Olivia Johnson and her friends are typical teenagers. They’re involved in extracurricular activities at school, have part-time jobs to make spending money, enjoy each other’s company and use a smartphone to stay in the loop.
“For most kids, I think we probably could live without our phone. But we prefer not to,” said Johnson, a senior at Bemidji (Minnesota) High School. “I enjoy looking at pictures and reading. I also text, use Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat. For me, and for my friends, having a phone is a positive and not a negative. But I don’t know if it is that way for everyone.”
Grown up with them
Shawn Whiting, the clinical supervisor of behavioral health at Sanford Health in Bemidji, said the smartphone has changed how people communicate.
“(Today’s) kids have had cellphones their whole lives. This is the technology that has been present and they don’t know anything else,” he said. “They use their phones and social media to connect with their peers, but what they can lose are the human interactions that people, as social animals, need.”
Find a provider: Behavioral health at Sanford
On a day that offers an open schedule, Johnson estimates that she and her friends would spend four to five hours on their phones texting and talking. With more than 100 contacts, Johnson doesn’t lack a friend to talk to.
Among her contacts are mom, dad, her brother and sister, her cousins, plus her aunts and uncles, so those close to her are fully aware of what Johnson is posting and receiving.
“I know who her friends are on social media,” said her mother, Tracy Johnson. “I am one of her contacts and there are many other relatives who can serve as checks and balances on her phone. Olivia is willing to be part of the broader family group and, because of that, we don’t worry about her phone use. We know what she is doing.”
Know what they’re doing
Whiting believes that sort of arrangement among the family members and the teenager would benefit everyone.
“What I tell parents is, if your child is going to have a smartphone and be on social media, have a relationship that enables you to know what your child is doing and who the child is communicating with,” Whiting said. “Smartphones (can be) great tools for the parents to check on their kids and know where they are.”
Like any other tool, when used properly, a smartphone can significantly add to someone’s knowledge and enjoyment. But it can also cause pain and embarrassment.
“The adult brain doesn’t fully development until a person is 24 or 25 years old, and the rational part of the brain is the last to develop, so kids can be impacted by peer pressure on social media,” Whiting said. “Sometimes kids can’t make the clarification between what is real and what isn’t real. When that happens it can have a negative impact on self-esteem.
Learn more: When media changes adolescent moods & anxiety
“There also is a lot of cyber-bullying going on. And, unfortunately, there have been some kids who have committed suicide because of cyber-bullying. We have to find ways to manage (smartphone use). Parents, school administrators, and the kids themselves need to ask ‘what is appropriate smartphone use and what is too much.’”
Know the signs
People who spend time with kids also need to be able to identify the signs that indicate that a child is struggling or may be depressed.
“The tricky part is determining what is normal adolescent development and what isn’t,” Whiting said. “It can be tough for a parent to know that, but that is what we (behavioral health specialists) are trained to do. Developmentally, kids at this age are moving away from parents and their peers become a bigger influence than the parents are. That’s (part of the normal) development process. But, generally speaking, if the child isn’t acting normally, I would ask some questions.”
Warning signs include:
- More isolation than usual
- Difficulty sleeping, or falling asleep at inappropriate times
- Mood swings
- Feeling down
- Lacking interest
What to do for at-risk kids
Based on those indicators, Olivia Johnson sees kids every day who may be at risk.
“I don’t see much bullying at school, but sometimes I see it online,” she said. “And I would say that 20 to 25 percent of the kids I see at school don’t have many social skills and hang around mostly by themselves. But my friends are in extracurricular activities and I think those activities help develop social skills.”
If parents notice that their child is demonstrating some of those signs, Whiting said it is time for them to start or extend the communication process.
“Try to talk with the child. Try to see what is going on,” he advises. “If you are noticing something bigger (you can) talk with the school teachers and the school counselors and see if they are noticing anything different. And from there, maybe a mental health referral (would be warranted).
“And sooner is better than later.”
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