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North Hills Monthly

Keeping the Lines of Communication Open: How Do You Discuss Technology with Teens?

Jan 31, 2018 02:01PM ● By Hilary Daninhirsch

Technology is changing the landscape of how we communicate and learn, but how much is too much, especially where teens are concerned? David Barkovich, the dean of academic affairs at North Hills High School and a member of its school counseling department, helps parents navigate through these uncharted waters by giving presentations at Northland Library and elsewhere in the region.

North Hills Monthly (NHM): What are some examples of technology that teens use regularly, and why is this a concern?

David Barkovich (Barkovich): Teenage use of technology has become even more varied as technologies have evolved. Young people are not only using personal handheld devices to interact, but many of the other communication devices widely used in society that now connect us together such as game consoles, Smart TVs, and of course personal computers, which have for some time allowed online gaming and chatting. The well-known websites and apps such as Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook and others are still used frequently, but the digital world is a constantly evolving landscape. Keeping up with the waves of new technologies is a challenge for parents and schools as we strive to help teens use them appropriately.

The world is much different than it was even 30 years ago and the Internet and technology have now become ingrained in our lives. They are huge parts of our society, and certainly a large part of young people’s daily lives. In many ways, this is their world and we are just living in it as older generations struggle to adapt to the new trends. Like many of our tools, technology carries great promise but great perils as well.

NHM: On average, how frequently is technology used by teens?

Barkovich: We would be hard-pressed to find a teenager in the United States who does not use technology at least once each day. In 2015, 19 percent of teens indicated that each day they communicated with others via game consoles. Data from the Pew Research Center tells us that 31 percent communicate with each other via tablet; 53 percent communicate with Smartphones; 61 percent communicate via laptop; and 56 percent communicate via PC.

NHM: How has technology impacted the way we communicate with others and absorb information?

Barkovich: Information is what most teens look for when they use many technologies. They want information about their friends, about people they follow online; about activities they have an interest in, and about things in our world. But information is a double-edged sword. Take, for example, the number of people who get their news from social media. The new data is rather incredible, and we need to teach our kids about how to digest and understand that information. They know almost intuitively how to easily access it, but the worry for a lot of parents is whether their kids believe and react to the first thing they see. Will they be canny consumers of information?

Technology is sometimes first developed, and only then do we ask how we can use it. There are many examples of technology being adapted from its original use to other uses. Facebook used to be for sharing photos, and now it is used for getting information and stating political opinions. Twitter used to be about getting the latest sports scores, and now we get information from our world leaders on it. There are some parts of the world where Facebook and Twitter have sparked revolutions. This is incredibly frightening as in some cases, social media has life-affecting global political effects.

NHM: What about inappropriate uses of technology—can you give some examples?

Barkovich: We’ve heard this so many times but identity theft and spyware still remain a concern. Unfortunately, young people and people of all ages still share far more than they should online. Care should be taken to speak with young people about what they can and what they should not share online to stay safe and secure.

The concept of maintaining a positive online reputation remains a major concern. At North Hills High School, every school counseling presentation to students contains a warning about their social media and electronic presence. It is no longer an urban legend that people lose or not gain employment because of things that they might have posted: that is a reality. Companies and admission representatives at schools will research you online, and the hope is that doors are not closed to young people for careless online acts.

NHM: How does the use of too much technology negatively impact teens? 

Barkovich: Some major priorities for gratification and for in-person interaction have shifted into the digital realm rather than the physical world. When some people are away from their devices, they can experience low moods, irritability, or go into full-blown depression. This can be like being away from a loved one and can only get worse as we rely on devices for more uses. Can this next tweet be about a sports score, could it just be a funny meme from a friend, or could we be about to experience global warfare? Teens want to know right now, wherever they might be. If they cannot control that desire for instant gratification or if they display the other symptoms I mentioned, this could be a sign of Internet/social media addiction.

NHM: What are some things parents can do to regain control of their teens’ use of technology?

Barkovich: It’s always best to start with a self-assessment. Parents can be in a challenging situation if they’re going to say “Do as I say and not as I do.” If their children are told to not have devices and limit screen time, but the parents have phones at the table or interrupt their child to take a text or tweet, it is sending a poor message to the child. Making sure you have the credibility to speak with your teen is very important. Doing an assessment of yourself and your own use of technology is a good step in assessing how you might approach that conversation and assist your child.

NHM: Should parents check what their teens do online and how—secretly or openly?

Barkovich: Honesty remains the best policy. Being up-front about expectations for sharing passwords, being a teen’s “friend” or “following” them to observe their activity, and being straightforward about the dangers fosters a good relationship on both sides.

NHM: What is the main message you want to get across about technology, teens and parental intervention?

Barkovich: That it is always going to be uncomfortable; teenagers for millennia have resisted the support of parents or guardians. This is not a new phenomenon, but what we have now is a different topic to discuss and one that changes so rapidly that it creates even more challenges than other traditional teenage issues. The constantly changing landscape of the digital world and social media presents increased challenges for having a traditional parent and teen discussion. If you create expectations and have discussions that are straightforward, genuine and clear, this may lead to a teen having a better understanding of how to be a positive member of the digital world. It is vital that parents dedicate themselves toward being consistent with expectations.