A Parent’s Guide to Teens, Social Media and Smartphone Addiction

illustration by Lauren of Deep Cereal http://deepcereal.com/commissions

What Happens When You Take a Teen’s Phone Away for 7 Days? Withdrawal symptoms similar to a drug addict. Panic attacks, anxiety, anger, crying, tantrums, screaming, rolling eyes, pissed off body language, lies, pouts, disbelief. Parents of teens have it rough these days thanks to a new cocktail: smartphones laced with social media apps. The mix is so potent it can take over your teen’s life and so dangerous it can literally open the door to stalkers.

Zombie Teens. The New Normal?

There is a teen epidemic happening right in front of us, and it’s called smartphone addiction. If you are wondering why your teenager is always taking selfies, it’s called Snapchat, or better named Crackchat. Why?

Top 10 reasons my daughter “could not live” without her phone (in her words)

  1. Friends would be mad
  2. Losing her streaks (more on this below)
  3. FOMO (Fear of missing out)
  4. That’s where she hangs out with friends
  5. Netflix
  6. “Not fair”
  7. No other way to talk to friends
  8. Youtube
  9. She’d rather lose her voice calling phone app than Snapchat
  10. Boredom

Teen brain hacking

Apps like Snapchat are actually designed to be addicting. It’s called brain hacking, and developers are hired to study the brain and the neurological triggers that keep us coming back for more. According to a former Google product manager, Silicon Valley is engineering your phone, apps and social media to get you hooked. It’s all about the Likes.

The problem for parents today is that the apps sprout up so fast it’s hard to keep up with new ones as quickly as they are available for download. Most apps do not come with any age limits, warning labels or ratings that parents can easily screen.

Dear Parents: Have you checked the children?

If you have a teenager you might need to do a check up, there is a social media crisis happening right in front of your screens.

My daughter just turned 15, and I’ve watched the social media highs and lows influencing her circle of friends the past few years. As a social media expert for businesses and the instructor of the social media management class at the University of Florida, I thought I was more social media savvy than most parents. In my mind, I could easily maneuver my teenager through the dangerous minefields of social media. Little did I know I was in parenting La La Land.

At age 12, she wanted to join Snapchat, and I resisted for about a year. Finally giving in when she was 13 with the understanding it would only be used with her friends, we joined. Snapchat, once coined for teen sexting in 2012, is now one of the most popular social media networks with all ages hooked, even Wall Street. I added Snapchat to my Social PR Secrets book, my college class curriculum and thought this would also allow me access to keeping up with my teen’s snaps and stories.

My first wake up call!

I realized I actually knew nothing about teens and social media until last year when I read American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers by Nancy Jo Sales. The book is an alarming and eye-opening study of more than 200 teenage girls and their social media and Internet habits and behavior. American Girls is a must read for all parents of teens and preteen girls purely as a way to take a deep dive real look at what’s happening on the inside of our girl’s lives. Trust me; this is a side you will not be exposed to as a parent no matter how much you know about social media. Think nude selfies, slut shaming and viral cyber bullying.

Snapchat takeovers

In my world, a Snapchat takeover is a good thing for brands; it’s how businesses can reach the younger audiences and influence the market. In our teen’s world, Snapchat is taking over their lives and hacking their brains.

Thanks to Snapchat and other apps like Houseparty, teens don’t think they need to hang out in person anymore. They don’t talk on the phone either. EVERYTHING happens in private and disappearing messages or live videos. Even when friends are together in the same room or sitting in the back seat riding home from school, there’s a mobile device stillness in the air. It’s Snapchat silence, scrolling, staring, and selfies. Minimal conversation except a few “Did you see that?” “OMG, can you believe she is with him?”

As a parent, it became very annoying every time I was in the car with my daughter, riding in silence, because all she was doing was watching the drama unfold on Snapchat like it was a TV show and taking pictures of herself every 10 seconds to keep up with her Snapchat streaks.

And what’s a streak you might ask? A recent Buzzfeed article put it perfectly: a Snapchat streak is the number of days in a row that you and another person have mutually sent and opened at least one Snapchat. While they are ~fun~ and all, Snapchat streaks can strain any friendship or relationship.

Buzzfeed reported Snapchstreak anniversaries are more important than birthdays

If your teen currently has one (or 30) going, you should be aware that streaks can suck time and energy from more important things in life.

The struggle is real for all teenagers today.

The pressure is always on for teens. They expect an immediate response from each other whether it is a text or message on Snapchat. They pay close attention to who is doing what with who and where. Teenage girls can be notorious for drama and add social media to the mix takes it to all new levels that can lead to death-defying circumstances. Just look at the rise of teenage suicide well marked with the latest controversial Netflix series 13 Reasons Why. The series studies the impact of how teens treat each other and how small aggressions can have unthinkable effects even without the power of social media.

What made me pull the plug?

My breaking point happened when teenager and one of her good friends had a falling out on Snapchat. It was not just between the two of them; it was in real-time unfolding in snaps, stories, and live videos. Other friends were involved taking sides and making comments.

We are so used to unfollowing and unfriending in a click of a button that our teens are being programmed to think real life unfriending is the new normal.

That it’s ok to just block a friend one day and unblock the next day. Instead of learning compromise, conversation and conflict skills teens are learning it’s easier to just ignore your problems, i.e., block.

We have no idea what’s happening in some one’s life on the other end of the screen. The problem with social media is it robs our teens of empathy and compassion they would more likely have a face-to-face communication versus hiding behind the taps and scrolls of the smartphone.

I’ve always monitored my daughter’s digital use with apps such as AT&T Smart Limits and Life360 more from a safety perspective. In 9th grade I realized that her app and phone interaction was happening during school, after school, homework time, dinner time and there seemed to be no beginning and no end. It was getting out of control, so I found an app to monitor screen time and block her apps during school, bed, and study times. This worked somewhat, and I promised her that come summertime I would take off the restrictions to give her more free time to her friends on social media. Big mistake.

No phone, no apps for 7 Days

It devastated me to see my daughter and her friends dealing with so many unnecessary distractions and interactions. With summer just beginning things were not off to a positive start. I could see she needed a break. Her Snapchat feed was robbing her of more important and memorable things. I asked what she saw the value was in Snapchat? Was it replacing summer reading, family awareness, responsibilities, goals, mindfulness, physical activity, mental stimulation and even her natural sweetness? Yes was not a possibility. I was done. Not everything had to be for the selfie or the photo opp.

So I took her phone away entirely, the most crippling thing a teen could ever imagine. There was no time frame. Even I did not know how long I could do it since this would also be hard for me not being able to get in touch with her when I was not with her.

It was not easy, but the benefits were amazing, and I could never have expected better results.

Day 1- Denial and isolation. I deleted the social media apps from her phone, and she finds a way to get on them from another device.

Day 2 — Lots of anger. I figure out she’s going behind my back and using her apps from her friend’s device. She changes her account passwords and gives them to another friend to manage her social media and keep up her daily Snapchat streak. Her phone is taken away completely, and I change all her passwords. Withdrawal symptoms are at an all time peak and bargaining starts to happen.

Day 3, 4 and 5 — Luckily for both of us, she is volunteering full time at an art camp for community hours.

Day 6 — A spiritual awakening begins to happen as my 15-year-old realizes that being clear and present is not so bad. I take her away for a night at our condo on the beach as a means to disconnect from the last few days and connect with each other. We take our usual walk on the beach, and she starts asking me what my grandmother was like, we end up walking for 3 miles and me telling all my memories of growing up with my grandma in Chicago.

Day 7 — We watched movies, hung out together and went to the beach. That night she handed me a three-page letter telling me what a great weekend she had with me and loved hearing all the stories.

Danger signs

  • Streaks with more than five friends
  • House party app
  • Stalking and spying on where other friends are
  • Fake social media accounts with multiple identities
  • Closed and secret Facebook groups
  • Apps that hide images such as Vaulty
  • Cleared search history on phone browsers
  • Tracking Location settings and features
  • Relationships with friends they have never met
  • Unfriending in real life
  • Did you know? Teens can also block certain people from seeing their Snapchat stories, like their parents.
Shocking Stat
Common Sense Media found that 30 percent of teens who are online believe their parents know “a little” or “nothing” about what social media apps and sites they use.

Signs your teen is addicted

  • Not answering your text messages
  • Not answering phone calls
  • Up all night and/or in bed all day on phone
  • Not responding in conversation
  • Forgetting
  • Blank stare
  • Stressed face
  • Not telling truth
  • Secretive behavior
  • Turning on and off location settings
  • Freak out if phone is not with them at all times

Make sure you have your teens

  • Apple ID and password
  • Phone passcode
  • Email passcodes
  • Computer passcode

Restrictions and allowances

Is social media a right or a privilege? Smartphones used to be a luxury, but today most parents see them as a communications and safety necessity. But you would not let your teens grab a red solo cup and stay out all night, would you? Then why let them congregate on social media anytime they want? There is no real need to get together in person with friends. Grounding your teen from participating is not any threat anymore since they will just meet up with their friends anyway on Snapchat or Houseparty.

Solutions

  • Ourpact — this app allows parents to control the screen time of certain apps and shutdown apps during certain hours such as bedtime, school and study time.
  • Life360 — allows you to track the location of your teen and all family members who join, It reduces stress and needs to check in with each other.
  • Onward — an addiction management app designed to equip both adults and children with the tools to overcome their compulsive habits and break user’s bad habits.

Gaming the Social Media System with Teens

My friend Shelly posted this on Facebook:

My favorite part of each day in the summer is quickly becoming watching my kids work through the “to do” lists that I made and taped to the fridge for each of them.
Bed making
Teeth brushing (amazing it has to be on a list to happen)
Breakfast making
Cleaning up a room
Doing something creative/20 mins
Being outside/20 mins
Exercising/20 mins
Reading/20 mins
Writing/20 mins
Doing something to help someone
It’s infinitely easier to let them be the masters of their days, which usually means they watch videos or dive into electronics all day — because they don’t bug me. But they really enjoy the fact that they know they’re expected to get through everything on the list before they can do that. And they take it seriously. This was not my idea. However, I owe a big thank you to whomever it was I stole it from. It works!

Parents, you have choices.

#1 Do nothing and take your chances.

#2 Do something and give your teens boundaries they can’t give themselves and ones you have never had to experience.

Even our college aged kids agree. They say teenagers today have it so much harder with pressure and stress than they ever imagined just a few years ago. Speaking of college, if you have not read about how Harvard University rescinded admissions offers to at least 10 students who shared offensive images within what they thought was a private Facebook group chat — read this story now.

The takeaway

Snapchat streaks and Instagram hearts are not college requirements. Like alcohol and drug addiction, teens need parents to guide and support them in balancing the necessary evils of smartphones and social media. It’s an evolving work in progress and not something we can set up and forget.

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Watch this interview as Megan Morrone and Psychotherapist Georgia Dow from iMore discuss this article and smartphone addiction in teenagers and adults. Research shows teenage brains are affected by smartphone use and companies like Snapchat are hacking your brain to determine how to keep you coming back. How to know if you or your child is addicted and how to detox.

About The Author

@LisaBuyer

Lisa Buyer is the author of Social PR Secrets and her next book Digital Detox Secrets. She is CEO of The Buyer Group, a consultancy blending the power of PR with search marketing and social media. She loves to work with brands in the health, wellness + yoga world. Soon to be 200 hr certified yoga teacher.

You can connect with her on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram.