Are young people really “addicted” to technology or is something else at work?

By using “addiction” language to describe teens and technology, adults may be missing what young people desire the most – opportunities to connect with friends.

Are young people really “addicted” to technology or is something else at work?

It’s not uncommon to hear adults make comments about young people being “obsessed” with social media or to see media coverage that focuses on teens’ “addiction” to technology. It’s true that many young people spend a significant amount of time using technology for recreation, socializing and learning. There’s also evidence that some adolescents and adults may use technology excessively and in ways that are detrimental to their mental health. However, some experts are challenging us to look more carefully at how we use the word “addiction” to describe young people’s experiences with technology.

In her book, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, researcher danah boyd draws from the experiences of young people to help parents, educators and other adults explore the impacts of social media and other technologies on the lives of adolescents. Although teens may appear to be obsessed with technology, boyd stresses that they’re not “addicted” to the technology – what they’re really drawn to is spending time with one another. Boyd’s research, along with other studies such as Social Media, Social Life: How Teens View Their Digital Lives, shows that young people would much rather get together with their friends in person than via technology, but they encounter many roadblocks to having unstructured face-to-face social time with friends.

There seems to be a big difference in how adults and teens view what constitutes social time. Parents often think that time during the school day or during afterschool activities provides the opportunities needed by teens for socializing with friends. Young people, on the other hand, indicate that they’re more drawn to getting together in less formal settings and with a broader group of peers, which can be hard to accomplish. While adults enjoy the privilege of more freely connecting socially, young people have significantly fewer options for getting together face-to-face. For example, their transportation options may be limited, their parents may have concerns about their safety, and they may be faced with curfew and loitering laws that limit their access to public and commercial spaces. It’s no surprise that young people have so readily embraced using social networks, texting and other forms of digital technology to connect with others. While their parents may have been able to head to a mall or local park to hang out with friends in order to talk, flirt, joke around and people watch, today’s young people often turn to the online world for those same kinds of activities.

As Boyd emphasizes, it’s not helpful to frame young people’s technology use as a disorder. Describing their activities as an addiction undermines their efforts to find ways to carry out one of the most important aspects of adolescence – building significant relationships outside of the family. Adults can play a key role in helping young people find ways to balance their use of technology with other activities that are important to their overall well-being, which includes having unstructured face-to-face social time with friends.

If you do have concerns that a young person in your life may be excessively and compulsively using technology, you may want to learn more about possible signs of problematic behaviors and resources that can be helpful. For example, the Center on Media and Child Health provides information on media addiction, as well as the opportunity to Ask the Mediatrician® specific questions related to children and media issues. Common Sense Media also provides a variety of helpful resources, including the opportunity for parents to submit specific questions related to media use. In addition, Michigan State University 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 topics including social and emotional intelligence.

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