December 11, 2015 —

With the gift giving season upon us, parents are inevitably considering what the hot ticket item might be this year. A smartphone, a tablet or maybe some new video games?

Press the pause button before quickly snatching up the latest gadget or newest device. A key finding from The Common Sense Census, a study that explores young people's use of media and technology, reveals that on any given day 13- to 18-year-olds spend up to 9 hours on average in front of entertainment media, not counting time in school or time spent on homework. Teens divvy up that time in a number of ways, including: watching TV, movies and online videos; playing video, computer and mobile games; interacting on social media; browsing the Internet; reading; and listening to music. With this in mind, it is understandable that parents may fear that their children are addicted to their devices. The very thought of their teens spending this much time with various forms of entertainment media may prompt some soul searching by parents on the expectations and limits that should be set at home.

Similarly, Anderson Cooper's recent CNN special #Being13: Inside the Secret World of Teens sounded alarms, suggesting that teens are uncensored and hooked on social media. The show highlighted a big disconnect between what parents believe about their kids’ online engagement, and what kids are really up to online. Over 200 13-year olds from schools around the country were invited to participate in the project, so researchers could observe what teens were actually doing online. The academic summary, by psychologist Marion K. Underwood and sociologist Robert W. Faris, was based on a content analysis of over 150,000 posts as well as surveys completed by the 8th graders and their parents to assess the tweens’ involvement with social media and psychological adjustment.

The experts stopped short of suggesting that today’s kids are addicted to devices; rather, they suggested that kids are "addicted" to their social connections with friends. Kids spend the majority time lurking on social media. It's defensive posture. They scan their social media feeds out of FOMO (fear of missing out) or to see if others are posting negative photos or comments about them. For popular kids, social media can be a boost, but for emotionally or socially vulnerable teens, social media can bring upon feelings of exclusion, jealousy and anxiety.

This makes sense. Teenagers, especially younger ones are all about fitting in. Fragile reputations can be built and destroyed in a matter of seconds.

But here’s the rub: parents tend to worry about safety, e.g., the dangers of sexual predators or cyberbullying. Yes, these are valid concerns, but the risk for teenagers can be more subtle and fly under the radar. For tweens and teens who are anxious about their social status or have emotional vulnerabilities, having access 24-7 to digital devices may not be healthy. Easy access may keep these teens in a high state of alert, triggering their “fight or flight” system and spewing out stress hormones. This can be emotionally draining and even keep teens up at night. Teens also need a high level of stimulation as their brains are marinating in reproductive hormones and undergoing a massive remodeling. Further, teens are largely bored in school, according to Lawrence Steinberg, PhD, an esteemed expert on adolescence and the author of Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence. Teens look for novelty. A teen’s brain reward system, therefore, is easily stimulated by the excitement of being with friends. Of course, it’s often in social situations where teenagers tend to be impulsive and make bad choices. Teens will often choose short-term rewards instead of considering the longer-term gains. The prefrontal cortex, the executive function part of the brain, is not yet calibrated to make consistent and wise choices. This makes teenagers vulnerable to a number of risky behaviors. So, when it comes to excitement in the digital age, what better stimulation than social media?

With this in mind and with the holiday season upon us, I have a cautionary note for parents.  First, reflect on your child’s maturity level – emotional, social and cognitive – when you consider getting him or her a digital device with access to the Internet. And second, if the choice is to get your teen his or her very first smartphone or add to your child’s arsenal of digital devices, create a plan, talk about the benefits and costs of spending time online and make a point to learn about how your child and his or her friends are using it. Have some guidelines in place and encourage your teen to explore other ways for engaging in the world. 

When it comes down it, social media is here to stay. Instead of being lured by the bells and whistles of the most recent gadgets and apps, it may be time to establish set of values around your family’s “media diet.” Set a good example for your children. And finally, as with most things, remember that moderation is a good place to start!

Tara Cousineau, PhD, is founder of BodiMojo, Inc., which creates innovative health communication tools in child and family health. She is a clinical psychologist and has received numerous grants from the National Institutes of Health Small Business Innovative Research program. Her team is currently creating the BodiMojo app, a mobile intervention for kids that promotes emotional awareness, self-kindness, and mindfulness. She is one of twelve global ambassadors for the Dove Self Esteem Project, a social mission to improve body image in girls and women. She earned her PhD at Adelphi University and was a clinical fellow at Harvard Medical School.  She has her own blog at www.taracousineau.com and writes for HuffPost Parents. You can connect with Tara on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.

Check out Dr. Cousineau’s eBook: Your Guide to a Smartphone-Friendly Family: How to stay connected, curious and engaged with your teen or tween in the digital age—without the drama