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Do You Know What’s Coming into Your Teen’s Phone?

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Jim Schroeder - published on 07/02/15

You might be surprised at what your kids are exposed to every day

It is 11:30 P.M on a Thursday night. Your 13-year-old daughter is asleep. Suddenly she awakes to a ding from her phone. She quickly realizes that one of her best friends just sent a group text to her and two other girls indicating that her friend was thinking of killing herself. You and your husband are asleep in bed, and the house is quiet. Lying there in bed, she panics. Her friend has been acting strangely lately, and although she has never heard her talk about suicide, she is afraid that if something isn’t done, her friend might be dead. So, she quickly texts the other members of the group, and they respond back with the same panic, not sure if they should wake their parents up or just try to handle it on their own. They all decide to send a supportive text to their suicidal friend, and wait for a response.

It is 3:10 PM on a Tuesday. School has just ended. Your 12-year-old son just received an Instagram photo of a female classmate. She is nude. The photo was sent by an older friend of his, who used to date this girl. But they had broken up, and as a way at getting back at her, his friend decided to send a photo of her that she had sent previously upon his request. As the days go by, the photo ends up being sent to 23 other boys throughout the school, and from there, it is impossible to know where it circulates. The girl eventually finds out, and is mortified. An investigation ensues through the school, and it is eventually discovered that your son is one of those who received the photo. However, like everyone else, he didn’t say anything for multiple reasons until confronted.

It is 9:30 AM on a Saturday morning. Your 10-year-old boy is upstairs doing homework. The topic at school was the legislative process in the United States government, and questions were asked about the White House. So, he decides to surf the internet for relevant sites to see if he can get his questions answered quickly. He quickly pulls up a few. He clicks into one. The next thing he knows he is transported into a pornography website, and what follows are tons of additional clips of illicit sexual activity. He immediately knows that he shouldn’t be there. But no one is around and he is curious. So, he closes his door, and proceeds to check out the sites.

It is 8:30 PM on a Tuesday night. Your 14-year-old son is trying to study in his room. But his friends keep texting and sending him all kinds of links, some of them goofy, some of them mean, and some just completely outrageous and inappropriate. He knows you wouldn’t approve of them, but he figures they are harmless. Meanwhile, his homework sits there, untouched. He is barely getting by in Language Arts and Math, and he has little motivation to do the work anyway. He is tired. He decides that there is little chance he is going to get any work done. So, he tweets out a few messages through Kik and gets on his Facebook page. There, he sees a video of a fight that broke out between two girls at school. He laughs.

The vignettes described above are based on events that regularly happen in the lives of our youth today, more often than many parents realize. What makes them unique is they were largely impossible, or at least unlikely, until kids possessed their own mobile devices. What is also clear is that once a child or adolescent has their own mobile device, especially with internet and texting capacity, they suddenly become exposed to many different threats that were either minimized or non-existent before that puts them into uncomfortable, precarious positions. In summarizing these threats, here are a few points to consider:

Youth are increasingly exposed to “drama” and often feel pressed to be counselors and saviors: As anxiety and depression rates continue to rise, one of the clear culprits seems to be that generations growing up never remove themselves from the all of the dissension and uncertainty. What we need to realize is that even when youth are safely at home, those with mobile devices are often constantly barraged with the drama that surrounds them, only a fingertip away from feeling like they are being thrust into the role of a mediator, therapist, and and/or rescuer. This can happen at any time, even in the early morning hours.

Inappropriate material of all kinds is readily available, intended or not: There have always been opportunities for our youth to engage in illicit affairs. But when the average young adult male accesses pornography 50 times a week, and pornographic web pages increased by 1,800% between 1998 and 2003, it is clear that our youth have never had so many opportunities to go wrong. It isn’t just what they get from the internet either. It is also what they text and send to each other. Try having an illicit conversation when the only phone available in the house was in the kitchen or living room, and texting was not an option.

Distractions are a touch screen away: Often concerns voiced regarding mobile devices focus on how they allow youth to do wrong. This issue focuses on what they enable youth to do, or not do, at all. What we are speaking of is the necessary aspects of their day, including homework, chores, hygiene practices, face-to-face socialization, eating meals, sleeping, and more. Again, youth have always found a way to distract themselves out of many things. But now, the distraction is something unbelievably more appealing than even the television, siblings, or any other diversion. Being interminably distracted is now the norm for our youth.

Opportunities for bullying and prolonged situations of shame and discomfort are magnified: There was a time when disagreements and bullying primarily occurred face to face, and only stayed around if people dictated this. But now that cyberbullying and internet posting of daily activities happen all the time, we can be guaranteed that disagreements, embarrassing events, and horrible encounters will always remain accessible, even when these same kids go on a date, apply for college, or seek out a job. It has always been somewhat challenging to remind teens that what they do now can influence their life later. But now that they can record and access it all from their phones, this fact has never been truer, even if they learn it too late.

Unintended entitlement results when everything is at their fingertips: We were all a little self-absorbed and naïve as teens (and to some degree, we still are), even before the technological age. At times, we were quick to believe that we knew and deserved all. Imagine what having an iPhone does with your teen? Now, suddenly your son or daughter becomes grand central station, information center, and a business office all wrapped into one. As the commercials would say, the world is in their hands, and they can do or have anything they want. The problem, of course, is that as someone once mused, “Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Opportunities to avoid addressing issues directly and appropriately abound: How many times growing up (and even now) did you desire to avoid the uncomfortable and exhausting conversations? How many times after they were over did you realize that they were really important to have? Well, with a mobile device in hand, we can be assured that our teens can avoid these conversations much more, and thereby have less practice in dealing with important matters face-to-face. Whether it is breaking up through texting or posting an angry, bitter message for many to see, or simply avoiding phone calls from “her”, it is clear that avoidance, or at least partial detachment, is the name of the game. And nothing makes it easier for a youth than a mobile device. No more worries that someone will call the house and have to talk to mom or dad, or leave a message on the machine for all to hear. Now your kids can really start to be in charge of their own lives, and keep defining what “conversation” and “privacy” means for our minors.

Ultimately, what both researchers and parents are finding out is that the promise of mobile devices for our youth is increasingly laden with many more risks than benefits. It is something that the marketers desire to hide, as they continue to advertise the way in which it allows people of all ages to evolve in a majestic, sensational way. The problem is that their ads leave out the ways in which it appears our humanness is devolving thanks to the vast, pervasive mobile network of today.

For more specific advice regarding youth and media/technology, see my Just Thinking site.   

Jim Schroederis a pediatric psychologist at St. Mary’s Center for Children in Evansville, Indiana. He also writes a monthly column titled "Just Thinking" (www.stmarys.org/articlesdesigned to inform, educate, and motivate parents and providers in applying pertinent research in meaningful, practical ways.He is the author of Into the Rising Sunand 40 Days of Hopeful Prayer

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