3 reasons it’s hard for your teen to put down their phone

Your teenager is on their phone too much and it’s getting annoying. Why is it SO hard for them to just put the darn thing down?! Let’s cut right to the chase:

1. Dopamine-The reward hormone

Phones, including social media and video games, are not addictive by chance – they are addictive by design. Big Tech is a community of device and content creators whose job it is to grab and hold our attention. From blinking/moving/colorful content to links one must click to continue reading to algorithms that curate content for which we have demonstrated a preference, to little tickers that count how many likes/follows we have accumulated, attention-seeking gimmicks are causing our brains to release little hits of dopamine — the reward hormone. Dopamine is what makes us feel good when we win, get praise, or experience something pleasant. It quite literally feels good to engage with our phones and with content on the Internet. In terms of behavior, what gets rewarded gets repeated. If it feels good, we are probably going to do it again and more frequently. The problem with dopamine-inducing behaviors is that the more dopamine we are exposed to the more we get used to having in our system. The more we have in our system, the more we need to feel good. It’s a behavior loop that just keeps getting reinforced.

2. The Imagined Audience & The End of Forgetting

The main goal at the adolescent stage of development is to develop one’s identity. It is essentially an ongoing dress rehearsal in which teens are trying on new behaviors, styles, attitudes, beliefs to see what feels right to them. They bounce these rehearsals off their peers and adjust things according to feedback they receive. If they try a new hairstyle and get rave reviews, they’ll keep it and probably post about it on their Instagram account. If they wear a new fashion trend and get made fun of, they will probably bury the clothes at the bottom of their closet and attempt to erase all digital evidence that it ever happened. (Teens certainly have a flair for the dramatic.) Social media complicates all of this behavior rehearsal because of the concept of an ‘imagined audience,’ a term coined by David Elkind in 1967 that is even more relevant today.

Teens walk around convinced that everyone is watching and judging them. Life feels like a fishbowl at this age. Have you ever said your kid’s name a little too loud in a crowd and gotten a mortified, “OH MY GOD! STOP! Are you trying to embarrass me?!” That is the imagined audience at work. What teens don’t quite get (yet) is that the number of people who 1.) Heard, 2.) Cared, AND 3.) Will remember this incident for more than a minute is basically ZERO, but they are convinced EVERYONE there will remember it ALWAYS. Imagine how hard it is to disprove the concept of an imagine audience with the permanence of social media and the audiences kids now have actually following them. It certainly explains the rise in anxiety rates we’re seeing in teens. Every teen essentially wants to walk around with a shiny trophy highlighting what they’re good at and their job is to keep anyone from splashing mud on that prize. Their job is image development and management and they are very worried about getting muddy.

On social media, all of the sudden this adolescent anxiety written off with an eye roll by most adults has all of the sudden developed some legitimacy. There is a great book by Kate Eichhorn called The End of Forgetting which is about growing up on social media and the title says it all. The start of social media marked the end of forgetting. Social Media has created a digital legacy of their every move, even their awkward years. The same awkward years we adults are happy to have left in the dust of single use cameras (hopefully decomposing in the landfills). So, if you think your teen is spending too much time on their phone because they’re managing their public image, the imagined audience is probably why. It’s a great argument for thinking long and hard before they post…and a great reminder for parents to do the same before posting anything about your kid. Will this embarrass them in 10 years? Or maybe even next week?

3, Boredom or Over-stimulation

You may have heard the saying “Idle hands are the Devil’s workshop” which is another way of saying that we tend to do foolish things, or things we wouldn’t otherwise do, when we’re bored because we’re hoping to experience something stimulating or interesting. When teens are bored, they may go down the rabbit hole of comparison on someone else’s social media page, or post comments on a controversial thread leading to a stimulating back-and-forth, or search incessantly for a former flame’s digital footprint. If your teen is using social media in this way, they may need more offline social connection or more online guidelines and supervision.

There is a flip side to this idea of a boredom-driven phone fixation. Sometimes, kids turn to their phones not because they’re bored, but because they are stressed or over-stimulated by the world around them and what’s on their phones (games, videos, social media) is a way to tune out. If your teen is prone to passive scrolling—that is, mindlessly scrolling through their feeds without necessarily looking for anything in particular—then you might want to check in with them about how they’re feeling. This online behavior has the greatest correlation to anxiety and the self-soothing they’re achieving online may make it more difficult for them to break the dopamine cycle. A conversation about this may also give you useful clues about how to help your kid alleviate stress.

How you can help them break this cycle

  • Set & enforce time limits and content restrictions
  • Model self-discipline with your own technology use
  • Talk to your children about what they’re seeing and how it’s making them feel
  • Develop alternative ways for them to get the stimulation -OR- the brain break they’re trying to get from their phone

Final Thoughts

You’ve probably heard this before, but if the product is free, then you’re the product. In the case of technology, your attention is the product and it is a very profitable business for Big Tech. Now, if teens universally LOVE anything, it’s pushing back against anyone trying to boss them around. If you help your teen understand how technology is trying to boss them around, you might get just the “in” you’re looking for to make progress on this.

If you need guidance on how to tackle this big job, get in touch! I’d love to share my tips for healthy technology use that harnesses the good stuff available online and mitigates the negative influences. It’s never too late to teach your teen about healthy technology use.

About the Author

When she is not navigating the perils of parenting adolescents, Erin Castleberry is a mental health therapist and Media Director at Waypoint Wellness Center. She has presented locally and internationally on the effects of social media on mental health and held an adjunct professorship at Johns Hopkins University. She specializes in anxiety management, life stage adjustment, and parent-child relationship building.

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