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Why parents fear tech more than drugs, alcohol and sexual activity for their teenagers

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Editor's note: Read more stories from the 2018 American Family Survey.

SALT LAKE CITY — Move over sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. The three biggest fears parents have for their teenagers today are technology, bullying and poor mental health.

That’s according to the newly released American Family Survey by the Deseret News and Brigham Young University. But experts also warn that overly fearing technology and the internet has the potential to cause its own set of problems.

The American Family Survey asked nearly 500 parents of children between 12 and 17 to choose up to four concerns from a list of 15. Fifty-three percent reported overuse of technology as their biggest worry on the list, followed by 45 percent who picked bullying and 36 percent who were concerned about mental health issues.

Just over a third of parents were also worried about family breakdown/divorce and pressure to use drugs or alcohol, according to the nationally representative poll conducted online by YouGov for the Deseret News and the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University.

"Almost everybody's child is using tech, or asking to use it," says Amanda Lenhart, deputy director of the Better Life Lab at New America and an expert on families and their use of tech. "It's in your home, in your living room, it's a daily thing that gets negotiated with families, so I'm not surprised that it's very top of mind for parents — it's so present."

The survey illuminates a continually shifting set of parental fears — moving from the concerns of the '80s and '90s about illegal drug use and teenage pregnancy to the new millennium's parental concerns of pornography, sexting and social media FOMO, shorthand for 'fear of missing out.'

Among the alarmed parents, it turns out fathers are slightly more worried about tech overuse than moms, according to the survey, though moms were significantly more likely than dads to be concerned about bullying (51 percent to 38 percent). Along party lines, 64 percent of Republicans saw tech overuse as the biggest problem, compared to 48 percent of Democrats.

Parents need to pay attention to what technology and social media is offering their teens: unlimited access to affinity groups that can be both amazing and terrifying — great for teens who can find friends with similar interests and hobbies, and dangerous for teens who may struggle with depression, self-harm or eating disorders and whose online connections may "amplify all of that," says Anya Kamenetz, NPR's lead education blogger and author of “The Art of Screen Time: How Your Family Can Balance Digital Media And Real Life.”

Yet instead of panicking, Kamenetz encourages parents to consider whether their child's online use is a tool or a crutch and shape their conversations from there.

"What we're lacking is a discourse about the fact that social media can be a positive or negative force," she said. Instead, parents often think, "if we cut off access, we'll solve the problem."

Today’s worries

It's natural that today's parents fear technology, says Carl Pickhardt, a writer and psychologist in Austin, Texas, whose newest book, “Who Stole My Child? Parenting Through the Four Stages of Adolescence” comes out this month.

After all, parents grew up in an "offline world," but are raising kids in both an offline and online world — and the online world is one where they feel "much more out of control."

In the past, parents could monitor the flow of information relatively easily, dismissing questions or concerns with "we'll talk about that when you're older."

"That's gone," Pickhardt says. "Now, the kid is one click away from any kind of information they want."

But it's not just quality of content on the internet that concerns many parents, it's the sheer quantity of usage as well.

Wendy Christensen, 43, a mom of six kids from West Jordan, said she finally pulled the family's internet — after several warnings and family discussions — to see if she could get the kids to "detox long enough to go back to regular usage."

"You hear all the time ... limit the screen time, limit the screen time," she said. "I always smile and nod, and we try, but now that they're older, I so wish I had been a lot stricter with it when they were little because the older they get the more they want it."

Almost everybody’s child is using tech, or asking to use it. It’s in your home, in your living room, it’s a daily thing that gets negotiated with families, so I’m not surprised that it’s very top of mind for parents — it’s so present. – Amanda Lenhart, deputy director of the Better Life Lab at New America

Even without housewide internet and following another more detailed discussion of parental concerns, her older kids are still finding ways to sneak online: the high schooler uses Christensen's connected laptop to do internet-based homework, and toggles back and forth between games when he thinks mom isn't looking. And the eigth-grader borrows Christensen's smartphone to read an eBook yet ends up watching Netflix.

Even offline use is tricky, because with six kids from 19 to 4, the younger ones think they should get the same access to technology as their older siblings, which is quite possible, given that Christensen's husband worked in IT for years and they have more computers than the average household (which may also change soon, she noted.)

Computers can be great, and the internet is not the enemy, she says — she's just worried about her kids, particularly those with anxiety, and their increasing tendency to "hide in the screens."

In addition to tech concerns, the survey asked parents to rate their concern in four other areas of the teen's life: grades and schoolwork, behavior at school (getting in trouble), friends and social life, and feelings of anxiety, depression or other mental health issues.

Of the four, parents were most worried about their teen's social life and friends, with 37 percent of parents saying they were extremely concerned. Another 36 percent of parents said they were extremely concerned about grades and school trouble and 27 percent listed anxiety and depression as extremely concerning.

Of parents who said being a parent was "very" or "extremely" important to their identity, 41 percent were worried about their child's grades, compared to 30 percent of parents with "low-parental identity."

Income was also a factor, with 40 percent of low-income parents saying they worried about their teen's grades compared to 30 percent of high income parents; and 32 percent of low-income parents noted worry about anxiety and depression for their teens, compared to 21 percent of high-income parents.

Parenting in fear

The problem with being driven by fear is that it often elicits a less-than-helpful parental response, says Shimi Kang, a psychiatrist and author of "The Self-Motivated Kid: How to Raise Happy, Healthy Children Who Know What They Want and Go After It (Without Being Told)."

Worried parents often turn into jellyfish who feel helpless to do anything. They bemoan that "tech is everywhere, I can't control it," or "if I control it in my house, they just go to a friend's house." And then, Kang says, those jellyfish parents often become permissive, giving into what everyone else is doing, even if it doesn't feel right.

In the American Family Survey, parents who reported feeling extremely concerned about anxiety and depression for their teen were much more likely to say that mental health was having an impact on their child's life, compared to parents who were only somewhat concerned.

The survey authors note that this type of survey can't capture which worry came first: were parents worried about school work first, and then noticed that the child seemed depressed? Or were parents worried about the child's anxiety and then noticed that anxiety was impacting their teen's friendships or physical health?

It may also be difficult to know if anxiety began with the teen or if it belongs to the parent, experts say.

"Children typically draft off the anxiety of their parents," says John Duffy, a clinical psychologist in Chicago, author and host of the podcast "Better" with his wife, Julie. "By the time (they) reach about middle school, our kids' anxiety makes us anxious too, so it becomes a cycle ... that gets worse."

By the time (they) reach about middle school, our kids’ anxiety makes us anxious too, so it becomes a cycle...that gets worse. – John Duffy, a clinical psychologist in Chicago

Often, that parental anxiety may cause parents to withdraw, check out or even become distracted by their own technology, says Kang.

On the other extreme, tiger parents may notice tech concerns brewing in their teen's life and unilaterally take the child's phone or get rid of all technology in an "authoritarian approach," that reduces the child's sense of control, she said.

Such an approach can also signal fear on the parent's part, which not only shuts down communication about the topic, but also teaches the child there's a reason to be afraid, says Pickhardt.

"A lot of parents think, if I can just protect my child, (I'll) keep them safe," he said. "But protection has a real downside, in that it can actually end up alarming the child."

Consider a scenario where the home down the street was robbed and the child is feeling nervous. The parent responds by putting new locks on the door, installing an alarm system and getting a big, loud dog.

Now the kid is really frightened, Pickhardt says, because there's new evidence of danger all around them.

"Parents do not want to act around the internet in such a way that they are conveying to the kid that this is something (to be) scared of," says "They need to just deal with it in a reasonable, calm, rational way, and they need to be able to communicate about it on a regular basis."

How to handle worry

Betsy Batman, 42, of South Jordan, finds that her family's best conversations happen around 11 p.m. on the edge of her bed.

After the hustle of the day, one of her five children (four boys), from 11 to 21, will usually wander in and open up about some of their deepest concerns — often involving technology, bullying or mental health — all issues she says they've dealt with in their family to varying degrees.

Andrew and Betsy Batman watch the game as they spend time at home with three of their kids, Ellie, Jon, and Gavin, in South Jordan on Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2018.

Andrew and Betsy Batman watch the game as they spend time at home with three of their kids Ellie, Jon, and Gavin in South Jordan on Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2018.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

"You need to be available for that conversation," she says, noting that her mom friends who insist they need their sleep are missing a "huge opportunity."

Now, even friends of her teens will come in and sit down and open their hearts, eager for someone who will listen. Thankfully she's a night owl, Batman says, but she'll wake her husband if she senses an important conversation coming on.

The family has developed an open communication policy in their home, and Batman will check in often with each child: "How often have you seen pornography?" "Where are you at emotionally?"

If she can tell something's off but a kid isn't talking about it, she'll text them and let them know she's noticed something. Often, they'll bring it up a few days later when they meander into her room for a late-night chat.

Betsy Batman talks during a family card game a she and her husband Andrew enjoy time at home with three of their kids, Ellie, Jon, and Gavin, in South Jordan on Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2018.

Betsy Batman talks during family card game a she and her husband Andrew enjoy time at home with three of their kids Ellie, Jon, and Gavin in South Jordan on Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2018.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

"This is (our) world," she said. "It's not going to go away, we have to learn how to live within it, help direct our kids in it. We're going to make mistakes in it, we have to keep communicating (about) it."

Pickhardt calls this a "sharing contract" where both parent and child are open to talking about what happened in the online and offline worlds. And it can start with a simple question: "What did you learn today that you didn't know before?"

If a teen is checking out dating sites, that's a conversation that needs to happen. If a child is stumbling across pornography, that's a conversation that needs to happen. Repeatedly.

And it's OK if parents express a few worries in these conversations — so long as it's "constructive worry," Pickhardt says, which means it's specific and short-term. Anything vague in the long term is not worth worrying about, because it's out of your control, he says.

But specific, short-term worry trains kids to think ahead and consider possible risks and rewards — whether online or off. "What if you go to a party and your friends start smoking pot, what options do you have?" or "Suppose you text a friend that risqué selfie and then it ends up getting spread around the school?"

Rather than trying to scare teens with worst-case scenario fears, the parent is instead offering another perspective and giving them a chance to "anticipate possibilities," he says.

For Kang, this is an example of her third parenting model — the dolphin, an animal that's playful and curious, firm yet flexible.

Gavin Batman listens as he sits at the dinner table with his family in South Jordan on Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2018.

Gavin Batman listens as he sits at the dinner table with his family in South Jordan on Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2018.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Dolphin parents are authoritative without being authoritarian, and while they have rules, they also embrace a mindset of trial and error, creativity and independence and allow their teens to take healthy risks, Kang says.

For Tim Garrison, 52, of Columbia, Tennessee, it's been helpful to lay out the rules and expectations ahead of time in a family media contract, which he passed out to their three boys, 25, 21 and 15, after purchasing new phones through a buy one get one free promo about a year and a half ago.

They sat down, read through it together, made a few tweaks, and then all signed it — agreeing that having a parental-provided cell phone is a "privilege and not a right," and until they pay for the phone in full and take over the service in their own name, they'll abide by mom and dad's rules, which include: no texting while driving, no viewing pornography or sexting, no vulgar or profane language and no posting negative or degrading comments on social media.

"I agree that the cell phone is mainly a tool for conducting family, school and work business first and foremost; and secondarily an entertainment device," the contract reads. "I agree that time spent on my parent-supplied cell phone will not interfere with school work and deadlines, work or church services."

"It helps them see the family’s expectations, their standards, their morals in black and white," said Garrison, "and then makes them think hard and fast about it before they sign it."

In addition to being clear about the family standards, parents can also reduce worries and keep communication open by doing a few simple, though not necessarily easy, things, says Kang — making eye contact with their kids, giving them a hug, seeking out support from other like-minded parents and getting enough sleep.

And when worries crop up, go ahead and think about them, says Pickhardt, but in productive ways.

"Worry can be a constructive concern," he says. "It can be expressed as that, and received as that and it can encourage the kid to build in ... concern themselves as they move into new and different experiences."


Tips for navigating tech:

  • Create a family media contract. Talk about family values, rules and expectations surrounding screens and set rules together.
  • Ask your kids each day about something interesting they saw online and something interesting they saw offline.
  • Set some time each day to be 'screen-free' and engage in face-to-face conversation, activities or games.
  • Ask questions about why your teen likes a certain app, platform or game. Try to be interested rather than critical about their time spent online. Maybe even join them to play 'Fortnite' or 'Minecraft.'
  • Track the amount of time you spend online and share your results with your teens. Set new goals if necessary.
  • If panicked, take time out to restore your 'emotional sobriety.' Talk with a spouse or good friend about your concerns and see if they're productive worries or unproductive worries.
  • When talking about worries with your teen, make sure they're focused on specific, proximate concerns, rather than vague, in-the-future fears.