How The Internet And Technology Are Affecting Our Teens

black-female-teen-textingToday’s children are using the technology and internet more than ever, with approximately 93 percent of them online and at least 73 percent of them using social networking sites, while 75 percent of them own cell phones according to data from Pew Internet American Life Project.

With this increased presence on the internet and use of smartphones and tablets comes concerns by teachers, parents and counselors  when it comes to what exactly are our kids doing online and on their smart devices.

The media fuels much anxiety when they report on issues such as “sexting” with young people sending provocative photographs of each other back and forth through their cell phones. Images that can end up in the wrong hands. Even videos of risque and sexual activities are spread through cell phones and often end up going viral and creating new avenues for harrassment, bullying and embarrassment that may seem inescapable.

Something that may seem like a good idea five minutes ago can end up haunting a teen for weeks, months, or even a lifetime.

The large majority of children and teens who use the internet and cellphones do so responsibly. It is a rather small segment of children who abuse the internet and technology.

Online bullying, also known as cyber-bullying  is a real concern as it typically targets kids who are already being bullied or harassed in person. They are most likely already facing multiple challenges as is. With online bullying, kids who are bullied already in person, feel like there is no escape from the bullying as they are also targeted online where the bullying can be relentless due to the hidden nature of the internet.

To some adults and parents this may seem silly, but you have to understand to to teens, much of their social life is conducted online so an attack on their online social life is pretty much an attack on their world.

We all know of the horror stories of teens who were bullied to the point of suicide such as Amanda Cummings. Children who are being bullied are more likely to suffer from depression, suicidal thoughts, social problems, substance abuse and are more likely to have poor relationships with their caregivers.

Teen friendships and relationships are more and more online so they depend more on social networking which is one reason cyber-bullying can be so detrimental.

Look at Manti Te’o’s fake girlfriend situation. Here’s a college age young man that reportedly met and fell in love with someone online he never met. I’ve counseled many young teenage girls who were depressed and suicidal after a break up with someone they met online, but never met in person. This just goes to show how entwined the internet, social networking and technology are to the lives of young people and of course, some of us adults as well.

Some research also tries to suggests that the internet is not giving teens more access to sexual content and that they are still finding it the old fashion way through television, movies and music. This may be true when it comes to suggestive and “soft” content such as kissing, hugging and touching or showing a couple having sex under the covers, but the teens I work with look for the more hardcore content found on the internet. They visit free porn sites on their phones and computers often, usually out of curiosity or for amusement, but still it’s through the internet that they access these hardcore porn sites.

It’s frightening to think that many of these same kids viewing porn on the internet, have parents who are in denial about their teens sexual or potential for sexual activity and have not actually had any real conversations with them about relationships or sex and so while watching this porn, they are also getting education, or mis-education that their parents likely would not approve of.

One thing I have noticed, and what made me want to write this post in the first place is that I think in part because of social networking, today’s teens are less private and understand the meaning of privacy less than teens in the past.

So many times when I am talking with a group of teens, outside of the confidentiality of an actual group setting, one of the teens will start talking about something very personal and private such as thinking that they are pregnant, stating that they just had an abortion or miscarriage, or thinking they may have a sexually transmitted disease, you name it, they’ll blurt it out.

At that point I’ll try to stop them and tell them, “I think this is something we need to talk about in private” and sometimes they will still press on and say “No it’s okay, I don’t mind talking in front of them” and I’ll have to continue stating “No, we need to talk about this in private”.

Many of them seem to have lost the sense of privacy and I contribute at least some of that to the amount of private information they share on social networking sites.

The downfall in that is that some of the private information they share to people who don’t value them or their privacy, will be turned around and used against them, sometimes to the point of harassment and bullying.

They may not realize the fact that they just had an abortion should be kept private, until they read about it from someone else on Twitter or a random stranger comes up and asks them. Then they may be shocked and embarrassed, but they were the ones who originally divulged that information to begin with.

You wouldn’t believe the amount of physical and verbal confrontations I’ve seen between high school girls that started this way.

At the same time, research shows that overuse of social media is linked to poor health, poor grades and symptoms of mental health problems such as narcissism.

Part of the reason for this is because young people often wake up to, live the day through and go to sleep with technology. They wake up checking their text messages, their social media sites and continue that throughout the day until they go to sleep at night, which research suggests is making them more prone to mental health problems, poor grades and even being physically sick more often.

Take for example that teens that study for one hour, focusing on their assignment, do better than teens who study, yet check their text messages or social networking sites periodically while they are studying.

I thought about this as I watched my niece who is a high school junior studying the other night. Her text book was in front of her, her cell phone in her hand and periodically it would light up and she would reply to a text and then go back to studying. I think within a thirty minute period she probably did that about seven to ten times.

Researched done by Larry D. Rosen, PhD. that is not yet published shows that “Whether they checked Facebook just one time during a 15 minute observation period even predicted worse grades”.

Besides narcissism, teens who overuse social media sites also show more signs of other mental disorders such as borderline personality disorder, bipolar disorder, and antisocial personality disorder.

The news of course isn’t all bad.

While some research shows that teenagers are less empathetic due to being over sensitized to  pain and misery on the internet, other studies show that teens who engage in social networking are more likely to show “virtual empathy” which can translate to them showing more actual empathy in the real world.

The internet of course offers us much in the forms of information, education and entertainment, but parents should set clear guidelines and limits early on with their teens about the internet and technology they use to avoid overuse and abuse.

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