Nadine*, a stay-at-home mom, thought little of it at the time: She was preparing food in the kitchen, and her son, Ethan*, a popular, adventuresome 12-year-old, appeared beside her. “Mom?” he said, not meeting her eyes. “I broke my iPod Touch. I’m really sorry.” Nadine gave her son a hug and told him not to worry about it. She and Ethan’s dad prided themselves on staying on top of the technology use of all of their children, activating the parental controls on family computers and insisting that no screens enter the bedrooms at night. They had been planning to hold out on buying their son an iPhone, unsure if he was ready for the responsibility. But Ethan, who had a history of ADHD and anxiety issues, seemed to be thriving in school. Maybe he was ready after all.
A few months later, Ethan got a surprise: an iPhone. Always Eagle Scout polite, he hugged his parents and disappeared to his room—not to set up his new device, as Nadine thought, but to cry. “I was so oblivious,” Nadine told me recently, through tears. She had no idea that Ethan had broken his iPod on purpose, trying to kick a spiraling pornography habit that now, with the Internet once again in his pocket, he would be unable to resist. “He was begging me to help him manage his technology,” says Nadine. “It was just much too powerful for him.”
Powerful, indeed. American teens absorb an average of nine hours of entertainment and social media a day, according to a national survey by Common Sense Media. Let’s pause for a moment: nine hours, every day. (How is this possible? Some of those hours are simultaneous—Facebook plus music, say.)
Between their distractions and ours, it’s hardly any wonder that, according to a study by the technology security company McAfee, nearly a quarter of parents struggle to keep up with their kids’ digital lives, and 70 percent of teens hide at least some of their online behavior.
Is ignorance bliss, or does our inattention put our kids at risk? Many mental-health experts are standing up to claim the latter. Daniel Sanderson, Ph.D., widely known as “Doc Dan,” is a clinical psychologist and the clinical director of Star Guides, in St. George, Utah, a therapeutic rehabilitation program where teens can receive treatment for the newly minted behavioral disorder known as “problematic Internet use,” an umbrella term for any use of technology that causes impairment or distress. As he explains: “Young adults, adolescents, and little kids are all ‘digital natives,’ born into a world where connections are formed and life is lived online. They will be exposed to the negative realities of the Internet.” Three of the biggest threats to kids right now, according to Sanderson and other experts I spoke with: pornography and its creeping convergence with real life; communities that romanticize depression, self-harm, and suicide; and excessive gaming that can alter—and sometimes take over—young lives.
It’s time to turn to professionals and families who have been there to ask what may be the most important parenting question of our time: When kids get lost online, how can we empower them to return to us healthy, safe, and strong?
Too Much, Too Soon
Nationwide surveys of students have found that as many as 93 percent of boys and 62 percent of girls have seen pornography in adolescence. Ethan was 17 when he began to open up to his dad about his secret life. He said that he had first stumbled upon Internet porn by accident, before parental controls were set up on the home computers. That was in third grade. By ninth grade, he revealed, he had become obsessed with viewing sexually explicit images—but he left out the fact that many were of girls he met on social media and, even closer to home, at school. Floored, Ethan’s parents installed better blocking software on his phone, sent him for counseling, and prayed. But the iPhone blockers missed Instagram and Snapchat. And despite wanting to stop, Ethan was soon spending hours every day “connecting” with other young people through porn.
Another thing Ethan didn’t confess: On several occasions, sexting with girls he had met on social media led to real-life hookups that left Ethan depressed and ashamed. Not that anyone could tell. To his parents, friends, and many social-media followers, he seemed fine: busy, confident, grinning in photos posted online. “We just didn’t get it,” says Nadine. “People have to realize, if your child was exposed to heroin and he said, ‘I’m having a hard time with heroin,’ you wouldn’t say, ‘Well, you just need to stop. Let’s put some blocks up.’ If you’ve never had the problem, you don’t realize how deep it goes.”
Sadly, Nadine’s heroin analogy may not be far off the mark. Scientists are just beginning to discover that many electronic pastimes trigger the release of dopamine, the same feel-good neurotransmitter that drives substance addictions. Each time we see an arousing image or slay a virtual dragon in a video game, we get a hit of dopamine. And the more dopamine the highly malleable young brain gets, the more it rewires itself to crave whatever produced that hit. Over time, higher and higher doses are needed to feel the same effect. Robert Weiss, a licensed clinical social worker specializing in digital media and human sexuality and the author of Closer Together, Further Apart: The Effect of Technology and the Internet on Parenting, Work, and Relationships, explains: “Adolescence itself is a very traumatic time. What if you find this incredibly affirming, powerful experience? Odds are you will return to it.” For a child who gets his or her fix from porn or gaming, the chase can become so consuming that sports, hobbies, and real-life friendships fall by the wayside. Like young substance addicts, says Weiss, “these kids are missing out on important social development. They may wake up at 23 and [realize] that they haven’t had a relationship and they’re not doing well at work—they’re failing.”
Parents need to have multiple conversations with their kids about what they are encountering online. One way to establish openness is to share about your own media use. “Then let them know that their use of technology is something you want and need to hear about,” says Weiss. When it comes to social media, experts suggest letting kids lead the conversation: Ask them to walk you through their apps and games and how they work. As for talking about adult material, explain why viewing it when you’re still growing up can be stressful, misleading, and risky. Remind them that the Internet is not private, and that their information and viewing habits are most likely being tracked by outside servers, which could lead to unwanted, even dangerous, attention. “Encourage them to establish their own boundaries while stressing that you are always within arm’s reach online,” says Weiss.
A great way to get the balance right, say experts, is by installing, with your child’s knowledge, age-appropriate blocking or monitoring software. For the youngest kids, that means turning on parental controls in the settings of mobile devices and computers. But there are also more customizable blocking apps, like Net Nanny (netnanny.com). For kids 12 and up, experts recommend installing a tracker such as the UKnowKids app, which allows kids to self-manage their social-media use but delivers regular reports to parents. Your child can look, but he’s going to have to talk about it with you later. And if that talk ends up being about the 17 practically nude Instagram users he started following yesterday, Weiss emphasizes the importance of remaining calm and steering clear of a “gotcha” mentality. “The goal is never to shame our kids,” he says. “We’re talking about their sexuality and their sense of self here.” Parents of tweens and teens might want to highlight that sentence, as it holds a potent secret: Acceptance is the way in. We may not admire the sexual landscape in which our kids are coming of age, but it’s a reality. Our tolerance, not our judgment, is our greatest tool for supporting them.
Trish*, the former captain of her high school cheerleading squad, watched porn from a young age and used it as a coping mechanism when she felt stressed about school and family relationships. “I remember waiting for people to leave the house so I could watch it and numb out,” she says. Does she wish her parents (who are still in the dark about what she was doing) had restricted her digital access? Or at least prepared her for what she might be seeing online? “I would have gotten to [porn] whether they were restrictive or not,” says Trish. “And if my parents had come to me about what was going on, I probably wouldn’t have talked to them. But if they had said, ‘There are other people you can talk to,’ I would have been open to that.” Instead—as with many adolescents who get hooked on porn, say the experts—the next step was acting out. Trish texted nude photos of herself to a stranger she had met on Twitter. “My school friends thought I was one way,” she says, “and behind closed doors I was another way.”