Teens and Technology: Research Finds There’s No Such Thing as Addiction

Dr. Michael Rich is the founder and director of the Digital Wellness Lab (DWL) in Boston, Massachusetts. DWL’s mission is simple: to use the power of scientific research to support the physical and emotional health of today’s youth when it comes to technology.

Dr. Rich is an associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and an associate professor of social and behavioral sciences at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. He also practices adolescent medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital.

In this latest Q & A, Allison Gilbert, author and senior writer for the Center of Parent and Teen Communication, talks with Dr. Rich about supporting teens and their use of all things digital. In addition to offering advice and strategies, Dr. Rich reveals word-for-word scripts parents can use with their teens to have these all-important conversations at home.

Dr. Michael Rich

Allison Gilbert: What have you learned most recently about teens and digital technology that parents need to know right now?

Michael Rich: There is a lot of fear about internet and video game addiction. Our research shows that addiction is not the right way to describe what is going on with tweens and teens who have lost control of their interactive media use. It’s more similar to binge eating disorder, the overuse of a necessary resource. In the 21st century, using media is a requirement to function at school and work. The goal is to help teens balance their use of technology – to learn what they can achieve with these powerful tools and to become aware of what they’re not doing when they’re using them. The goal is also not to stop using technology. Overcoming addiction is based on never doing something – not drinking, not smoking. But this is not necessary or possible with media and digital technology.

The goal is to help teens balance their use of technology.

AG: What kinds of media are you talking about?

MR: Gaming, social media, pornography, information binging – whether watching videos on YouTube or scrolling through pages on Wikipedia.

AG: When does media use begin to concern you?

MR: When the daily functions of life are impaired. Sleep is disrupted. Staying up too late. Grades start to drop. Your teen wants to spend more and more time alone and becomes less interested in favorite activities or hobbies.

AG: If a parent is concerned, how do you suggest they talk with their teen about it?

MR: First, it’s important to come from a place of understanding and compassion. Recognize that teens are living in a very different environment now. It’s not the adolescence we grew up with. Try not to use your own childhood as a measure. But specific conversations can happen, and the Digital Wellness Lab has resources to help.

AG: And, what do you advise parents to actually say?

MR: Our Family Digital Wellness Guide has strategies and actual “icebreaker” scripts parents can use.

For example, if your teen is spending time on their phone at night and is having trouble waking up in the morning, a parent might say: “I noticed that mornings are tough. Let’s try a new routine, where we all charge our phones in the kitchen at night, and you do something screen-free to unwind before bed, like taking a bath, writing in a journal, or reading a book.”

Or, if the music your teen has been listening to lately has been particularly mellow or filled with unusually sad lyrics, a parent could use this language: “That song you were listening to had some pretty heavy lyrics and made me concerned that you may be feeling down. How are you feeling? Does that music help?”

AG: I’d like to switch the conversation to the topic of group chats over text. You’ve explored helping teens navigate the dynamics associated with this kind of communication. Can you help us understand why group chats can be so challenging?

MR: With group chats, there’s potential for feeling left out. It’s the same kind of feeling that comes from not being invited to a sleepover or party. If this is a challenge your teen is facing, I suggest asking a few questions:

“Are you sure you want to be part of a group that would do this to someone that would purposely exclude you?”

 In addition, I’d also ask a question that may require some additional thinking: “Is there something that you’re doing that’s being misunderstood?”

But always, no matter the approach to the discussion, recognize that navigating technology is complicated for everyone, even parents. It’s just hard to read people via text and social media – you can’t see their reactions or hear their voice changing tones.

AG: I know you offer free webinars for parents, and many are recorded and available on the Digital Wellness Lab website. Which subjects do you cover and which ones, especially, do you want parents to know about and why?

MR: We cover everything from media use and screen time to helping parents understand cyberbullying. Some webinar titles include “Is My Child’s Relationship with Screens Healthy?” and “Real Risks & Benefits of Building & Gaming in Virtual Worlds.”

We welcome parents to get in touch. They can email us their suggestions for topics at dwl@childrens.harvard.edu. We’d love to hear what they want to know about!

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About Allison Gilbert

Allison Gilbert is Senior Writer for the CPTC. Her pieces cover an array of topics including self-care, bullying, grief, and resilience. Allison is author of numerous books and speaks across the country to corporations, non-profits, and community groups. You can learn more by visiting www.allisongilbert.com.

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