does something together.  Maximise positives of face-to-face time by doing fun stuff and allowing your teenager to relax and be themselves.
  • Evaluate your own tolerance for risk in terms of the physical limits you set for your teenager.  Limiting the amount of time teens get to spend hanging out in the real world with their friends creates greater levels of technology dependence.
  •  Use technology yourself to create opportunities to connect with your teen. Embrace the digital space and explore ways of expanding your relationship with your teenager into the digital realm.  This is different to using technology to spy, hover, or control your teenager.

Please let me and others know your thoughts in the comments section below.  What are your views on how technology is affecting the way teens relate? How are you managing the issues in you family?

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