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Digital & social: A teen’s perspective on parenting

December 2, 2014


As a therapist who specializes in helping families navigate an increasingly digital culture, Jason Brand, LCSW, hears a lot from teens about what they find helpful and not helpful when it comes to their social lives, digital devices and advice from their parents.


I first met Jason when we were interviewed on a radio show together a few years ago and have been a fan of his ever since. I asked him why he wrote this post, and you’ll find his answers to that and a few other questions in a sidebar below.


This post is a composite of many teens’ views and experiences, those expressed in family and individual therapy sessions. “It’s some of the words behind the anger, avoidance or even just frustrated eye-rolling that teens can use in response to parental questions or concerns,” Jason told me. “It’s what teens are able to say in therapy, when they are feeling less defensive.”


This is what I want you to stop doing:


Stop taking my phone and the Internet away as a punishment. When I was younger and all I used the computer for was playing games and watching shows it made more sense. Now it’s confusing, because you take it away as punishment but then have to give it back to me because I actually need it for something you approve of. I need to do research for school or you need to be able to get in touch with me, or I need to text a friend to find out an assignment, or I need to use Facebook to work on a group project. Taking it away doesn’t make sense when it’s such a big part of my social and school life. Completely cutting me off from school and friends by keeping me from the Internet is impossible.


Stop talking about how messed up I am. You are on your phone or the Internet just as much as I am. I know we are not equals and that I’m younger, but it just seems hypocritical to talk about how messed up my generation is when the adults are pretty much just doing the grown up version of the same thing.


Stop changing the rules about my phone, the Internet and video games. Don’t wake up one morning and out of the blue decide that today is a “no-screen-time day.” It makes you look desperate and gives me the message that I can pick and choose the rules I want to follow because they seem arbitrary.


Stop spying on me and respect my privacy. If you catch me texting when I should be studying, it doesn’t give you the right to read my text messages. If you go to wash my pants and my phone is in the pocket, it doesn’t mean that you should sneak a peek into my life. I’m fine with you needing to know things, but you tell me not be sneaky, and it seems like you should follow your own advice.


This is what I want you to start doing:


Start seeing my social life as important and understand the stress it is causing me. Here is a fact that just can’t change: Nothing can make me feel as bad or good as the people who are my own age. I’m not trying to block you out or not think of you. You are right when you say that it is like my mind is somewhere else. I wish that I could just get away from my social life sometimes (that’s one of the reasons why I hate it when things are stressful at home), but it’s not that easy. My social life causes me lots of stress.


Start realizing that, socially, things are really different from when you were a kid. The simple old sayings aren’t as simple anymore. It’s true that there are “other fish in the sea,” but the sea is different when the fish that broke your heart constantly posts pictures of his or her new relationship on Instagram.


Start helping me make home more fun. Remind me in kind ways that I’m always on my phone, and don’t make me feel bad for always thinking about what’s on my phone. (I’m always on my phone because that’s where my friends hang out!) Speaking of hanging out, make it feel okay for me to have friends over and don’t judge us for being on our phones or playing video games when we’re together.


Start listening to ME. Hear me out before telling me what I should do or just freaking out on me. I know you get information about me and my friends from other people, but I’m your child. It would be nice to feel like you were listening without trying to prove your point or confirm what you heard from someone else. I might not always be right but it’s still me talking. When I come to you with a problem, I’m not always looking for you to solve it, I just want to feel like you’re willing to listen.




SIDEBAR: A Q&A with Jason about this post


NFN: So just to confirm, you feel this is a perfectly valid position, right?


J.B: It is always going to be contextual to the actual teen-parent relationship and the age and level of maturity of the teen. With that said, I believe that teens show up as their most mature selves and are more likely to make positive choices when they feel seen and heard by the adults in their lives. I also want to lend some validity to the position of teens. I hear real wisdom in the words of the young people who I see in therapy and I believe that they have some good feedback for us adults.


NFN: Why did you write this?


J.B.: I wrote in the teen voice because it is an effective way to prime parents for difficult conversations. If, as a parent, you have already heard some of what your teen is thinking and feeling you will be more likely to be able to maintain the kind of flexibility necessary to provide warmth and also set limits and guidelines.


NFN: Around what percent of your clients have issues with media or technology?


J.B.: I would say that about 20% of the families that I work with come in with a presenting problem focused on social media and technology. Usually, these are cases where kids have gotten in over their heads with provocative sexual behavior online, issues around overuse, difficulty getting to the rest of life (usually chores and homework) and sometimes refusing to go to school. There is often a high level of conflict in the family in these cases and I find family therapy most effective.


With that said, 100% of the families and adolescents that I work with are impacted by technology and social media and it comes up 100% of the time in some form or fashion.


NFN: Do you feel your profession needs to understand and embrace the digital part of young people’s lives more and, if so, why?


J.B.: Yes. As clinicians it is important that we have a sense of the different dimensions that make up our clients’ or patients’ lives. For all of us, both in our personal lives and in the lives of people that we work with, technology has become an important new dimension that has a far reaching impact. If we are going to be successful in addressing both the positive uses and challenges of technology and social media it’s important to understand and embrace the landscape. I believe that most “technology issues” are actually about relationships and the push and pull of human attachment and who better to help sort that out than psychotherapists?


Jason Brand, LCSW, is a family and individual psychotherapist in Berkeley, Calif., and the author of 1 to 1 at Home: A Parent’s Guide to School-Issued Laptops and Tablets (ISTE, 2013). In addition to his psychotherapy practice, he specializes in providing support to families in a rapidly changing world where digital technologies are transforming our lives.

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