Teens and Technology in the Age of COVID
The human spirit must prevail over technology. - Albert Einstein
Welcome to the Machine
Technology has become, for better and for worse, an integral part of our lives that often is taken for granted. Consider the smartphone, for example. This pocket-sized device contains a million times more computing power than the Apollo 11 supercomputer. Indeed, it is seemingly impossible to imagine a world without smartphones, let alone the internet, computers or social media. With 79% of Americans actively using at least one social media platform, we are more connected with one another than in the history of humanity.
There are now multiple generations who have been born into this futuristic era. These digital natives have a seemingly innate ability to navigate a dizzying array of apps, gadgets, programs and other tech that many of us find perplexing (to say the least).
In his Spiderman comics, Stan Lee (1962) once wrote ''With great power comes great responsibility." The modern adolescent is expected to balance after-school activities with homework, socialization, family time, and self-care; in addition to managing the overwhelming responsibility of their personal technology use. It is truly no wonder that:
1 in 3 adolescents will meet criteria for an anxiety disorder by age 18,
1 in 4 adolescents will have vaped nicotine within the past month by 12th grade,
The rate of adolescents meeting criteria for Major Depressive Disorder increased by 52% between 2005 and 2017. (Coyne et al. 2020)
COVID-19’s resulting shelter in place ordinances have essentially created a perfect storm for technology abuse and addiction. With teens forced to stay home and spend their school day online, a diligent student may spend 5 to 8 hours per day in front of a screen for their studies alone. Including their fun screen time from gaming, social media, YouTube and TV streaming shows, they might spend a staggering 7 to 15 hours per day (Antos. 2020). This sedentary lifestyle, combined with a lack of in-person socialization, is indeed a disturbing pattern.
The longest study ever completed on adolescents and gaming addiction, published in May of this year, had foreboding results. Tracking 385 teens over 6 years, researchers found that 10% would develop technology addiction by the time they entered adulthood (Coyne et al. 2020). The single largest predictor of addiction? Levels of prosocial behavior, or behavior that benefits another person or people. Community service, helping a friend study, following household rules and supporting a peer going through a difficult time are all examples of such behavior. Greater amounts of prosocial behavior are protective against a gaming addiction.
Thus, it has never been more important for therapists to have sufficient knowledge and awareness of how such technology use impacts our clients and what might mitigate the high use of technology. Truly, we must prepare ourselves for the developmental and socio-emotional impacts that will result from the new normal tech diet consumed during shelter in place.
Addiction itself is much like an iceberg protruding from the ocean. We can see only a small portion of it outside the water, yet underneath is a gargantuan, jagged, frozen mass. From low prosocial behavior and frustration tolerance to tantrum behaviors, these tech-addicted teens may sadly have parts of their development frozen as well.
In their review of 24 recent studies on teens with IGD, Choi, et al. (2019) found:
92% met criteria for some form of an anxiety disorder,
89% met criteria for some form of a depressive disorder,
85% met criteria for some form of an ADHD,
75% met criteria for some form of an OCD.
It is not difficult to imagine why so many children and teens are developing pathological technology use. The outside world has not exactly been a safe place. In 2018 it was literally engulfed in flames and is now being ravaged by a pandemic. As a teen, hours upon hours of gaming can serve to bolster a sense of autonomy (control through achievement), social connection/belonging, and an overall immersive escape. Understanding your client’s core motivation(s) for their use can give you a clearer idea of replacement behaviors, a key aspect of treatment.
As therapists, it is our duty to not only diagnose and treat technology addictions, but to empower parents, caregivers and natural supports through psychoeducation as well. Below are a number of wonderful resources to aid you in taking these small steps as individual providers. In doing so, perhaps the current generation of teenagers will one day be able to take a giant leap for us all.
Cerniglia, L., Griffiths, M. D., Cimino, S., De Palo, V., Monacis, L., Sinatra, M., & Tambelli, R. (2019). A latent profile approach for the study of internet gaming disorder, social media addiction, and psychopathology in a normative sample of adolescents. Psychology Research and Behavior Management, 12, 651–659. doi:10.2147/PRBM.S211873
Choi, B. Y., Huh, S., Kim, D. J., Suh, S. W., Lee, S. K., & Potenza, M. N. (2019). Transitions in problematic internet use: A one-year longitudinal study of boys. Psychiatry Investigation, 16(6), 433–442. doi:10.30773/pi.2019.04.02.1
Coyne, S.M., Stockdale, L.A., Warburton, W., Gentile, D.A., Yang, C., & Merrill, B. (2020). Pathological video game symptoms from adolescence to emerging adulthood: A 6-year longitudinal study of trajectories, predictors, and outcomes. Developmental Psychology,
Forsans, E. (2011). The video game industry is adding 2–17-year old gamers at a rate higher than that age group’s population growth. Agence Française pour le Jeu Vidéo/The NPD Group. Retrieved from http://www.afjv.com/
Rideout V.J., Foehr U.G., Roberts D.F. (2010, January). Generation M2: Media in the lives of 8- to 18-year-olds. Retrieved from https://kaiserfamilyfoundation/
Young, K.S. (2007). Cognitive behavior therapy with internet addicts: Treatment outcomes and implications. CyberPsychology & Behavior. 10(5), 671–679. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/
Young, K.S. (2013). Treatment outcomes using CBT-IA with internet-addicted patients. Journal of Behavioral Addictions. 2(4), 209–215. doi:10.1556/JBA.2.2013.4.3
Antos, M. (2020, April 15th).New Data from Circle Shows Parents Depend on Screen Time Management Tools More Than Ever During Shelter-in-Place. Intrado. https://techaeris.com/2020/04/15/data-shows-parents-heavily-relying-on-screen-management-apps-during-shelter-in-place/