Ep 102: Is Your Teen’s Tech Use Healthy, Junky, or Toxic?

Dr. Shimi Kang, author of The Tech Solution and Dolphin Parenting, spreads the word on the three types of tech use (toxic, junk, & healthy) and the consequences of each. Plus how to manage any new apps that teens might get into.

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Full show notes

Technology is not going away, but it can feel like our teens have been looking at a screen for half their lives. With so many new distracting gadgets and apps, it’s often overwhelming to monitor our teen’s usage--not to mention try to keep an eye on our own!

It’s important to make sure teens gain an understanding of how tech and apps work. They will likely have to use various softwares and apps when they join the workforce, and they need to know how to adapt to new tech. But striking a balance between the good tech and the bad tech is tricky.

This week, Dr. Shimi Kang, author of The Tech Solution: Creating Healthy Habits for Kids Growing Up in a Digital World, clues me in on how different types of tech are hurting and helping teen’s developing brains--and what to do if you’ve already tried and failed to pry a phone from your screen-addicted teen.

As addiction psychiatrist, Dr. Kang noticed an increasing number of teens and young adults in her practice with tech-addiction. Some of her patients can feel their anxiety rise from simply parting with their phone during a session. Parents she spoke with reported such extremes as violence when taking away phones or shutting off gaming consoles or wifi.

Dr. Kang recognizes that there will always be a new addicting app around the corner. Through her research for the book, she also uncovered the truth that technology incorporates “persuasive design.” Persuasive design means the websites, app, and gadgets we use are designed to be addictive—the more people use a website or an app, the longer the makers have to expose users to advertisements and up-sells.

This is not to say technology is bad—we have technology to thank for plenty of advancements and improvements. Dr. Kang argues it is the way in which we engage with tech that determines whether we can consider it good or bad.

The three types of tech use Dr. Kang has come up with are: toxic tech, junk tech, and healthy tech. In today’s episode we cover what each one looks like and how to help your teen self-regulate their tech use.

Toxic tech

From brain imaging researchers have been able to identify that certain technology use causes spikes in the stress hormone cortisol. Too much of the stress hormone cortisol has been linked to anxiety, depression, irritability, and even physical problems like high blood pressure and stomach ulcers.

What might toxic tech look like with a teen? While it’s unlikely your teen will develop stomach ulcers from toxic tech use alone, as the name implies, toxic tech should be avoided. Shimi suggests social media as the big toxic tech to avoid. Teens compare themselves to the perfect looking celebrities they see on social media which can cause feelings of inferiority and therefore trigger stress. Receiving negative comments or being bullied, seeing violent or graphic content, even reading through a fiery comment feud, all have the potential to spike cortisol.

It is probably impossible to avoid all the toxic tech there is out there, but it should be limited as much as possible.

Junk Tech

Junk tech is the type of tech that is most addicting. Junk tech makes use of the brain’s dopamine reward system, which is how teens and even adults can get addicted to silly games like Candy Crush and Angry Birds. The “persuasive design” of apps and sites like Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, video streaming (e.g. Netflix) also have teens glued to their screen as they double-tap and “like” posts only to glance up and find hours have passed since they first logged on!

Junk tech does not increase cortisol, but the mindless nature of endless scrolling on Instagram or autoplay on Netflix not only becomes a huge time suck, but is a passive activity for the brain.

At a time when brains are developing their dopamine pathways, it’s important to help our teens set limits on how much junk tech they consume. Instead of just tuning in to TikTok, an alternative could be creating one which turns junk tech into healthy tech.

Healthy Tech

To determine if something is healthy tech, Dr. Kang says it should fall into one of the three Cs: care (self-care), connection, or creativity. Making a TikTok instead of just watching a hundred of them, would involve creativity—if your teen makes a TikTok with someone else, you can even count it as “connection” too!

FaceTiming with a friend (connection), using a meditation app (care), tracking your steps/sleep on a Fitbit (care), building a website (creativity), or using video editing software (creativity) are all healthy tech use according to Shimi.

Instead of having to make up new rules for each app or site, Dr. Kang says to make rules around the three types of tech instead. Determine as a family how much of each would be appropriate. Adults and kids will probably have different rules as more adult responsibilities such as bill paying move online. If your child is doing remote schooling, you can add allowances for screen time as related to classwork.

Again, as Dr. Kang asserts, technology is here to stay—we need to help teens learn to navigate tech on their own, including how to self-regulate. Using the three types of tech as a framework, and explaining the science of the hormones behind each can help teens understand that rules around tech are not to control them, but to help eliminate stressful, toxic tech; limit junk tech; and expand healthy tech.

In addition to our discussion on the three types of tech use, Shimi and I cover:
  • How to bring up tech limits if you are getting a late start
  • Why it’s important to be a “dolphin parent”
  • What you can do if your teens call you out on your tech use
  • A visualization script to prepare teens to overcome obstacles and achieve their goals
  • What you know about the increasing incidents of burnout among teens
Dr. Shimi has so much experience as a practicing addiction psychiatrist and author of two parenting books—I’m so excited to share her expertise on technology use with you, our listeners!

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Creators and Guests

Andy Earle
Andy Earle
Host of the Talking to Teens Podcast and founder of Write It Great
Dr. Shimi Kang MD
Dr. Shimi Kang MD
Keynote Speaker•Best-selling Author•Psychiatrist•UBC Professor•Co-founder @futurereadyminds •@_Dolphin_pod•@get_sparky • Host "Mental Wealth" • Mom of 3!
Ep 102: Is Your Teen’s Tech Use Healthy, Junky, or Toxic?
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