Help Your Teen Turn Off and Tune In To What They Really Need in Real Life
Does my teen have a gaming addiction? Is there such thing as a social media addiction? And how does all this impact mental health in teens? These questions and more are defining a connected generation.
Today’s teenagers have grown up in a world dominated by that device at the end of their wrists–but it doesn’t have to run or consume their days.
There is a wonderful physical feeling that happens when we turn off the television and smartphones: our brains, blood, and heart rates settle to normal or calmer levels. Our breathing changes and the stress and anxiety of the time spent on a device starts to go away. The edge of depression rounds off a bit, and we return back to “ourselves.” The stress and anxiety while on the device and then the feeling of “missing out” once device time is done– level out–over time.
That is, until we turn it on again and jump back into the fray.
Today’s teens would be fine if home or work were absent of such devices, or if school just offered the age-old pressures of appearing attractive or being yourself without the device always there, capturing even private moments. Peer pressure on its own is enough to drive a teen to alter her look or attitude. But now we’ve added a whole school, community, and world to the list of who is looking at them and judging. And that pressure just from close friends and people close to the individual is enough to accelerate normal levels of worry.
And it’s just getting worse. A bedroom used to just be a bedroom, full of private time and late-night sleepovers. But now a bedroom is also a “set” for the right lighting, editing, and posting of videos. The walk to school used to be a walk–now it’s time to “check in” with your followers and fellow Snapstreak friends. And conversation used to be actual dialogue with people you wanted to talk with and not with everyone listening or watching.
We must tell–and continue to remind–our children of the following;
You are not a brand
Maintaining device-ready scores for popular apps is hard work. Literally, teenagers are “working” all day on who they are online, including sharing personal information they otherwise wouldn’t, thoughts too quick to have thought through, and filtered photos that often reveal too much or distort reality for the onlooker and subject. While there is a healthy limit for device or screen time, we know what addiction feels and looks like, and it’s hard to break the connection between children and teenagers and the reward centers in their brains. We must remind our teenagers (even at age 11) that they are not online personas, as much as people and their peers applaud or dislike them. Like Hollywood’s cameras, the actors almost always return to their natural state when the recording red lights go black. And we all need a break from being recorded, whether it makes or breaks who we are online.
Peer pressure has never been like this in the history of humanity
Since 2007 the world has grown used to increasingly faster internet load times and the increasing ownership of smartphones. According to multiple reports, the impact of this on teens and teen depression and self esteem is devastating. There was a time when no one had cell phones and when social media platforms were basic and didn’t involve pictures. Peer pressure came from all the usual suspects: school, celebrities, advertisements and the media, and cultural norms that took years to form and become status quo. Teenagers need to know that peer pressure doesn’t have to keep them up at night or start their mornings–and that private time away from the public means time to reflect, meditate, and not be busy checking into any apps, let alone ones that make us constantly click and post.
Life is better without likes, shares, or streaks
We know that oversharing and constant online “upkeep” damages sleep cycles and can even cause brain shrinkage and hyperarousal in children. Teenagers already have a tough enough time keeping up with their own mental, spiritual, and physical changes without the added weight of what others think across the city or world. We have to continually check in with our kids, students, and patients regarding this and analyzing what “likes” really mean to our lives. It’s better to keep up with family and close friends than it is to give yourself to the world and its strangers on your device. This will lead to healthier world views and may offset natural tendencies that can lead to addiction and improper treatment of mental health issues.
Watching television, updating a fun app, or writing friends can be restful and purposeful. We have, however, willingly entered into a world of binge-watching, over-posting, and hyper-“befriending” that takes its toll on many young adults who will never know what it’s like to not have that device nearby at all times.
Addiction to the online world has become a societal norm and is even rewarded by many of the apps that exploit psychological vulnerabilities to influence what users do without realizing. But just like all addiction, we need to treat the cause and not the symptom by keeping our children away from the edge before it overwhelms and consumes them.
Easier said than done right?
A quick visit to the NIDA site on Teen Addiction will give you one very integral core point for all things addiction: It starts with the brain. No matter the substance, or the process, the beginning and end of addiction is located in the control room upstairs and plays on the reward centers, pleasure, pain, impulse, neurons and receptors, nerve centers and the like. It’s a whole party up there for people in general, just think about how much more complicated it can get when you toss in development, hormones, relationships, school, identity, peer pressure, and the myriad of Teen Mental Health and Addiction Issues facing our youth today. Then of course there is the fact that the prefrontal cortex in teens, the impulse control device, is still developing!
So how can I stop my teen from developing a social media or gaming addiction?
When it comes to prevention there are a multiple steps involved in the process.
– Communicate –
– Limitate –
– Engage –
– Award –
– Repeat –
Let’s break it down shall we?
Communication is key.
I will repeat that again: Communication is KEY. Communication is the bedrock for relationships and communication is critical to conveying both the issues at hand, and the process through which one can address them. When it comes to gaming addiction, social media addiction and teens, communication means exactly what you would imagine it does, namely letting your teen know that the impact of their social media or gaming use is excessive and potentially damaging and that you need to implement a plan to prevent further issues.
How can I tell if I have a social media or gaming addiction you ask?
Here are some pointers:
The gaming or social media use is a preoccupation that takes up much of your focus, attention, and drive. Simply put, you are thinking about it regularly, above and beyond most other things required of daily life.
Without the use of Gaming or Social Media you are depressed, anxious, or otherwise negatively impacted.
The gaming or social media use is constant and impedes regular functioning.
This part is a little bit tricky because of the words “impeded” and “regular functioning”, both of which are very subjective and different for people of different ages and demographics.
Gaming and social media use is not all bad. There are people who make millions of dollars designing and competing with games. The military is actively recruiting young folks with a talent for engaging an a virtual environment. A good amount of education now takes place in a digital world. Social media can be an awesome tool for activism and connection.
You need to take a close look at all the variables before determining the detriment, however suffice it to say that if you are struggling to accomplish basic tasks expected of you, and are acting in ways that are not physically or mentally healthy for you, chances are you are facing a gaming or social media addiction.
If these factors are in play, then start off by communicating this to your teen. “It seems like your gaming or social media use is out of hand”, “We are concerned about you”, “Your grades and mood are deeply tied into your gaming and social media use”. All of these are good starting points, and you can craft your message as you see fit.
There is no perfect time or perfect way to “break the ice” so don’t get too caught up in the planning or overthink it. Your goal is to broach the issue and open a dialogue.
The most important points to convey are:
- We are concerned, and here are some of the reasons as to why
- We want to work WITH you, and have you participate in a plan instead of us simply taking matters into our own hands.
- You are important enough to us that we will do whatever it takes to make sure that you are safe and out of harm’s way. Even if this means doing things that you or we do not like.
This puts the ball in their court and opens the door for collaboration instead of a more controlling or punitive process.
O.K, you got me. It’s not a real word. I wanted to make a cool acronym and I have to improvise. That being said, the point is the same: Limits are key to preventing overuse and abuse.
Limits are also key to many other things in life as is the idea of “knowing your limits”. Teens often lack insight into what drives them and what drives them off a cliff. Therefore, the first step to setting limits after identifying the issues in item A. is to clearly specify what is being done in excess. Is it too much time on the phone? Is it the late hours spent on social media? Is it the gaming during homework time? Is it the constant texting during all hours?
Concretely identify the specific addictive behaviors that are tied to the gaming or social media and now you have the template for what needs to change.
The areas to look at include:
Schedule of gaming and social media use vs. schedule of daily life
What is the expected schedule? Sports? Family Time? School? Curfew? These are all things to think about.
Levels of phone notifications and Response time to messages and other prompts
Is the phone set to alert for every little thing? When and where should the phone be put on silent or put away entirely? What or who requires timely responses and what or who can wait?
Hours spent on gaming and social media
What is an appropriate overall amount of time to be spent on social media or gaming? What can be earned? What can be lost? Is it cumulative? Time based or game based? Remember it is important to be specific.
Obligations that must be met before gaming and social media use
What needs to be done and what can wait? What tasks come first and in what order? How are these tasks determined? How will you know if they are being done?
Types of gaming and social media use that is appropriate
Given the particular person or things they struggle with, is this game appropriate? Does it promote the values you want for your children? Does it conflict with expectations of the outside world? Does it create unrealistic expectations? Is it a healthy platform or is it dangerous? What do you know about the platform?
Most importantly: Once you establish an agreed upon system that takes the items above into account it is absolutely critical that you make sure that you have a way to effectuate the limitations
Here are some ways to accomplish that:
There are a number of wonderful apps available to ensure that your teen cannot browse where or when you do not allow. Additionally they can limit the types and volume of app and social media or texting/calling usage. There are a variety of good ones including:
Like the phone, there are a variety of wonderful filters that you can use for your internet. Many of these come built into your browser and vary depending on the particular platform. Some of these include: Mobicip, Net Nanny and ParentalBoard. It is important to note that gaming systems also have browsers, so make sure to look at all the options listed below to make sure you are covered.
Protection Settings on the gaming console
Each gaming console has different settings and capabilities. Many can stream video, browse the internet, and even serve as live video and text chatting. Even within the games themselves, there are chat boxes and video conferencing. It is a whole new world out there and you are best advised to be sure of who your teen can see and who can see your teen or even you and your home from the angle of the video camera.
Passwords to all their accounts
This is another “easier said than done” things, however it is highly recommended and believe it or not: your teen will prefer that you are transparent about your oversight and access to their accounts rather than have you sneak around and “snoop” on them.
Did you know you can modify your internet router to create a schedule and limit use or access to certain times or devices? It’s as simple as that sticker on the side of the router. Login to the admin panel of most routers, and you will find a set of controls that allows you to dictate the who, where, what, and when of internet use. This is helpful to stop access from devices you may not even know you have accessing your wifi such as gaming devices and the like. It is also important to make sure to change the password to one that only you know and keep the router somewhere safe otherwise anyone can reset the router to different settings. It is not a perfect fix and more often than not your teen is way ahead of you when it comes to technology, but this is a good start.
Access to Phone bill
You can learn alot from a phone bill, and when it comes to teens, well, they aren’t paying that bill themselves now are they? Access to the phone bill is simple and can be done from your phone or computer. A phone bill is a good way to look at usage with your teen and explore the idea of excess. Sometimes, most times, even they don’t realize just how many hours they spend on the phone. Many phone companies now offer a simple solution for setting usage and other limits on the phones using the standard back end console
It is also critical that you are consistent in your application
- Avoid making “exceptions”
- Get on the same page with your spouse or significant other
- Follow and reinforce the rules
Engaging is a lot harder than you would think. This is especially pertinent for busy working parents who don’t always have the time to spend. Engaging however, is potentially the most important part of the whole process and it starts with you.
Simply put, engagement is the act of getting your teen involved in anything and everything positive that is not social media, gaming, or anything related to that. It is the act of getting your teen engaged. To do this you have to get super creative. Think it’s hard filling a kids day with activities, imagine a teen.
Some steps to take in this process include:
– Doing some research.
What do teens like to do? What would I like my teen to do? What does my teen like to do? What are some things we can do together? What are some affordable things we can do together?
The research process will involve you speaking to your teen, using google, talking to other parents, and generally wracking your brain for good ideas.
– Vetting Good Ideas.
What makes an idea a good idea? There are no wrong ideas. Well, that’s not exactly true.. There are loads of terrible ideas…so while you shouldn’t overthink it, you shouldn’t “phone it in” either.
Some of the main things to look at include:
- Is it affordable?
- Can it be done consistently?
- Can YOU do it consistently?
- Can you get buy-in from your teen?
- Is it positive and healthy?
- Will it move them forward?
- Is there time?
- Is transportation required?
- Will it add undue burden to your teen and turn them off?
Once you have a few good ideas, it’s time to try them on for size.
– Road Testing.
So you got your teen to commit to doing a pickup game of basketball twice a week, or to take music lessons and become a rock god. Will it work? You only know if you try. So break out the old headband and basketball gear, buy that (cheap and used) guitar, or toss a plastic mat under the $5 painting canvas and roll up your sleeves.
The main thing here is:
- Consistency: It’s ok to change ideas, but keep going with idea
- Commitment: Don’t change ideas until you have given the first ones a chance, and not just one chance.
- Challenge: Challenge yourself and your teen to engage in the process. The process itself can be as important as the result, and it is a wonderful chance to grow together.
You can also check out this list of things to do with your teen.
So you have gotten through the other steps, and you are having a bang up time with your teen instead of them vegetating on their phone or in front of a gaming console. Things are moving nicely and you feel good. Here is where you acknowledge the work your teen has put in to the process by ensuring that there is a reward system in place. Remember: the teen brain is wired for reward. It’s why teens struggle with impulse. So it is just as important to reward the process as it is to engage in it. Make sure you take the time to regularly acknowledge the growth and effort, and reward it appropriately. The reward should generally be something that is:
- Not gaming or social media related
- Tied to growth
- Not cash
Remember: If you made it this far, you are doing great. So reward yourself as well. Maybe with a nap? After that nap.. Well..
Enough said. It is critical to make sure that they system keeps running.
What if my teen is already addicted?
Sometimes it is not as simple as putting in a prevention plan. Often by the time you realize there is an issue the issue has gotten out of hand and you are facing a full blown gaming or social media addiction. And believe it or not, gaming and social media addiction is not all that uncommon.
In an article on social media addiction reviewing recent Nielsen Research Survey they found that “70 percent of the U.S. population that’s glued to their televisions, some of whom are also on social media at the same time. Combined, Americans are spending over 15 years of the average lifespan watching TV or engaging social media.”. It’s mind blowing.
According to a published study on social media users they found that “using Facebook was associated with lower life satisfaction, whereas having real-life friends and interacting with them was associated with higher life satisfaction”.
While this may seem obvious, the underlying message is that people are still engaging in excessive social media use despite the negative side effects. How much more so with teens who struggle with limitations to begin with.
Before asking “What should I do if my teen is addicted”, you should first determine if what you are dealing with indeed an addiction.
So how do you know if you are facing a social media addiction or gaming addiction?
There is no one answer that will suffice when it comes to defining a full blown addiction over severe use or abuse. With Social Media and Gaming addictions, like many other additions, it generally comes down to impact. And a teens life is typically impacted across a few dimensions.
Are they on task at home? On schedule? Are they able to maintain decorum within the home? Follow directions? Participate in family time? Engage in the home environment and not just in their room? Be present for conversation? It is never about one particular red flag, rather how they add up so it is important to be mindful of this.
Is your teen participating in school? Are their grades being maintained? Are they meeting the requirements of school such as homework or study? Is the use of gaming or social media being noted by the school as an issue? Often schools don’t report things until they are out of hand, so it is important to check in on this. Remember that teens spend more than half of their lives and waking hours in school.
Is the gaming or social media pulling them away from their regular social scene? Are they part of a scene you don’t know anything about? Are they withdrawing as a result of the use? Is there increased social conflict or obsession as a result of the use? Is the social media or gaming causing pain or damage to their social lives? It is important to look at social factors and be involved, especially with gaming and social media as for teens. There is a whole world that they are connected to, around which they base their lives, aspirations, love interests, and ideologies that you may know nothing about.
Health is often something that goes overlooked, but don’t let it take you by surprise. Obsessive and addictive behaviors that one becomes attached to often lead to damage in other areas. Things like overeating, or starving, going hours without sleep, remaining hyper stimulated by games, chats, energy drinks or the combination of all of them, lack of sufficient exercise, eye damage, headaches, twitches, stomach aches, lethargy and more can all be tied to excessive gaming or social media use and abuse
Mood is a fairly powerful indicator of issues in teens in general. Irritation, Depression, Self-Esteem Issues, Feelings of powerlessness, hatred, anger, aggression… These are all mood dynamics that can be heavily impacted by excessive social media and gaming use. Especially in teens. In addition to the mood factors, there are other teen mental health issues closely associated with digital media use, abuse, and addiction.
In a recent article from CNN on teen mental health they found that the more that teens check on their phones, stream videos and check in on the social media, the more likely it is that they will develop or increase signs of ADHD. “The study, published in the medical journal JAMA on Tuesday, sheds light on how more research is needed to determine whether symptoms of the disorder, commonly called ADHD, are possibly caused by digital media use.”
Simply put: The behaviors associated with social media and gaming addiction closely mimic those of ADHD and now there are potential causal links between the two.
ADHD in turn has an impact on the prevalence of addiction in teens, causing a potentially negative “loop” as well as potential increase in addictive behaviors and addictions to other things such as teen drug and alcohol addiction.
How do I help my addicted teen with their social media or gaming addiction?
If after looking at all the factors you feel that your teen is indeed addicted to gaming or social media, it is important to take steps to address the issue. Rest assured, these issues do not typically go away on their own, so a timely and thought out response is always advised.
Aside from following the steps above in regards to developing a plan and implementing it, if your teen is struggling with addiction or mental health issues tied to gaming and social media there are a variety of methods by which you can address it utilizing the help of professionals.
Individual Therapy for Teens
As a first resort, individual therapy can be a wonderful intervention for your teen. In therapy, your teen can work through issues, potentially open up about things they don’t feel comfortable talking about at home, address ancillary mental health or social conditions that may be tied to the addiction, and develop and implement a plan of action. Additionally, having your teen engage in a therapeutic process will teach them a lot about themselves and about how serious you view this issue to be.
Group Therapy For Teens
Sometimes, in addition to individual therapy, group therapy for teens can be an effective resource. In a group setting, your teen can work through issues together with other teens and professionals, enabling them to feel connected to others struggling with the same issues. Group therapy for teens is engaging in a way that is different than the individual therapy work and the process can often feel more supportive with a peer group.
Often, parent and family support groups are offered in conjunction with teen support groups. Addiction support groups like Alateen and Al-anon can be very helpful. Though these groups are geared toward chemical addictions, the concepts and the supports are very similar. To find more specific groups within your area, simply hit google or check out the SAMHSA, NAMI, or NIDA websites.
Intensive Outpatient Treatment for teens (IOP)
If the situation is more intense, you can look for an Intensive Outpatient Program For Teens. These programs, often covered by insurance, provide a more intensive mix of individual, family, and group therapy often incorporating life skills and education into the mix. These programs are typically three hours a day, three to five days a week.
Partial Hospitalization Program for teens (PHP)
A teen partial hospitalization program is similar to the IOP program for teens however the duration of the program is longer. The PHP program is typically a full day program, five days a week. This program provides a more intense and supervised setting and often takes the place of a regular school day. This kind of program is ideal for a teen who is struggling to hold the necessary boundaries at home and at school.
Residential Treatment for Teens (RTC)
If all else fails, and sometimes as an area of first resort if a teen is at risk, there is residential treatment for teens. Residential treatment takes place in a location, typically a home, where teens live with 24 hour supervision and a full schedule of therapy, education, life skills, mentoring and more. The residential treatment setting is ideal for teens who struggle to maintain safe boundaries and the family is unable to keep them safe in the home environment. It is also ideal because it gives the teen a chance to get away from the potentially negative effects of their situation, peer group, and the comfort of their home setting.
It is not easy raising a teen in today’s world. The advent of technology makes everything, good and bad, that much easier to reach. The width and breadth of the internet is as unimaginable today as it was fifty years ago. The tools we use today to communicate are a billion times more powerful than those that we grew up with and they are literally upgrading on a daily basis.
At a time like this it is more critical than ever to remain connected to your teen and the world in which they live. Know what your teen is doing and when. Know who they know, and make yourself known to them in turn. Build bridges with folks in all aspects of your teens life. This doesn’t mean be a helicopter parent, but certainly don’t be a blind one. Be watchful, mindful, and cognizant of the baseline behaviors of your teen so that if issues like gaming or social Media addiction in teens begins to impact your loved ones, you are aware and prepared.
It is also important to build an infrastructure around your teen. It takes a village to raise a kid, and a few villages to raise a teen. Preferably ones with good wifi.
About Mendi Baron, LCSW
Mendi Baron, of Ignite Teen Treatment, Elemental Treatment, MendisPlace.com, CYHM.org, is a passionate advocate for teens and young adults in the fields of mental health and addiction. Baron creates programs to bring a unique approach to the treatment of adolescents and young adults who are struggling with a variety of emotional and behavioral disorders and substance abuse issues. Clinically trained, Baron earned a BA with honors in psychology and social work at the University of Maryland and an MSW at the University of Maryland School of Social Work.
His extensive experience as a therapist includes individual and group counseling for children, adolescents, and families in various settings.
Gaining insight and experience, he has worked at several treatment centers including the Chesapeake Center for Youth Development, the Carroll County Youth Services Bureau, Chabad Crisis Centers, and the Center for Discovery and Adolescent Change.
Before launching Elemental Treatment, Mendi conceived and built, from the ground up, multiple successful, high end adolescent residential and outpatient programs in Los Angeles. Mendi has appeared on the Dr. Phil show, is regularly featured in mental health and addiction publications, and speaks around the country in person and on Tv/Radio on these topics.
With his newest ventures, Mendi instills a rare blend of energy, creativity, and experience to the treatment of teens, young adults, and their families struggling with addiction and mental health issues. The son of a Rabbi, eldest of 11 children, he is a part-time rock musician, boxer, cantor, and father of three.