Is Technology Really What’s Wrong With Kids Today?

When it comes to diagnosing what’s wrong with today’s youth, technology is often the first thing to be targeted by child care professionals.

21st century teenagers are often glued to their technologies. Many teenagers feel naked when they are not holding a smartphone or haven’t recently checked on messages from their friends.

Put frankly, teenagers will tell you that they need to play video games, use apps and be part of social media if they are to be well adjusted and connected in the digital world. No, that’s not just teens being dramatic. Teenager’s phones are their lifelines to peers, integral to their understanding of culture and the connection to information that helps them in their academic and personal pursuits. And a recent study of more than 14,000 teens and tweens found that engaging in video game play for 1 hour per day led to more positive psychological adjustment than not playing at all or playing for 3 or more hours per day.

Access to technology may be particularly important for teenagers who have mental health issues and difficulties in adjusting to the demands of their world. For these teens, the ability to communicate with friends, to feel connected via social media, and to be able to focus and find some enjoyment in a variety of games and apps may be crucial to their self esteem, personal adjustment, and mental health.

Video games, apps, and social media have gotten a bad rap. The evidence for most claims of their harm are dubious, particularly for kids who follow a balanced play diet wherein digital play is only a part of their daily activities. Don’t get me wrong, excessive use of video games and other electronics have been linked to (though not proven as a cause of) issues such as obesity,  addiction, aggression, isolation from nature and the outdoors, poor social skills, and a reduction in traditional reading. Excessive video game play will take kids away from other productive activities.

We at LearningWorks for Kids share these concerns about excessive involvement in technology and we see the value in many non-technology activities. Speaking for myself, I can think of very few things in life that I’d rather do than go out for a long bike ride with my wife, play in my garden, hang out with my kids, or spend an afternoon on the beach with a great book. 21st century teenagers have different interests that often include their digital tools. But rather than espouse an impractical (and impossible) all-or-none stance on technology in the lives of teenagers, we focus on a balanced approach which we call a healthy play diet. Our mission is to find ways to use these tools and technologies to help teenagers navigate many stresses that they find in the 21st-century.

We see this type of balanced approach as the only reasonable strategy for many reasons:

Quite simply, technologies are not going away. In fact, they are likely to become increasingly ubiquitous.

Technology is the best place to reach kids because that is what they are immersed in.

Social media is the way teens communicate (and let’s face it: many adults, too).

Technologies connect people. Not just teens to their peers, but via a  granddaughter Skyping her grandmother, a student taking online courses, and parents checking on their teens’ well- being via text.

The learning potential via technology is massive. It can be passive learning from good educational TV or looking up virtually anything on the Internet.

Kids and adults learn by playing and using games and technologies.

Apps can support learning by scaffolding skills such as organization and time management.

Using the technologies that teens already engage with can improve psychological adjustment and executive functions and help them to develop grit, resilience, and optimism. Tech for teens can also be used to promote the principles of positive psychology, growth mindsets, and mental and emotional flexibility. It is the role of professionals in child healthcare and education to recognize what teens are already using, identify the types of new tools that are likely to grab their attention, and help teens choose and use these tools for self improvement.

For more about teens and mental health, see Can Tech Improve the Mental Health of Teens?, The Best Online Teen and Tween Mental Health Resources, and 4 Truths About Teen Mental Health Technologies. You should also read about the science behind LearningWorks for Kids. To learn how you can make the games and apps your teen is already playing start working for them, check out our playbooks and app reviews.

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