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October 14 2015

How smart phones feed teens’ relationship obsessions

New York Post
Naomi Schaefer Riley

Do you remember what it was like to be 13? All the angst, the drama, the desire to fit in? Well it’s gotten worse — much worse.

A team of childhood-development experts teamed up with CNN to survey the social-media postings of 200 13-year-olds from across the country. After combing through more than 150,000 posts (from Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, etc.), the experts concluded that, as Anderson Cooper put it, being 13 is like a “real-time 24-7 popularity competition.”

Maybe that doesn’t sound so much different from what you remember of middle school, but the resulting documentary, “Being 13: Inside the Secret World of Teens,” will seem deeply troubling to anyone over the age of 30. First, of course, there’s the frequency with which teens are on mobile devices. The boys and girls interviewed acknowledged checking more than 100 times a day. Sometimes 200.

When the producers at CNN asked parents to take their kids’ phones away for a couple of days, the kids went berserk. One mother recorded her daughter’s screams and tears. “I would rather not eat for a week than get my phone taken away,” said Gia. “When I get my phone taken away, I feel kind of naked,” said Kyla. “I do feel kind of empty without my phone.”

While the experts were reluctant to call this “addiction,” at least in any medical sense, the parents weren’t. In a focus-group interview with mothers and fathers of eight of the teens, all readily agreed that their teens were addicted. One father described how his son became a completely different person for weeks — withdrawn and depressed — when his phone was taken away.

Why do they need to check their phones so often? The same reason the rest of us do. We want to know what’s going on. But for adults, what’s going on can mean things that affect our friends, our work, our community or the crisis in Syria. For adolescents, what’s going on means one thing: who’s up and who’s down among their peers.

According to a survey of the kids involved in the study, 61 percent said they wanted to see if their online posts are getting likes and comments, 36 percent wanted to see if their friends are doing things without them and 21 percent wanted to make sure no one was saying mean things about them.

You might think there’s nothing particularly shocking here — it’s just teenagers being teenagers. And indeed some experts are putting data to use calming parents’ fears. A Pew report out this month explains that “the digital realm is one part of a broader universe in which teens meet, date and break up with romantic partners.” Social media is one piece of a puzzle: “Online spaces are used infrequently for meeting romantic partners, but play a major role in how teens flirt, woo and communicate with potential and current flames.”

Are we supposed to feel better knowing that teens aren’t picking up strangers online? Maybe, but all of that “wooing” — does that word cover boys sending pictures of their privates? — is different in many ways. Most importantly because of how incessant it is. According to the Pew survey, more than a third of teens in romantic relationships expect to hear from their partners every few hours and another 11 percent expect to hear from them every hour.

In The Wall Street Journal, Alison Gopnik reports on a new study in Perspectives in Psychological Science. The researchers’ “conclusion is that teenagers’ experience in the mobile world largely parallels rather than supplants their experience in the physical world. Teenagers mostly use mobile devices to communicate with friends they already know offline. They can have bad online experiences, but they are the same sort of bad experiences they have offline.”

Parents’ fear of stranger danger online is probably overblown, just like our concerns that our children will be kidnapped from the local playground. But just because they’re not meeting strangers or conducting some kind of alternative life online doesn’t mean that social media is a harmless distraction.

Teens are communicating more often thanks to social media — and they’re also saying things they’d never dream of saying in person. According to the description of “Being 13” on CNN.com, “The level of profanity, explicit sexual language and references to drug use surprised the experts, considering the study’s subjects were only in eighth grade.”

Social media doesn’t change adolescence in any fundamental way. It just makes everything you remember about it much worse. Parents who suggest that the technology is creating unnecessary and serious problems for kids at this age are considered Luddites. But Anderson Cooper seems to have it right.

After listening to the kids, the parents and the experts, he concludes: “I’m glad I’m not 13, and I’m glad I don’t have a 13-year-old right now.”

Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.

Independent Women’s Forum’s mission is to improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty. Sister organization of Independent Women’s Voice.
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