Cari McKnight, MSW, LCSW

All too often, we are seeing the same disturbing trend. Teens and young adults are presenting for therapy, but they often cannot identify why they are so sad and depressed, or what they are anxious about. At first glance, they seem to have it all – loving parents, good home life, decent grades, and plenty of opportunities and resources. Upon deeper examination of the issues, however, there is a common thread that keeps presenting itself – teens and young adults are craving emotional intimacy, yet are unsure of how to connect and create this intimacy. They are often struggling to feel connected to parents, which is not a huge surprise, as this has always been a common difficulty with teens. But what is surprising is that a large number of teens and young adults are also struggling to feel connected to their peers. In a world where we are all so technologically “connected”, shouldn’t teens feel extra connected to their peers? Why are they coming up empty?

The answers are complicated, and the fixes are not simple either. The reality is, while many young people are starving for real, human, intimate connection, they are also dependent on, and oftentimes addicted to, technology. Unfortunately, one is the antidote for the other. While technology is incredibly helpful in so many ways, and while it can connect people on a surface level, it sorely lacks the ability to allow people to deeply connect – to see nonverbal cues, to make eye contact, to hear nuances in tone, to sit in silent support while someone cries, to laugh together, to touch, and to hug.

This is a common refrain – we have been hearing that smartphones are to blame for many of our societal ills (increases in teen depression, suicide rates, anxiety, etc). However, instead of throwing our hands in the air helplessly, it’s time we ask WHY. Why is the smartphone correlated with these troubling issues? Yes, we spend too much time on our phones. Yes, kids are sleep deprived and overstimulated as a result. However, it is becoming more apparent that the lack of human emotional engagement that often accompanies heavy smartphone use is likely the real culprit.

While many of us had no choice but to talk face to face or over the phone when we were teens, these types of interactions happen much more rarely these days. Statistics show that Americans text five times as much as they talk, and almost all young people would prefer to text or Snapchat their friends over actual conversation. And, while group chats and texts can sometimes be helpful in terms of logistical areas (who’s driving, what time are we meeting, etc), text is often relied upon for EVERY interaction, including emotional talks or conflictual conversations.

On top of this, many young people air their personal struggles on social media, hoping to feel heard and validated. They can’t grasp that hiding behind their screen stunts and limits the depth of the connections that they so desperately crave. The short-lived high that is achieved by sharing a post, photo or comment gives the illusion of connection, but only until the emptiness returns, oftentimes stronger than before. This addictive version of connection leads teens into a frustrating cycle of chasing intimacy online, getting a quick high from a momentary shallow contact, then inevitably feeling empty and let down because the depth of the connection is not deeply satisfying. The void is still there.

Because so many young people rely on technology for virtually all of their correspondence, experts worry that young smartphone users won’t develop the skills needed to function at a high level emotionally. This includes understanding and recognizing emotional feelings and reactions, being self-aware and able to control, manage, and adapt mood. It is also being able to do this with others – to recognize and discern the feelings of others, to make a connection, to gain trust. Being able to build relationships, relate, work together and negotiate conflicts are core elements to emotional intelligence.

So, how can we help? One of the most challenging aspects to addressing this widespread issue is that these young people can’t quite put their finger on what they are missing because they have never had it. Because of this, they don’t know how to articulate their concerns or to ask for help. They go through their days, texting, Snapchatting, and never having to look someone in the eye. Inevitably, many start to feel depressed or anxious, but they have no idea why. So, it is up to us, as caring adults, to help our youth identify and be in tune with their own emotions, and in turn, with others. With a generation of kids growing up behind smartphones, we have to consciously address these things in ways that our parents did not.

  • Help teens learn that there are certain conversations that should take place verbally, preferably in person (vs over text message) – fights, break ups, emotional conversations, etc. We need to teach them how to build emotional bridges – kids need coaching on this! We cannot assume that they know how, or even know that they should be addressing others in a face to face manner. Young people often become anxious and shut down because this in person kind of communicating can feel messy and often paralyzing.
  • Talk about how social media affects their image of themselves – loneliness, isolation, sadness, shame are all perpetuated by living lives through the lens of social media (and hoping for self-worth needs to be met by the “likes” and comments received online.) Help them understand that connections forged on social media are merely surface connections. Teach them that if they want authentic connections, they have to learn to be real themselves.
  • Recommend breaks from social media. With so much of our teens’ self-value and worth determined by their online presence and their likes and comments, it can be very helpful for them to take a vacation from social media.
  • Social media is not the only place that teens are going in attempts to find online “connection.” They are also turning to online gaming and porn, etc. Educate youth that any form of online connection is not real life; help them set limits and understand the difference. Pornography can’t replace a real-life committed, romantic relationship; gaming is no substitute for real-life activities, games and adventures with friends.
  • Encourage teens to set up a “phone basket” at events with peers (sleepovers, birthday parties, etc). The rule is that everyone leaves their phone in a basket at the door and gets it back when they leave. The idea is to keep people engaging with each other – instead of a room full of kids sitting around on their phones. It also keeps kids from posting pictures of the event, and helps avoid hurt feelings (for those not invited).
  • Set a boundary that kids/teens charge their phones in a parent’s room at night. This forces them to have to stop by a certain time, and allows their brains to have much needed down time from tech. In many instances, teens report secretly wanting parents to set limits and boundaries, as they don’t feel capable of doing so on their own.
  • Help youth be comfortable being “real” – encourage teens to talk about their feelings, challenge them to describe their emotions – model describing your feelings out loud and helping them understand the complexities of emotions. Realize that you can help teach emotional competency through personal stories, current events, discussions of movies, etc. Ask how another might be feeling? How could you reach that person emotionally?
  • Compliment our teens not only when they achieve academic or athletic success, but also when we notice them demonstrating empathy, establishing connections with others, and dealing with difficult emotions.

The best way to teach empathy/connection is to demonstrate it in how we interact with our teens – we should try putting ourselves in our teens’ shoes before responding to them, and most importantly, work on being present! It is critical that we, as caring adults, pay attention to how we use technology in our own lives, and that we model real life engagement. If we aren’t careful, our own smartphones and screens can leave us disengaged from our own families and friends. Let’s be honest with ourselves and recognize that we cannot hope to help youth navigate this frenetic technological world if we can’t learn to manage it for ourselves. We owe it to our children and families – and it starts with us.

Cari McKnight, MSW, LCSW received her Master of Social Work degree from the University of Iowa and is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. She specializes in private therapy for adults, adolescents, couples, and families dealing with relationship/interpersonal difficulties. She also provides mental health therapy for issues such as depression, anxiety, grief, and trauma, among many others. Cari utilizes a variety of therapeutic techniques, but finds tremendous value in doing emotion-focused work so that authentic growth and lasting change can occur. In addition, Cari offers presentations and seminars to schools and other organizations on a variety of topics. She has extensive experience in mental health treatment and is passionate about helping others create balance and happiness in their lives.

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