What are your concerns about teens and digital technologies?

A closer look at common concerns and how research may or may not support parental fears about the impacts of technology use among adolescents.

Many adults have expressed concerns about ways that digital technologies may be affecting the health, well-being and brain development of young people and these concerns are often heightened by reports that many teens are online “almost constantly.” Considering the developmental tasks of adolescence, it’s not surprising that teens have so fully embraced using digital technologies. Adolescence is a time of life when young people expand and deepen their connections with peers, explore issues of identity and learn to function more independently. Social networks, texting and the Internet allow young people to easily and frequently connect with others, learn about and grapple with important issues in their lives and explore the larger world.   

The work of Duke University researchers Madeleine George and Candice Odgers explores some of the common fears that parents have expressed about adolescents’ use of mobile technologies. In their 2015 article in the Perspectives on Psychological Science journal, George and Odgers identified fears such as cyberbullying and effects of technology use on sleep. They reviewed a wide range of studies in order to better understand what’s currently known about harmful impacts of technology. Although they did find examples of ways that these technologies involve new kinds of risks for adolescents (such as providing new platforms for bullying), they found that many of the behaviors and risks that are present in the digital world also exist in the “offline” world of young people.

While their article doesn’t highlight all the types of fears that parents have expressed about teens and technology, the authors did identify the seven most common fears that have been reflected in a variety of parent surveys. Some of what they learned appears below:

Young people’s online networks look very similar to their offline networks.

While many parents have concerns about who their children are interacting with online, most teens appear to spend a great majority of their online time managing their social lives by connecting with friends and peers. Parents also have fears about the kinds of information their children may be sharing. For example, in the National Poll on Children’s Health conducted by the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in 2015, parents listed sexting as one of their top concerns. While higher numbers of older adolescents than younger adolescents have reported that they’ve shared nude or semi-nude pictures or text messages of a sexual nature, the estimates vary depending on how sexting is defined. Given the level of concern about these issues, it’s important for parents to remember that young people can benefit from conversations about healthy digital communication related to sexting and other kinds of risky online behaviors.

There is a high degree of overlap between bullying that occurs online and offline.

Cyberbullying is another very common concern shared by parents. Rates of cyberbullying vary depending on the ages of young people and how it’s defined, with studies showing rates ranging from 10 percent to 40 percent. In the 2013 survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for example, 18.8 percent of Michigan high-schoolers indicated that they had been electronically bullied. In their research review, George and Odgers found that there is a high degree of overlap between bullying that occurs online and offline, with digital technologies putting those who are vulnerable offline at even higher risk for being targeted. Although the article on parents’ fears didn’t raise the issue of digital abuse within teen dating relationships, there may also be similar kinds of connections between online and offline risks for adolescents who are part of unhealthy dating relationships.

Young people report that their use of technology has strengthened their existing offline relationships.

Many parents also have concerns that teens’ high rates of using digital technologies will affect the quality of their offline experiences and friendships. For the most part, young people report that their use of technology has strengthened their existing offline relationships. It is important to pay attention to the amount of time spent online by teens who may be dealing with mental health issues since it’s possible that online behaviors and experiences could intensify what these young people are going through.  

Time spent online is not associated with lower relationship quality offline.

Some parents are concerned that the time that teens devote to digital technologies will weaken or negatively affect their parent-child relationships. Although the time that teens spend online may displace some of their face-to-face time with parents, studies indicate that this is not associated with lower relationship quality. In some situations, these technologies help to maintain or strengthen important parent-child connections, such as shared custody arrangements or when young people are transitioning to college. While some parents also use these technologies to monitor teens’ locations and their online activities and behaviors, studies show that parental monitoring by itself has not been found to change situations that parents are concerned about. Instead, research shows that young people’s willingness to come forward to share and disclose information with their parents is the best predictor of their involvement in risky behaviors.

There’s considerable overlap between how teens present themselves to others online and offline.

Despite some parents’ fears that young people are experimenting with alternate identities online and leaving a digital footprint that may be harmful to their sense of self and future, most studies have shown that there is considerable overlap between how teens present themselves to others online and offline. Exceptions to this may include some lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer/questioning (LGBTQ) youth who may be looking to more fully explore their identities in safe and shared online spaces. In addition, for all young people, online spaces may also provide a relatively private way to explore sensitive issues related to sexuality and health.

More research is needed about the effects of adolescents’ multitasking behaviors.

Ever since a 2010 report by the Kaiser Family Foundation identified young people’s self-reported rates of media multitasking, many adults – including parents – have expressed concerns about the rates and potential negative effects of teens’ multitasking. While little is known about how these behaviors may be affecting the overall developmental stage of adolescence, studies with adults have consistently shown that multitasking and task switching can lead to increased error rates and time needed to complete tasks. There is also a strong research consensus about the need for young people (and adults!) to carry out important tasks like driving without the distractions of electronic devices. However, there’s been less research on the long-term effects of multitasking on young people and whether their brains are adapting in helpful versus harmful ways in response to these behaviors.

Studies are clear about the negative impacts of technology on adolescents’ sleep patterns.

Studies have consistently shown that mobile device and media usage before bedtime reduces sleep duration and quality. Surveys have indicated that most teens keep their mobile devices close by at night. This access takes away from sleep time and sometimes involves emotionally arousing content or interactions that may make it hard to fall or stay asleep. In addition, the bright lights of devices and electromagnetic radiation from phones interfere with melatonin activity and sleep rhythms. While some of the fears described previously may not be reinforced by research, there’s strong evidence available about the adverse effects of digital technologies on adolescents’ sleep patterns.

Find out more.

If you’re interested in learning more about these kinds of issues, you may want to watch the recording of a webinar that recently provided by Michigan State University Extension. This webinar, titled This is your brain online: The impact of digital technology on mental health, featured Scott Becker, director of the MSU Counseling Center, talking about research findings related to ways that the overuse of digital technology may affect brain development, sleep, mood, concentration, memory, learning and relationship behaviors. On February 11, 2016, MSU Extension will provide a second webinar featuring Dr. Becker, which is titled Finding the balance: Strategies for using digital technology in healthy ways. That webinar will provide a deeper look at the implications of the research, along with a variety of strategies that can be used to promote the healthy use of digital technology. In addition, MSU Extension provides a variety of programs and resources related to the positive health and development of children and adolescents. Among these is an initiative called Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments, which includes a curriculum that focuses on several topics including bullying, cyberbullying, and social and emotional intelligence.

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