Why “The Tech Talk” Doesn’t Work
How you can help your teen dodge digital mistakes.
By Melanie Hempe, BSN, Founder of ScreenStrong
A mom sits across from me at a restaurant she picked, outside of her normal stomping ground. She doesn’t want anyone to see her meeting with me. She is embarrassed. Her daughter posted a nude photo of herself last week, and the mom is very shocked and upset. “I don’t understand, we have had conversations about this with her before. What else am I to do?” Her daughter is in the eighth grade.
A dad stopped me after a recent workshop to discuss his son’s gaming problem. “We talk about it all the time with him, but it seems like he doesn’t hear a word we are saying. It continues to be a huge conflict in our family.”
Parents are more frustrated than ever with teens who are living outside the boundaries of sound judgement on social media and other addictive screen activities. Especially when many of them have had plenty of conversations with their teens about bad tech habits and content.
One thing is obvious: the teen tech talks aren’t working. Why? Because the teen brain is not equipped to deal with the layers of instructions needed to dodge digital mistakes.
The Tech Talk Fail
Parents are trying hard, but they keep getting misguided advice and poorly researched trends, like:
- Just have a lot of conversations.
- Take a digital citizenship training class in school.
- Heavily police every bit of technology with parental controls.
- Ask your child’s opinion.
- Reason together.
- Sign a phone contract.
Culture tells parents that smartphones are here to stay, so inevitability kids must have them. In addition, since the digital world is so big, dangerous and unknown, parents must train, warn and equip their kids in order to protect them. But are phone contracts, controls and conversations really the solution to the problem?
The fact that ongoing conversations are required should be a red flag that something may be wrong. If these conversations worked, we would be able to eliminate teen pregnancies, and drug and alcohol abuse by this weekend.
The Brain Truths
Picture this: it is halftime at the school basketball game. Coach comes into the locker room and says, “Team, you have to hit all of your free throws the second half of the game.” He tells them to stop goofing off, pay attention, focus and they will win the game. The team runs out to the court fired up in total agreement, yet they still only hit 20 percent of their free throws in the second half and they lose the game.
What happened? The coach had the conversation. He told them what to do, but they didn’t do it. They can’t do it.They are lacking skill; their fundamentals aren’t strong yet and they haven’t practiced enough.They are talented, but they lack experience. The coach cannot speed up his team’s maturity by having a conversation; it takes much more than that.
Science tells us that it takes 25 years for the maturity center (frontal cortex) of the brain to develop and we can’t speed it up. Young brains are still developing and can’t transform conversation into action when it comes to digital safety, especially when the addictive nature of screens is factored into the equation.
Here are six biological reasons why the teen brain isn’t designed to dodge digital mistakes:
Your teen’s prospective memory is not developed yet. This is the ability to remember to do a task later or the ability to recall a specific instruction for a later application. For example, a parent’s instruction to never friend a stranger on Snapchat or not to text while driving, requires the teen to have prospective memory. (1) This function is developed more as the frontal cortex develops. The ability to remember future instructions is not fully functioning in the teen brain. This is one reason why, despite constant warnings from parents, 40 percent of teens text while driving, and the older the teen, the more likely they are to text. (2)
2. White Matter
The neuronal pathways in a teen brain are not as quick as an adult’s. There is more grey matter than white matter, and white matter is required for speed of transmission. Adults have much more myelination (white matter) in their brains because experiences and use over time have developed a mature brain. Your teen is intelligent, but his thinking time is slower because he has had less time to develop white matter. They may hear your instructions, but it is harder for them to make good, quick decisions—a necessary skill for social media.
3. Impulse Control
It takes advanced brain development to control impulses, especially in the virtual world. Teens have the ability to use logic around the age of 15 (hence great scores on the SAT), but because they have a harder time accessing the frontal lobe, they have a much harder time assessing risks and consequences of activities. In other words, they may know something is too risky, but it takes them much more effort than it takes an adult to use restraint. As a result, they have a harder time resisting temptation during the teen years no matter how many conversations parents have with them about dangers.
This difficulty accessing his frontal lobe also explains why he has a hard time thinking ahead and considering the consequences of pushing the send button on a phone or deciding to play a video game until 3:00 a.m.
4. Risk Taking
Teens are seeking novelty because the brain is searching for dopamine. Anything new has the potential to reward your teen with dopamine. Research shows us that the reward seeking area of the teen brain is more responsive than the reward area in an adult brain. The teen brain is wired to seek dopamine producing activities; adult brains are wired to count the costs.
This explains their drive to seek out risk-taking behavior and go after big dopamine hits found on video games and social media. It’s also why getting around parental controls is enticing for them, and why there is such a problem with online predators. The need for the reward from risky behaviors outweighs the fear of the cost of that activity.
The overuse of screens is creating a generation of sleepless teens. Only 15 percent of teens get the necessary nine hours and 15 minutes of sleep they need each night. (3) Sleep is the glue that enables the brain to learn and remember important things. Sleep is mandatory for brains to develop properly; it is also needed to help teens manage stress and depression, physically grow and learn. MRI studies show that adolescents with good sleep habits have more grey matter volume in their brain. (4) Without adequate sleep, learning and instruction from the day can be squandered.
Poor sleep habits are also related to juvenile delinquency. One large study (5) reports that less than seven hours of sleep on a school night results in more drunk driving, weapon carrying, fighting, contemplated suicide, attempted suicide, smoking, alcohol use, binge drinking, marijuana use, sexual risk taking and texting while driving.
Finally, we know that teens are not yet wise. Wisdom is the application of experience. Your teen hasn’t been alive long enough to gather the wisdom needed to manage all of the instructions you are giving him for addictive screens. Because teens have little life experience, they are also confident that whatever bad thing you are telling them is not going to happen to them. They feel very knowledgeable about everything. And unfortunately they believe parents know very little about technology and other teenage matters.
The ScreenStrong Solution
Parenting frustrations are showing us that the tech talks and contracts aren’t working. So, let’s give these five solutions a try instead:
1. Be their best coach.
At ScreenStrong, we believe parents are their children’s best coaches. You are cheering for your child, rooting for her, wanting him to succeed not just today, but for the rest of his life. To be a good coach for our kids, we must foster meaningful relationships, be examples of best living, make changes when necessary, and provide leadership and guidance as they navigate this season of their lives. This means spending meaningful time with your teen and surrounding them with other loving adults to be good examples: extended family members, coaches and good teachers. This takes time and planning, but it is proven to be more effective than having teens learn all of their life lessons from virtual peers.
2. Hit the pause button.
Replace a smartphone with a suitable phone like a talk/text only phone without social (we recommend this phone). Delay social media access and video games so that your teen can discover hidden talents, hobbies and interests, and connect with people in real life. Good coaches use the right equipment to strengthen their team and help them succeed. Teens need your leadership during these years more than ever; they can’t do it alone.
3. Have real conversations.
Put the megaphone down and don’t allow stressful tech conversations about rules and limits to fill your days. The conversations that come out of day-to-day experiences will be the best training and much more effective than the scheduled Teen Tech Talk will ever be. Parents become great teachers when they are present for teachable moments and focus more on meaningful conversations about life and their teen’s interests.
4. Treat your teen like an apprentice adult.
Your teen is an adult-in-training. Give her responsibility, but remember that she isn’t an adult yet. So don’t trust her to be alone with addictive things like alcohol, drugs and entertainment screens. Spending time on those addictive activities will hurt, not help your teen learn how to use them.
5. Become a ScreenStrong family.
Focus on building strong family memories and a healthy lifestyle. That means replacing the smartphone with this talk/text only non-data phone until his frontal cortex is more developed (see #2 above). When you reduce use and shift your focus to reconnecting your family, the draining digital problems will begin to fade.
These years we have with our kids only happen once, so let’s do the best we can at getting them right. You are not alone in the frustrations and the celebrations. We are here, cheering you on, so that you can be your teen’s best coach and mentor. And we’d like to invite you to get a glimpse of how much better your teens’ life can be without the distractions and problems that addictive screens can bring. To get that glimpse, take the ScreenStrong Challenge today!
- Frances E. Jensen, MD, with Amy Ellis Nutt. The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults. (New York: Collins, 2016), 40.
- Jensen, 89.
- Taki Y, Hashizume H, Thyreau B, Sassa Y, Takeuchi H, Wu K, Kotozaki Y, Nouchi R, Asano M, Asano K, Fukuda H, Kawashima R Neuroimage. 2012 Mar; 60(1):471-5. [PubMed] [Ref list] Sleep duration during weekdays affects hippocampal gray matter volume in healthy children.
Melanie Hempe, BSN, is the founder and executive director of ScreenStrong, a national nonprofit organization that offers a countercultural approach to eliminate childhood screen dependency, but one that just might save your kids. Melanie has developed cutting-edge programs that empower parents to pause video games and social media for kids and teens through late adolescence. Her three books can be found on Amazon: Will Your Gamer Survive College?, Can Your Teen Survive—and Thrive—Without a Smartphone? and The ScreenStrong Solution: How to free your child from addictive screen habits.
ScreenStrong is committed to rescuing this screen-driven generation, one family at a time.
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