My father and I argue about the state of the world a lot, as children and parents will do. My father is sure that texting is the death of interpersonal relationships and I’m sure that texting is just another technological leap like the radio, the television and the Internet – the kind of leap that makes old folks shake their fists and tell the kids to get off of the lawn.
Some of the research on this tends to side with my dad, witness this study out of Washington and Lee University. Texting While Stressed: Implications for Students’ Burnout, Sleep, and Well-Being, examined the experience of 83 incoming freshman and found that the more they text, the lousier they feel. They sleep less, they stress more about relationships and they burnout on their studies more quickly.
The issue we have here isn’t texting; it’s texting too much. And what the study shows is a great teaching opportunity, not a call to return to the age of the landline.
My dad read a report about the study and immediately sent it to me as proof that he’s right and I’m wrong. I read it and thought about how it gave great pointers for the youngsters to learn how to moderate their text intake by clearly listing the red flags. Is it interfering with sleep? Adding stress? Making you burn out fast? Well, there you go. Time to curtail the texting.
As a counselor, I see lots of worried parents and lots of screen-savvy kids. My client list includes both hard-core gamers and virtual social butterflies. Certainly a few of them are escaping into online worlds in order to avoid facing real life challenges and some of them are slaves to their smart phones but the vast majority of them manage things pretty well.
Lots of parents worry that virtual relationships will take the place of real life relationships but I think this stems from a misunderstanding of what virtual relationships are. Virtual relationships are real relationships; ask anyone who met their current spouse on eHarmony. Besides these crazy kids have new fangled things like web cams and USB headsets, which allow them to see that the imaginary people who live in their monitors are actually real live human beings with real live lives. Parents of a certain age used to fall asleep with the phone glued to our ears (remember that? I’d listen to the entire Dark Side of the Moon album with my boyfriend, both of us sitting in rapt silence on opposite ends of the phone line listening to our respective record players) so we should appreciate the lure of socialization from afar.
As for the smart phones and the texting, the tweeting, the Kicking, the Skype-ing, the FaceTiming and the ooVooing, I agree with my dad who looks askance at the families sitting in a restaurant, heads buried in their screens with nary a word exchanged with each other but that’s not a technology problem; that’s a people problem. I agree that using technology to avoid each other is a sign of dysfunction but it’s a chicken and egg thing. Did the texting as avoidance tool beget dysfunction or did dysfunction beget texting as avoidance tool. My money is on the latter.
There was much debate among the psychiatric community about whether or not Internet Addiction and Internet Gaming Disorder ought to be listed in the fifth version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), which is also known as the bible of mental health professionals. At this point, neither one was included although the discussion and the research continues. I’m happy both with the current omission and with the ongoing debate because we do need to wrestle with this and we need solid research before we start giving people a diagnosis.
Meanwhile I think parents ought to be aware that managing our time with the Internet or with smart phones can be problematic and that teens—with their immature brains and emotional development—are especially vulnerable. But they’re going to head out into the great big wide world without us someday and we need to help them manage the virtual world, which they can only learn by doing.
So how do you know your teen needs to curtail her screen time? You ask yourself these two questions: Is it hurting her relationships? Is it hurting her school life? Is she stealing from your wallet to fund her Steam account? Or does he knock over his baby brother and his limping grandmother to get to his vibrating phone? Then it’s time to talk. (Me, I’ve had to set limits on texting during sessions with both teens and adults.)
Parents need to help their children learn moderation, (which can be challenging if we’re fighting our own compulsive need to add to our ever-growing Pinterest collection or to thumbs up all the events on Facebook). We need to recognize when our concern is valid and when it’s really a reaction to growing older and not understanding how that Vine thing works.
We also need to talk to our kids. One of the gamer girls who used to come to my practice was better at managing her Internet intake than her mom realized. When I facilitated a discussion between the two, the daughter had the chance to explain how she knows when she needs a break and what rules she’s set for herself to make time for schoolwork and going on World of Warcraft campaigns with her guild. So if you’re not sure if it’s a problem, ask your child. Then ask how they would know if it WAS a problem. You might find that your kids have given more thought to it than you realize.
Art by Michael Lombardo