Teens & Technology

By Francine Martinez, Ph.D.

Technology today is reaching a critical mass stage where new products and ways of sharing are found and implemented at lightning speeds. There was a time when telling your child that they were not allowed to watch TV or have friends over was a huge punishment. In this modern age, there is a whole bucket list of things that are necessary to control. Television, iPods, smartphones, video games, Internet…the list is staggering.

Our children can reach out to others in more ways than you can think possible. As a parent, the number one issue surrounding all this is trying to understand the impact of technology on physical and mental health. Open any newspaper or magazine and you will find articles that both praise modern technology and also condemn it. This article will try and present some of the more recent research and opinion on the impact of technology on our teens.

Pros & Cons:

PRO: Technology opens the entire world to your children/teens. There is almost no question that he or she cannot find an answer to on the Internet. Certainly, there is no harm in gaining knowledge. After all, the more knowledge one possesses our “learning” drive increases.

CON: Studies show that using media devices at any time during the day stimulates cortisol, the “stress” hormone, and limits the production of melatonin, the “sleep” hormone. Experts recommend that no one is actively engaged with technology within two hours of bedtime.

PRO/CON: A 2013 study found that viewing one’s own Facebook profile may boost self-esteem. Another study found that large amounts of time spent on social media lowers girls’ self-esteem and body image. Collectively, most researchers reiterate that the way teens and kids use technology and social media can affect self-esteem – positively or negatively. “Liking” a content page that holds similar views to your own does have the impact of increasing self-esteem as you find a community of individuals who “get you.” While contributing to a posting where your opinion is markedly distinct from others may provide you some backlash that could have mixed results.

PRO/CON: Many wonder whether or not technology and social media use isolates their teens or further connects them with past and present friend groups. Although most research indicates that Americans are less social than they were 30 years ago, recent studies have suggested that this is not necessarily due to technology use. In fact, a few studies have concluded that technology has improved social relations. A 2009 PEW Internet Survey found that owning a cell phone and participating in a variety of internet activities likely helps people cultivate more diverse social networks. PEW’s Amanda Lenhart found that kids who text most often are most likely to spend time with friends in person. One form of socializing doesn’t replace the other. It augments it.

“Kids still spend time face to face,” Lenhart says. Indeed, as they get older and are given more freedom, they often ease up on social networking. Early on, the web is their “third space,” but by the late teens, it’s replaced in reaction to greater autonomy. Additionally, an Oxford Internet Institute study (October 2013) that examined 200 teens over the span of three years found that subjects gained new communication skills, both verbal and written, through technology use. The online world can offer teens remarkable opportunities to become literate and creative because young people can now publish ideas not just to their friends, but to the world. And it turns out that when they write for strangers, their sense of “authentic audience” makes them work harder, push themselves further and create powerful new communicative forms.

Managing Technology Use

Technology, like other activities our children engage with, has the potential to either harm or enhance mental and physical health. There is a vast health difference between a teen who plays a solitary game that doesn’t encourage mental stimulation and a teen who challenges his friends to a Wii Fit game or briefly plays word-puzzle applications [“apps”]. There are many positive “apps” and games available for teens that promote good health. When it comes to technology, both quality and quantity matter.

As parents, we must also face that our teens don’t always use good judgment. Like everyone else, they make mistakes – sometimes serious ones. But working out how to behave online is a new social skill. A Pew study found 15% of teens said someone had been mean or cruel to them online in the last 12 months. Even sexting may be rarer than expected: the Pew study found only 4% of teenagers had sent a “sext” and only 15% had received one, still something of concern, yet also something we can address proactively with our teens.

What can we do as parents to reap the benefits for our children? Firm decisions must be made and adhered to regarding quality/type and length of time devoted to technology. In the digital world, we are immigrants. Our children were born into it and know it much better than we do.


• Engage in conversations regarding the advantages and disadvantages of technology, and your expectations for its use in your household.

• Learn about social media and technology as much as you can.

• Don’t look at technology use as a “right” held by your teen.

• Set limits to their time, get all their passwords, track their digital actions.

• Try to limit technology use in seclusion of you and take the time to know what they’re doing.

• Watch videos, monitor conversations, look at friends lists and so on.

As always, the child’s first line of defense in technology’s impact on health is you, the parent.