Ask the Expert: Is my teen addicted to technology?

Technology should be switched off early enough, so as to give everyone time to unwind for sleep. Photograph: Getty Images

Technology should be switched off early enough, so as to give everyone time to unwind for sleep. Photograph: Getty Images

Tue, Mar 18, 2014, 01:00

Q How addictive is technology for teenagers? My two do not seem to be able to last a few minutes without their phone and access to social networking sites. I feel like I have lost them to computers and phones. I am particularly worried about my 15-year-old son who seems to be completely addicted. He tries to stay up late at night playing online multi-player games. We have vetoed this and turn off the broadband at 11:30pm.

Last week I discovered him in the middle of the night playing his games (he had gone down and turned on the broadband ).

The next morning, I threatened to ban it altogether. He went ballistic, almost in a panic that we were going to cut him off from his technology.

Am I being too hard to consider doing this? What other options do I have?

A The speed at which technology, such as the internet, texting, social media and computer games, have invaded family life in the past few years is truly staggering.

Whereas, it took decades for TV to become a feature in every household, social media has taken just a couple of years to become pervasive everywhere.

This means that parents, in particular, and society at large have had little time to think through the implications of these changes and how to manage them.

And the new technologies keep coming. Once you think you have got a handle on one, the next one is already around the corner. As parents get their heads around monitoring Facebook, their teenagers choose new social media and messaging sites that are less moderated, and more instant and direct.

The idea of a supervised family PC in the living room, which represented good disciplined use of the internet (only two years ago), is now redundant and has been superseded by the arrival of smartphones and tablets which provide new headaches for parents.

These mobile devices are more personal, intimate and private, and parents are struggling as to how to supervise their usage for their young teenagers.

Technology and addiction
Professionals are beginning to recognise the addictive potential of the new technologies, whether this is social media or computer gaming.

Last year, internet addiction was accepted as a “condition for further study” by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), an internationally recognised classification system of mental disorders.

Whether the internet is an addiction in its own right might be up for debate but it certainly has addictive potential. The online world exacerbates other addictions and problems, whether this is gambling (caused by a vast number of gambling sites) or sex addiction (caused by the huge amount of online porn) or depression (by reducing the person’s real engagement with people).

In my own clinical practice, I have seen a big increase in the number of young people who present as if they are addicted to technology.

In some cases, this has led to them having only a “virtual” social world and being isolated in the real world. In serious cases, some teens have dropped out of school, become depressed, refused to go out, and seek to spend most of their time online.

Taking charge of technology

So you are right to be concerned about your teenagers’ use of technology and it is important to try to

take some control and to set rules around their usage.

The ideal with teenagers is to try to agree these rules in advance and to leave some space for negotiation of the specifics.

Try to open up the discussion with your 15-year-old son about the pros and cons of technology and how its use needs to be kept within healthy limits.

Raise the issue of technology being addictive and ask him what he thinks about this. Perhaps you can provide him with some links to good articles online about the subject that you can both discuss.

Take some time for debate and then try to agree with him reasonable rules that will work for everyone in the household such as no technology at mealtimes or at night.

If possible, I would suggest an earlier time than 11:30pm for technology to be switched off so as to give everyone time to unwind for sleep but this is, of course, your family decision.

Agree a reward and consequence system
Discuss with your teens a new reward and consequence system for technology. Start with the principle that access to technology in the house is a privilege, not a right. If they keep the rules, they earn the right to use it, but lose it if they don’t.

The key is to make consequences manageable and to give your teens choices about them. For example, rather than threatening to remove the technology completely (after your son’s late night usage), use the consequence of losing it for a day and if he “goes ballistic”, warn him that he might lose it for longer unless he acts reasonably.

Alternatively, just use this breaking of the rule as a warning and ask him what you should do as parent to ensure it does not happen again?

Try to hold him accountable for his behaviour but also help him learn from it.

Talk through the issues and online safety
In addition to setting rules, it is important to help your teenagers think through all the issues for themselves, whether this is how to be safe online or how to get a balance between online socialising and meeting people in the real world, not to mention fitting in time for study and homework.

Ultimately, as adults they will have to mange their own behaviour and make their own decisions and you want to help them learn how to do this.

Finally, if you think your teen has a more serious problem with technology or other issues, consider making contact with your local adolescent mental health service.

Dr John Sharry is a social worker and founder of the Parents Plus Charity. His new course on ‘Parenting Teenagers’ is starting on Thursday evening, March 20th, in Wynns Hotel, Dublin .

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