Ep 177: Tech Use and Teens’ Self-Image

Episode Summary

Dr. Roni Cohen-Sandler, author of Anything But My Phone, Mom!, sheds light on how toxic tech use affects teens’ self-image. Plus, she doles out tricks for more productive tech talks with adolescents.

Show NotesParenting ScriptsInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

Have you ever tried taking your teen’s phone away? How did they respond? Did they scream? Cry? Bargain and beg for you to give it back? For many families, arguments over tech use are an exhaustingly repetitive part of everyday life. Devices can have plenty of benefits for teens, but can also be addictive and problematic! As a parent, it can be scary to feel like teens are ditching their homework for tik tok, talking to random strangers online, or running free all over social media.

Helping teens create healthy tech habits is hard work–but not impossible! Surprisingly, it starts with encouraging teens to be themselves. Confident teens are less likely to hide behind screens, and more likely to immerse themselves in the real world. But how can we help teens create this confidence? That’s what we’re getting into this week!

Our guest is Roni Cohen-Sandler, author of Anything But My Phone, Mom! Raising Emotionally Resilient Daughters in the Digital Age. Although Roni’s book focuses on young women, her years of experience working as a psychologist has taught her a lot about young adults of all genders! In her work, she’s found that technology is the number one point of contention between parents and teens. Today she’s revealing how we can talk to teens about tech and much more.

In our interview, we’re talking about how technology can complicate kids’ sense of identity, and what we can do to help them feel secure in who they are. Roni gives us tips for striking up critical conversations with teens about their tech use, and explains how we can guide them toward enjoying their phones–in moderation.

Social Media and Sense of Self

Knowing who you are at 16 is hard enough. Imagine having to curate a good-looking, smart, popular persona on social media! Kids these days are under a lot of pressure to seem cool or interesting online, says Roni. This can lead them to get a little lost on the road to self discovery. Many teens (and adults, for that matter) find themselves obsessed with finding validation online, she explains. It can be crushing for them when they don’t receive as many likes or followers as they hoped. And even when they do get the attention they’re striving for, it’s usually aimed at their online persona–and not the person they truly are.

One of the first steps parents can take to combat this identity crisis is making sure teens feel validated at home, says Roni. When teens come to us with feelings about school, friends, or practice, Roni explains that validating those feelings can go a long way. Although teens might seem dramatic, it can do wonders for their self-esteem to meet them where they’re at. Roni explains that teens who don’t feel like they can express themselves authentically at home often turn to the outside world for approval–which can be harmful.

In our interview, Roni and I also talk about the importance of making sure teens don’t feel stuck. When we’re investing time and money into kids’ piano lessons, soccer league or dance studio, it’s tempting to pigeonhole them into an identity. But sometimes fifteen year olds no longer want to pursue certain avenues any longer, and we’ve got to learn to be ok with it, says Roni. Although guiding kids towards a niche might make us feel more secure, it can lead them to feel trapped or held back as they grow and find their authentic selves.

It’s one thing to talk to teens about self-identity, but what can we do when it’s time to have an honest talk with teens about what they’re doing online? Roni and I are discussing this in our interview.

Having Tough Tech Conversations

So you want to talk to your teen about tech use…but you don’t know where to start. Roni has some suggestions! In her opinion, it’s best to start with some questions about intent. What is your teen hoping to get out of Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat? Do they use it to talk to friends, to network? 

Once you’ve asked these questions, you’ve paved the way for a conversation about online boundaries and expectations. An example Roni uses is cyberbullying. If you’re worried your teen is being bullied online or bullying someone else, she suggests asking them where they draw the line between being funny to being mean. Your teens’ answers might cause them to reflect on something they may have said on Twitter, or a comment left on their Instagram post.

This reflection can be a lot more useful than simply taking your teens phone or computer away. Instead of just temporarily removing the problem, you can help them think twice about what they’re doing online, and practice better internet behavior. Plus, deploying productive talks instead of punitive measures can help teens feel like you’re working with them creating healthy tech limits, instead of against them.

Beyond the dangers of social media, some teens simply find themselves obsessed with their devices, and won’t listen when you express your concerns! Roni and I are touching on how you can get teens to think critically about how much time they’re spending on their screens.

How Teens Can Enjoy Tech In Moderation 

For teens to have a healthy relationship with technology, they’ve got to be able to self regulate. To help teens accomplish this, Roni recommends giving teens some autonomy with tech use, and checking in to see how they do. Can they put the screens down when it’s time to start homework? Do they spend time outside with friends instead of constantly playing match after match on Fortnite? These kinds of assessments can help you figure out if your teen has an obsessive relationship to tech, or if they seem to be striking a comfortable balance all on their own.

If teens don’t appear to have balance, Roni says it’s time to step in. She compares this process to learning to drive or ride a bike. Parents can step in and monitor for a while, helping teens navigate the digital landscape, before taking off the training wheels and letting teens run free. Once teens can move through the world of YouTube and Tik Tok without getting dangerously sucked in, they can go at it alone, Roni explains.

One thing Roni recommends is making sure your teens know what it feels like to be bored! Before kids had endless access to video games, television and social media, they had to entertain themselves by playing sports, or reading. Nowadays, kids don’t really get creative about pastimes, which Roni believes is a shame. If you can cultivate tech-free times that encourage kids to explore other activities, they might find themselves a cool new hobby or two!

In the Episode..

Taking on teen tech management is no easy task. That’s why it was such a treat to have Roni with us today! On top of the topics discussed above, we talk about:

  • What to do when teens seem to quit everything
  • How parents can use tech as a communication tool
  • Why kids need solitary time after school
  • How you can deescalate a heated conversation

If you want to check out more of Roni’s work, you can find her at ronicohensandler.com. Thanks for listening, and don’t forget to share and subscribe.


Parenting Scripts

Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen

1. Draw a line between posting and posting authentically:

“Realize that if [you’re] getting a bunch of likes, or forwards, or things, that aren’t really for [the] authentic [you], it’s really not helping [you] feel good about [yourself] because [you’re] being sort of rewarded and validated for something that’s a false self.”

-Roni Cohen-Sandler

2. Offer the benefits of working together: (1 of 2)

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3. Offer the benefits of working together: (2 of 2)

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4. Help your teen think critically about their social media use: (1 of 2)

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5. Help your teen think critically about their social media use: (1 of 2)

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6. Keep your teen talking:

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7. Let your teen be the social media expert: (1 of 3)

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8. Let your teen be the social media expert: (2 of 3)

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9. Let your teen be the social media expert: (3 of 3)

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10. When your teen’s social media post isn’t coming across well: 

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11. If your teen backs out of a big commitment:

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12. When your teen gets home from school start with: 

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13. Respond to mistakes coolly: 

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14. Pause a heated conversation:

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15. Get your teen to commit to a time to talk:

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16. Own your part in a yelling match: 

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Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: Talk to me a little about… The book is Anything But My Phone, Mom! What inspired you to write this? How did you get so interested in this topic of teenage girls and a lot of technology issues surrounding that age demographic?

Dr. Roni: Well, I think my interest in teenage girls started very early in my career. My first jobs were at a university counseling center and I was so close in age at that time to the people who were in college, when I was in grad school. But when I started my private practice, it was in a small town and I was the only female psychologist who was under 30.

Andy: Wow.

Dr. Roni: So everybody kept flocking to me, who were teenage girls, and so it really just became my specialty, and then I started writing for a teen magazine and I really felt like this was my calling. Then so later when I started writing books about parenting, this was a natural thing because I’ve always felt that there’s been kind of a disconnect between moms who want to parent their teenage girls in a way that encourages closeness. They want to stay close to them throughout the teenage years. They want to have open communication, and yet so much goes awry and so much has changed, and it seemed like all I’ve been hearing from teens and from parents is that technology and, particularly, social media have become the number one issue of contention. So I felt like that’s where I had to put my energy.

Andy: Teenagers have so many great tools for socializing with each other today. So isn’t that all great? Technology makes it easier than ever to be a teenager and connect with everyone else and gain followers.

Dr. Roni: Well, I’m finding that for just about all teenagers, there’s a very compelling reason to be online, to be on social media but, particularly, the kids who have always been kind of on the outside, they don’t feel completely like they fit in in their school for whatever reason. It’s hard for them to make friends in person and they feel sort of alone when they’re in the classroom especially in the cafeteria or in the hallways, and for this subset of teens, social media has been a lifesaver because they get to find their communities online, and I’ve had some girls, for example, tell me that they don’t have any friends in their school, but they have a best friend-

Andy: Aw.

Dr. Roni: Oh, it’s horrible. But they have the best friend that they’ve had for three years, and how do they meet this friend? Online. They shared a community, and they’ve never met this friend. This friend lives halfway across the country and yet that friend is everything to them.

Andy: Yeah. Right. So is that unhealthy? Should we be worried about that? What if it’s actually a 40-year-old man pretending to be a teenage girl talking to my daughter online? How do I know?

Dr. Roni: Yeah. That’s always parents’ worst worry, of course. [crosstalk 00:03:37]

Andy: I’m sure. Yeah.

Dr. Roni: That’s an obvious issue and you’re not going to say to your daughter, “Yes, you can fly across the country and meet your friends too.” You’re not going to do that, but one of the things that I find so important about what parents can do is to really understand how to communicate with their kids about social media and how to be a good consumer and ask those kinds of questions. How do I know that the person I’m talking to is the person I think she is or he is.

Andy: Yeah, because we FaceTime, duh. We Snap each other.

Dr. Roni: Yeah, that’s right. That’s right. It’s very complicated as you say, but I think the benefits far outweigh the risks. I see even parents have more ways to communicate with their daughters these days. Before, it was face-to-face or you write a note and stick it under their door. Right? You didn’t have a whole lot of flexibility, and now, if you kind of appreciate all the different modalities that you have, you can pick and choose so that your daughter is going to be most receptive to what you have to say, and I think a lot of parents don’t realize that, that a phone call on the cellphone when they’re out with friends is not the same thing as a text.

Andy: You write that certain aspects of technology can undermine self-reflection and authenticity. How is that, and why is that matter? Why is that important?

Dr. Roni: Well, psychologically speaking, it’s very, very important for adolescents during this developmental period to really know who they are. Self-knowledge is extremely important because it guides their decision-making. Right? The worst thing that they can do is to try to be someone else because that doesn’t work out.

Andy: Right.

Dr. Roni: That lack of authenticity leads to kind of a chasm between who they really are and sort of the facade that they’re putting out to the world, and the wider the gap in it, the more tension that there is and the more they feel sort of not comfortable in their own skin. They can’t be themselves. Right? One of the downfalls of social media is that everybody is curating their image.

Andy: Right. Yeah.

Dr. Roni: I’ve heard this from teenage girls that I’ve met with at schools or in my office, and they’ve been saying from day one, you’re not really who you are on social media. If someone asks you your favorite book, you’re not putting down The Baby-Sitters Club. You’re putting down Anna Karenina. You know?

Andy: Right. Yes, I’m so sophisticated.

Dr. Roni: Right. You’re trying to cultivate a certain image. You starting to try and look cool. You’re trying to look happy like you have a whole bunch of friends. You have enviable activities. You’re always doing something exciting, but the reality is, of course, that everyone’s trying to portray that, and so I think the danger is… I shouldn’t say danger. I would say the challenge for parents is to help teens understand why they’re doing the things that they’re doing online, what they’re trying to achieve, and also, to realize that if they’re getting a bunch of likes, or forwards, or things, that aren’t really for them, that’s authentically them and it’s really not helping them feel good about themselves because they’re being sort of rewarded and validated for something that’s a false self.

Andy: Something that I think is an interesting topic is self-advocacy, which I think goes hand in hand with this. It’s like discovering who you authentically are and what you stand for, and then being confident to stand up for that. How do we foster that in teenagers and how do we help them to feel more comfortable doing that?

Dr. Roni: That is such a great question. I’m so glad you asked that. It’s one of the things that I talk about for parents because when parents think of helping their teenagers online and, particularly, to navigate social media, they think about tech skills. Right? Good luck to them if that’s what they think they need because that’s the last thing they think they need. Kids are so savvy about getting around.

Andy: Right? Yeah, yeah. They’re miles ahead of you.

Dr. Roni: Oh please, they’re thinking seven steps ahead of you. I’ve honestly worked with 10-year-olds who knew how to fake their birthday so that they could get a social media account that started at age 13.

Andy: Yep.

Dr. Roni: Right? Even engineers who are parents can’t figure out the in-app controls, parental controls. They could, but their kids can get around it.

Andy: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Right.

Dr. Roni: I think this all comes back to the parents. It’s not what you say to your kids about don’t do this, and don’t do that, and don’t do this on social media. it’s all about how you’re raising them, and I believe that it’s so important to parent the teen you have, not the teen that you think is ideal, not the teen that you want. Every conversation that you’re having with your teen throughout their daily lives conveys the sense of, “I want to know the real you and the real you is really great.” So it’s even things like when you’re having a conversation with your teen and the teen says, “I feel a certain way. I’m really angry about this or I really hate so and so.” And parent responds, “Oh, no. You don’t. You don’t hate anybody.” They’re so invalidating of that feeling or if they can’t tolerate a negative emotion within a conversation.

Andy: Yeah. We don’t say those kind of things. That’s not nice.

Dr. Roni: Exactly. Yeah. We don’t use that word in our house. That’s not nice. Well, the reality is that teens and all of us have all sorts of feelings. How we deal with them is another whole story and parents can help with that, but it’s all about approaching your teen with respect for who they are and not trying to change them, and so when teens have that foundation at home, I’m not saying they’re not going to try to impress their peers, but they’re not going to be trying to make up for a lack of validation that they’re not getting at home.

Andy: How do we balance like we want them to be discovering who they are and what they stand for, but at the same time, we want to be conveying important values to them and sort of influencing them towards the things that we think are most important? How do we teach values to our team or have family values without sort of invalidating who they want to be or not letting them, also, and have space to figure out what they want to stand for?

Dr. Roni: I’m going to try my best to answer that because it is so, so important. So I think it has a little bit to do with what I just talked about, that when you’re having a conversation with your teen, it’s important not to come across as the expert on all of this.

Andy: Yeah. Right.

Dr. Roni: Because you’re not, and because what you want to convey to your team is, “Look, we’re working on this together. You are the expert on the team social world, and I’m the expert on you. I know you the best, but I’ve also lived in the world, and I also have some things, and thoughts, and feelings, and values to share with you, and together, if we work together on this in a collaborative kind of way, I’ll be happier because I know that you’re safe and you will have the support of me that you need whenever you need it.” So I think it’s important to have that kind of attitude when you’re discussing these things with your team, and the best way to do that is to ask, not tell.

Dr. Roni: So for example, you want to ask your teen, “So what is your goal on social media?” And I’ll say, “Well, what do you mean?” “Well, do you want to expand your social network? Do you want to make more friends? Do you want to just connect with the friends that you already have? Do you want to find a community that you have a similar interest in and learn more?” There are all sorts of reasons, and when you ask those questions, you’re letting your teen think them through, and then when you convey this trust and respect, and by the way, teens are going to test you all the time by bringing up outrageous kinds of ideas and seeing if you’re going to flip out, and if you do, it’s kind of a conversation-ender.

Andy: Okay. Yeah.

Dr. Roni: But you take a deep breath and you realize that your teen is just trying to think this all out and using you as a sounding board, then you can say things like, “Well, tell me more about that. Why do you feel that way?” I think the greatest thing is to ask the teen because they’re the experts. Parents, no matter how savvy we think we are, no matter how understanding we think we are, we are not teenagers right now, and so we don’t know exactly what it’s like to be a teenager right now. So when you ask your teen, “Tell me what makes a good post and a bad post, the nuances that we can’t possibly pick up on.”

Andy: Yeah. Right.

Dr. Roni: “When do you know you’re being funny, but when does it cross over into being funny at someone else’s expense or being mean? For teenage girls who want to be appearing like they’re sexy and all that, when does it cross the line into not so cool?” When you ask your teen that, you’re going to get some interesting answers because there’s this unspoken rule kind of thing that’s going on.

Andy: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Instead of saying like, “Okay, here’s the rules on what’s okay to post and what’s too sexy.”

Dr. Roni: Exactly, and then if you disagree, you can say, “Let me tell you-“

Andy: Oh, whoa.

Dr. Roni: Yeah.

Andy: You what?

Dr. Roni: Yeah, “I can see where you’re coming from. I can see where you’re coming from. I understand that need. Let me tell you how it’s kind of coming across,” and then you can actually look through social media together, and you can say, “Educate me.” That’s conveying an openness that teenagers are not going to feel like you’re an adversary in this. They’re going to feel like you’re on their team.

Andy: But you really are. We all want the same thing.

Dr. Roni: That’s it. That’s it. I hear from countless teens that if the slightest little thing goes wrong, if they raise their voices to their mothers, or they don’t get a good grade, or they were mean to their sibling, the parents first response is I’m taking away your phone.

Andy: Yep, exactly. You got to hit them where it hurts.

Dr. Roni: Oh, yeah, but it’s also kind of unfair because how is that connected to their misbehavior or their undesirable decision? It’s better to discuss with teens really what your concern is, and then if they are showing behavior that’s irresponsible, that’s something else to talk about. Right?

Andy: You write in your book about family scripts and, sometimes, it’s treating siblings too similarly. Sometimes it’s like assigning different almost like roles within the house or nicknames, but then sort of you could get kind of trapped in those or expecting that they’re kind of just kind of continue to behave in the same way and then overlook what they’re really presenting you with. So how do you notice when you’re kind of getting caught in some of those family scripts and how do you break out of that?

Dr. Roni: So I think girls are pretty good about letting you know when they’re unhappy with. That’s one thing that I find that if parents are open, if parents are listening to their teens, they’ll tell them, but I also think a lot of this about parenting, a lot of the things we’ve been talking about, it’s not easy for parents. You know?

Andy: Right.

Dr. Roni: Parents are busy. They have things on their minds. They love their children, but every day, there are 400 new decisions to make, and the things that worked yesterday aren’t working today. I mean, I have a lot of empathy and respect for parents. I am one myself, and so I understand all of this, but one of the things I try to convey is that the more self-reflective parents can be, the more mindful they can be of their own behavior, the better things are going to go with their teens. Especially, it’s important. What you’re talking about is kind of pigeonholing teens.

Andy: Yeah. Yeah, right.

Dr. Roni: You’re the athletic one. Well, what if the kid has been playing soccer for seven years and says, “I’m done. I’m done.” And the parents respond and say, “What do you mean you’re done?”

Andy: “Oh, but you’re so great at that.” And you go, “Yeah.”

Dr. Roni: Yeah. “You could get recruited for college and-“

Andy: Right.

Dr. Roni: “We’ve been going to all your tournaments for the last decade.”

Andy: Yeah. “Figure out all the time we’ve invested in this.”

Dr. Roni: “And money.”

Andy: Yeah. “You want to throw all that away?”

Dr. Roni: Major guilt trip and not allowing the teen to evolve.


About Roni Cohen-Sandler

Dr. Roni Cohen-Sandler is the author of the best-selling, I’m Not Mad, I Just Hate You!, Trust Me, Mom, Easing Their Stress, and Stress Sucks!. Her latest book, Anything But My Phone, Mom!, is due out February 2022. 

Dr. Roni is a clinical psychologist, specializing in psychological testing, individual psychotherapy, and parent guidance. She’s also a bestselling author and educator. She gives lectures, workshops, and keynote addresses throughout the U.S. and abroad and often appears on national television, radio, magazines, and newspapers. 

The mother of two teenagers, she lives in Weston, Connecticut.

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