Decoding Teen Tech Addiction

By The Fix staff 07/26/17

Social media and technology can be a way to relax, but shouldn’t become a way to avoid problems or emotions.

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Teen boy trapped by technology in laptop
Just like any other form of addiction, technology addiction is often a result of underlying emotional problems that need to be addressed, not suppressed.

If you spend any time around teenagers, chances are you’ve seen them tapping away on their phones or gushing to each other about someone’s social media posts. Technology and social networking are an instrumental part of teen life today, but it’s important to remember that teen tech use isn’t always healthy.

When Does Teen Tech Use Become a Problem?

“It becomes problematic when it interferes with other areas of their lives and disrupts their developmental and social tasks,” says Dr. Jeff Nalin, the founder and executive director of Paradigm Malibu, a teen treatment center in Malibu, California.

Unhealthy tech use for teens can take two forms:

  1. Teens may withdraw into the digital world, using it to escape their peers
  2. Teens may become hyper connected, developing an over-dependence on social approval that they get through their online networks

“Men, typically, do the escapism into things like gaming, whereas young women reach out for social interaction and social approval,” Nalin says. Either way, technology and social media can become a way to avoid real life. “For the youth we see who are depressed or anxious, the devices become something that they can escape into.”

The Effects of Tech Addiction on Teens

Social media allows teens to project the most idealized version of themselves, focusing on who they want to be or who they think peers would appreciate. Many times, this often doesn’t align with who they really are.

“Part of problem is that if that doesn’t jive with who they are that gap gets bigger and the chasm can’t hold itself,” Nalin says.

As part of normal development teens are seeking more approval from their peers and less from their parents. However, that can leave them particularly vulnerable to negative online interactions.

“Heavy negative feedback affects them in different way than it would affect someone who knows themselves better,” Nalin says. “Teens process external feedback in different way, so many kids get desperately disturbed when they’re cyber bullied.”

While there have been many well-publicized cases of cyberbullying, cases aren’t always so clear cut, Nalin says. Oftentimes normal cafeteria teasing, with kids trying to be funny at someone else’s expense, can spiral out of control when it happens on social media.

“When I embarrassed myself in school it was the people who were around that found out about it,” Nalin says. “Now when you put something out online and everyone can see and have an opinion, you can get lots of people giving lots of negative feedback.”

Because of that, protecting their digital image often becomes a way for teens to exert control in their lives.

Teen Tech Addiction Treatment

“If I’m putting my own message out there, if you take that out of my hands I’m not going to be in control of it,” Nalin explained. That is why the idea of giving up 24/7 access to technology is so disturbing for many teens.

Despite that, teens who come to Paradigm Malibu are separated from their devices and social media. Initially, that creates a lot of discomfort.

“It’s really dramatic sometimes,” Nalin says. “If that’s where I put my energy in terms of developing my person, and then that’s taken away I don’t know who I am.”

However, stripping back those false personas provides a great start for treatment. Teens are able to connect with people who give them genuine feedback and provide positive feedback when they reveal their true selves.

“That is a much more rich experience than the digital world,” Nalin says.

Many of the teens report that they feel relief that the pressure of constant social media interactions is taken away.

“They can orient themselves a bit,” Nalin says.

Unlike substance misuse, where abstinence is encouraged, teens who have developed a tech addiction must learn to use social media and technology in a responsible way, since the tools are an important part of everyday life.

Nalin encourages families to work together to establish technology policies and boundaries that reflect the family’s culture and atmosphere. That might mean putting phones away during dinner, or not allowing phones in the bedrooms.

The important thing is for teens to learn that social media and technology can be a way to relax, but shouldn’t become a way to avoid their problems or emotions. Nalin compares healthy and unhealthy tech use to unwinding with a television show at night versus binge-watching television and missing out on social engagements. Although the devices can provide a distraction from pain or emotion, it’s important to process the pain rather than just avoid it.

“If you didn’t process it it may be over, but it’s not gone,” Nalin says. “It’s like sticking a cork in the volcano: you want it to stay under the surface, but underneath there is this constant rumbling.”

Instead, teens should focus on dealing with their emotions. The more genuine connection and health coping that teens have, the more they will crave meaningful connections offline.

“When you have connections like that, you want to be connected with other people rather than isolated.”


Paradigm Malibu is an adolescent treatment center in Malibu, California. Find out more at www.paradigmmalibu.com or follow them on Facebook.

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