When I was growing up, things were ... different than they are today. I mean, my house actually had a rotary phone—a type of phone that most teens today have never even seen. If we wanted to reach someone to set up times to hang out we would actually call each other. Imagine that! And smart phones—with the ability to text and access the Internet—nope, not around yet. Nor was all of this incredible technology—I usually had a book in my lap, not a laptop.
When teens feel anonymous, they say things that they normally wouldn’t.
Life is certainly different these days. The house phone is almost a thing of the past, and most teens have their own cell phones. Everything had a slower feeling during my teen years. Now teens are interacting with each other at a much more rapid pace, and everything is about speed—quick access to friends and the expectation of quick and frequent responses. Although I am pro-technology, as a psychologist I do have concerns about its impact on our teens. Some of my main worries:
Our teens expect immediate responses to their messages, and I am concerned that this is affecting their ability to tolerate frustration. I’ve seen teen girls start to worry that their boyfriends have lost interest in them if they don’t text them back immediately.
Teens are more sleep-deprived than ever because they are texting until the wee hours of the night. I am not sure exactly what they are texting about, but many of them are up and at it until 1 or 2 a.m.—especially if they are allowed to charge their phones in their rooms. In addition, most teens are interacting with their friends via texting, tweeting or Facebook while doing homework on computers. This certainly prolongs the homework process. What all of this leads to is sleep-deprived kids who are more irritable and at higher risk for feeling out of sorts. Sleep deprivation is unhealthy, especially for growing teens.
It's possible that we are raising a generation of teens who may not be able to read social cues as accurately as previous generations. It's important to see the person you are talking to read verbal and nonverbal cues accurately. Approximately 80 percent of communication is nonverbal in nature, meaning messages delivered electronically are often misinterpreted. Positive messages are interpreted as more neutral than they are intended to be; neutral messages are interpreted as more negative than they are intended to be, and I can only imagine how negative messages are interpreted. We will have to wait until our current generation of teens are adults to see how they function in the workplace and elsewhere—and the consequences of being raised on technology.
I’m worried that teens spend too much time on their computers and phones and not enough time outside getting fresh air and exercise. I can’t underscore how important it is for teens to have balance in their life. There should be balance between work and play, activity and relaxation time, and alone time and friend time.
Finally, I’m concerned that teens do things on technology that they wouldn’t otherwise. Consider all of the sexting (sending sexual messages and photos) that goes on between teens. When teens feel anonymous—as when they are communicating via technology, rather than in person—they say things that they normally wouldn’t. They send more sexual and emotionally intense messages, and are more likely to engage in bullying.
The takeaway message here is to keep an eye on how much time your teens are spending on their screens, and possibly set some limits. You also may want to consider having them charge their phones outside of their bedrooms so that they don’t have easy access to them throughout the night. Take a look at how much time you are spending on technology, because you are their most important role models. If you're glued to your phone, don’t be surprised if they are, too. And, remember that their use of technology should be considered a privilege. You can have them earn time on their computers and other screens.