Parenting in this digital age is challenging, as is the hypocrisy I feel enforcing technology limits on my kids after sneaking my thirtieth peek of the day on Facebook. How do we balance staying connected to each other in our families while navigating the seemingly endless possibilities for global connection, knowledge, entertainment, and consumerism all within finger-tip reach? How do we guide our kids to be good digital citizens while balancing their on- and off-line lives? Within my own family, I fear I am venturing into the “do as I say and not as I do” realm, and we all know how that one turns out.

I have been paying more attention to my online use lately, as well as the habits of those I am surrounded by. In my school social work practice, I am supporting adolescents dealing with everything from cyber bullying to the consequences of sexting … scary stuff. I have noticed that school policies on cell phone use vary considerably, and the consensus seems to be that, at some point in early adolescence, they become a necessity.

I’ve seen adults scrolling through professional trainings, staff meetings, graduate classes, dinners with friends—all leaving me wondering what we are missing out on in the present as we tune into the world of cyberspace. Sure, there are times when we are legitimately making family or social arrangements, working, or multi-tasking. However, I am beginning to feel like I’m personally crossing the line into dependency, and I don’t like it. I especially feel this way when I catch myself scrolling mindlessly for extended lengths of time when I know I could be doing something much more productive—like connecting with my family or tending to that pile of dishes/laundry/half-finished home projects. I am a grown woman with some sense most days—my kids, on the other hand, need my guidance!

This past spring, I attended a workshop at a state conference where the film “Screenagers” was viewed and discussed. This is a documentary produced by Delaney Ruston, a physician and parent navigating her own family’s use of technology. Dr. Ruston considers the challenges and research on over-exposure to video games, social media, and the impact on learning and internet addiction. One big takeaway is the fact that adolescent brains are more influenced by dopamine, which can be released in abundance in the overstimulation that occurs within the average 6.5 hours of daily screen time.

This pattern is similar to what happens in the adult brain when substances are misused—thus, the loss of control and limiting of good feelings in the absence of the drug of choice. In addition, overexposure studies show a link to decreased attention spans and negative effects on learning for adolescents.

Today, technological addiction or dependence is being recognized as a legitimate branch on the addiction spectrum. Just like with other types of addiction, there are definite distinctions between use, misuse, and abuse. As human beings, we are hard-wired to seek connection and pleasure. However, unchecked pleasure seeking through online activities can wreak havoc on an adolescent’s academic and social success.

 

— Wendy is a social worker (Project Aware) at Hedgesville High School in Berkeley County (WV).

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