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

Episode Summary

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.

Show NotesParenting ScriptsWorkbook ExercisesInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

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! 

Parenting Scripts

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

1.  Let your kids know that you’re not mindlessly scrolling on your phone:

“Look I’m not on SnapChat and I’m not playing a video game–I’m paying the grocery bill and booking your dentist appointment. I have more responsibilities and need to use tech for practical reasons.”

-Dr. Shimi Kang

2. Get the conversation about new tech rules started with:

(Members Only)

3. Explain new tech rules with:

(Members Only)

4. When your kid calls you out on breaking a family tech rule, explain why you have to break:

(Members Only)

Workbook Exercises

Step-by-step guides for applying the ideas from this interview

1. The Three Types of Tech to Streamline Your Rules

According to Shimi, there are three types of tech: toxic, junk, and healthy. Toxic tech spikes cortisol levels and should be eliminated to zero, while a little bit of junk tech is okay.  Healthy tech should be the majority of screen time (more on healthy tech use in the next exercise).

As a family, reevaluate your current tech rules. (If you don’t have any in place yet use scripts from this episode to start the conversation.) This is the time to have a conversation about the tech everyone is using and if it is toxic, junk, or healthy. Rather than looking at what each app does or is, focus on how it is being interacted with. Is your teen mindlessly consuming YouTube videos? Or are they watching tutorials as they whip up a new dish in the kitchen? Are the video games too intense and filled with old players that bully your teen? Or does your kid build worlds in Minecraft with close friends? Mindless consumption is generally junk tech, but graphic, violent content or technology use that leaves your teen feeling more anxious, stressed, or depressed is toxic. If it helps, talk as a family about how different types of tech use make you each feel to tease out what type it is. 

Schedule time in your calendar right now to talk tech rules with your family. Prep a simple chart (like the one below) and categorize your tech use accordingly. 

2. The Three C’s of Healthy Tech

(Members Only)

Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: Tell me about what inspired the book and why you went through all the effort of doing all this research and writing it all down.

Dr. Kang: Right. So, I really have to say I was inspired by observing my own children. I have two teenage boys and a 10-year-old girl. Really, since they were babies, I’ve noticed how they are drawn to technology like a magnet. I see that all around me, not just in my kids, but in my practice as a psychiatrist. After I wrote my parenting book, The Dolphin Parent, when I was going and doing speaking, and podcasts and events, the number one question that always came was technology and what is it doing to our young people’s brains? How can we as parents manage it?

Dr. Kang: It’s really a top issue. It seems overwhelming. It’s not something we grew up with. So, there’s a generation gap there. Then my background is in addiction. So the aspect of tech that has that persuasive design and the dopamine really drew me in as a scientist as well. So, I think there was a lot of factors that came together to write this book.

Andy: Okay. So talk to me about addiction. They say technology is addicting, but compared to things that are really addicting like drugs and gambling and that Facebook is not really in that class. Right?

Dr. Kang: Well, I would say it’s a spectrum and technology has something called persuasive design and that is an intentional use the neuroscience of the brain’s dopamine pathways to get little hits of pleasure, little hits of dopamines through different aspects of technology, whether it’s a light or a video game pit or collecting the coin or gathering followers. So, it’s of course not as-

Andy: Or keeping a streak.

Dr. Kang: Yes, exactly. The SnapChat streak. You’re right. So it’s not as addictive as cocaine, of course, but for some people and I have them in my practice and I talk about these cases in my book, it actually can be devastating. Destroying their life. They’re getting into things like online gambling, online pornography, even video gaming, social media. There is internet addiction disorder, which is now a medical diagnosis. So, we don’t want to demonize this. Tech is so important in our lives. It’s a key to our survival and thriving in this new world. But we also have to remember that there’s a downside and really work with the power of this technology.

Andy: Just like our role as a parent is to protect our kids from a lot of those other dangers until they’re old enough to kind of handle them, maybe there’s a role in there for technology also. I thought it was really interesting, you talk about Sean Parker from Facebook has admitted that they designed the whole thing not to help people connect, but to addict and hook people.

Dr. Kang: Yeah. It was really interesting when we did the research on what’s happening in Silicon Valley. We actually found that tech executives are actually not using allowing their children to use technology because they understand the neuroscience that’s in there. I don’t want to say that this is a big evil industry and conspiracy. Their goal isn’t to destroy children’s lives and brains, but their goal is very clearly, it is a consumer product designed to attract your attention and keep your attention.

Dr. Kang: The side effect of that is anxiety, depression, lack of movement, sleep deprivation, decreased socialization, and all of the things that go with it. So, I don’t think these companies were intending to see the big medical issues that have come up, but now they’re here. So we have to deal with them.

Andy: With addiction comes other things like withdrawal when you stop using whatever it is. So do you see that then with these cases of technology addiction, that there’s a phase of withdrawal?

Dr. Kang: Oh yeah, for sure. I’ve seen teenagers who get very aggressive when parents try to remove the Xbox or their phone. I’ve seen violence, I’ve seen kids run away from home. I’ve seen kids have panic attacks. They just can’t handle it. Even in my office, I ask the teenagers I work with to put the phone on my desk and many of them can’t do that. They’re like, “Dr. Kang, can I just hold it in my hand or sit on it? I need to feel it.” So I definitely have seen that in my practice for sure. I feel it myself sometimes. I feel when I don’t have my phone, I feel uncomfortable. I feel like I’m missing something. So yeah, I think we all have a bit of that.

Andy: So then is that a bad thing or what should we be doing about that to address it?

Dr. Kang: Yeah. So in the book I talk about habits and I talk about something called neuroplasticity. What that means is, when we create a habit, when we walk on a trail, just like in the trails in a forest, the more we walk on them, the more they develop and the more we have habits, the stronger they get. So if we have a habit of checking our phone and right now teenagers are checking their phone 150 times a day. So, that is going to become a super highway in our brain where we’re constantly checking our phone.

Dr. Kang: We could be at the dinner table. We could be in a class. We could be at a wonderful concert listening to amazing music. That habit, that compulsion to check our phones is going to be there. So I think because of the power of the persuasive design, we really need to be intentional with having a healthy relationship with tech so that we can utilize it in our service, our house, our happiness, our innovation, our success, as opposed to kind of feeding that attention economy.

Andy: Those cases that you have where it gets really bad with technology, what is causing that compared to kids who are able to handle it safely and not get carried away with it and not have to have a problem? What do you think are the factors that separate those?

Dr. Kang: So the risk factors for tech addiction are very similar to other addiction. So anyone let’s say with comorbid or underlying anxiety, depression, any history of trauma, if they’re already, let’s say have ADHD. Those kids are more likely to get in trouble with tech because partly they’re self medicating with the use of tech and anyone I want to say, who has poor coping skills. Difficulty regulating emotion, managing anger, or dealing with boredom and use their phone to distract themselves. This is a habit a lot of us do is we feel stressed. We go into freeze, fight or flight.

Dr. Kang: Freeze is anxiety. Fight is anger and flight is distraction. So we go into distraction mode and we check our phones. Then what happens is the phone becomes our lead coping skill. In those kids who don’t have other coping skills, that can get into trouble. So I really talk about how to build healthy coping skills in young people. I think it’s a key thing in the school system. We teach all kinds of stuff. I think the number one thing we really do need to teach is emotional regulation, social skills and coping skills.

Andy: It’s huge. It’s I think counterintuitive sometimes because you think, “Oh, we got to limit the tech. We need to put some rules and we need to get some parental controls or change the password on the wifi.” Sure, but also kind of looking at these underlying issues as developing the coping skills, putting up the regulations is maybe not that helpful if you’re not actually addressing the underlying problem by teaching those skills. You have some stories in here about residential program, kids go to that are working through tech addiction and they develop a lot of those. It’s pretty profound actually some of the transformations that you talk about in here.

Dr. Kang: Yeah. It really is a balance as a parent because you want to guide your child, but at the same time, you don’t want to inhibit them from all the benefits of tech. I say, it’s kind of like for a teenager. We don’t just give them the keys to a car. Right? We first talk about driving and then they take lessons and then we drive with them and then they’re allowed to go on local roads before the highway. When we give our children phones, we want to take the same approach is first show them how to use it, talk to about it, allow them to be on local roads, meaning, okay, you can text your friends and family. If you can handle that, then you can text other people.

Dr. Kang: You can use social media to communicate. If you handle that, well, then you can post. So, then allowing them to slowly gain that independence and really it is a very powerful thing. So we want to treat it and respect that power that it is.

Andy: So is there any hope then if you are past that point already, and your 14 year old has free reign of tech and you’re now just kind of saying to yourself, “Oh man, I really should have … I got to kind of impose some boundaries and limitations here”?

Dr. Kang: Yeah. There’s definitely always hope. I say our brain has this wonderful thing. It’s a complex word for hope, but it’s called neuroplasticity. What that means is we can always change our habits. We can always learn. We can rewire basically who we are, all of our daily habits. It does take time. It takes effort. Luckily young people are more neuroplastic, meaning it’s easier to change habits under the age of 24 because the brain is still developing. It’s maturing, it’s already wiring and rewiring.

Dr. Kang: So in the tech solution book, I have a six step plan on exactly how to reset your family’s tech diets and go through it sequentially and step-by-step because families need help. It’s not going to happen magically. You can’t just say, “Okay, we’re going to do it.” We need a plan and a process to go through.

Andy: Can you talk a little bit about burnout and where burnout comes from and how to recognize burnout and handle it?

Dr. Kang: Yeah. So burnout is a really interesting word because it’s becoming a medical diagnosis. It’s not quite there yet. It’s being looked at in Europe and actually being used for disability now. So, burnout is similar to symptoms of depression, but they’re really connected to our work and a lack of satisfaction in the work that we do, kind of this rise and grind culture leading to a feeling of depletion.

Dr. Kang: Now, the way tech fits into that is tech allows us to always be on. We can always check our email. We can always check our Slack channel. We’re never off work. We think we can multitask when in fact we can’t. Our brain doesn’t have the ability to do three things at once. Even though you want to eat lunch, listen to a podcast and check your email. We can only do one thing at a time and when we try to multitask, we do all those things poorly and it actually leads to a real sense of fatigue, exhaustion. We get brain fog. So, in the book, I talk about the difference between multitasking and mindfulness and when we really want to be efficient, sometimes in our goal to be efficient, we try to multitask, but it’s actually reducing our productivity.

Andy: Yeah. I’ve definitely been there before. So what do you think is the way to tell the difference between true burnout or if your kid is just lazy or is just kind of feeling a little unmotivated or trying to get out of something or something?

Dr. Kang: Yeah, and I think part of it is having that conversation, but there are some external signs. Just even physical signs. Young people will start complaining about headaches or even backaches and fatigue and they want to sleep. Teenagers already want to sleep a lot, but that brain fog, that loss of motivation, low energy levels and withdrawing from things that they love. So, if they love sports and suddenly they’re not doing it and they want to miss the practice or they love dance or music. So those are some kind of red flags that would say you’re might be headed towards burnout.

Dr. Kang: Teenagers, especially those heading into college years are highly stressed. If we look at a group of the most stressed people, it’s the age of between 15 and 24 and that university admission cycle or graduating from high school and the demands, even if you’re not going to college are really intense at that age group. So they’re really a high risk category.

Andy: Interesting. So then if burnout is kind of about feeling like you don’t have the passion for what you’re doing and you’re just kind of going through the motions then is the solution sort of helping them find A, cut some stuff and find some time to, but then also rekindle the passion somehow?

Dr. Kang: Yeah. So in the book I talk about our two nervous systems. I say we pretty much operate in either survival, which is that stress response of freeze, fight or flight. Nothing happens in there other than those three things. We feel anxious, we feel irritated, or we feel distracted. The rest of life, everything we want, all learning, all growth, all recovery, all repair, all creativity, innovation, all of that happens in the parasympathetic nervous system or the growth nervous system.

Dr. Kang: So, if you lose your passion, it’s really not that hard to get back. In the sense I say it’s simple, but simple is not easy. It’s simple to sleep and drink water, but most of us are chronically sleep deprived and chronically dehydrated. So, when we hear these simple things we’re like, “Oh,” but they’re actually not easy and knowing is not doing. We know they’re important. That doesn’t mean we’re doing them.

Dr. Kang: So if we want to move and get out of burnout, we have to move from that survival system to that growth system. I say the best way to do that is a little trick that I put in the book is anything you wouldn’t do if you’re being chased by a tiger will move you from one system survival into growth. So if you’re being chased by a tiger, you wouldn’t stop and take long, deep breaths, right? You would breathe really shallow.

Dr. Kang: If you were being chased by a tiger, you wouldn’t stop and be grateful for three things in your life. You’d be looking for an exit. You wouldn’t play. You wouldn’t do a cartwheel. You wouldn’t look at an interesting leaf or stare at the clouds. So curiosity and recreational activities. So what you would do if you’re being chased by a tiger is be anxious, angry, and run like hell and try to escape.

Andy: Freaking out. Yeah. Right. I like that a lot. That’s cool. I noticed a couple of references to nature and animals. You also talk a lot about dolphins and how dolphins are a good model to follow as parents. Why is that?

Dr. Kang: Yeah, it’s interesting because my oldest son is 14 now and he grew up while I was hearing all these parenting metaphors and there’s the snowplow and the helicopter and the tiger. There really wasn’t anything about what to do, what actually to do well.

Andy: The good parent. Yeah. Right.

Dr. Kang: Yeah. Then in my practice, I started to tell people that, you know what, we don’t even know what it means to be human anymore. We’ve forgotten how we are hardwired and what’s in our biology. Sometimes we have to look outside ourselves to see ourselves. So I started to use this metaphor of a dolphin and I would tell people like, “Look. Dolphins, swim in the ocean, but guess what? They sleep by alternating their brain hemispheres one at a time for 20 minutes, but they do it because it’s that important for their survival and growth.”

Dr. Kang: So, the metaphor of the dolphin is about the qualities of parental relationship. You don’t want to be the shark, which is overbearing and aggressive. You also don’t want to be a jellyfish, which is lacking expectations and rules. That’s permissive parenting. You want to be authoritative in that middle place.

Dr. Kang: The body of the animal is firm, but flexible. So you want to have rules, expectations but you want to be flexible and adaptable as they grow and different children’s personalities. You want to bring in three key activities into your life. These are three things dolphins and all mammals do every day. They’re play, others, meaning social connection and downtime. So, those three activities are sacred activities. They’re the key to our success and motivation, but children are not playing enough.

Dr. Kang: They’re not connecting enough in real life and they’re not getting enough downtime. So all of that kind of was part of the metaphor of the dolphin parent book I wrote in 2014 and the goal of the dolphin parent is to have dolphin kid and a dolphin child or kid has those qualities that the dolphins are kind of known for. They’re curious, they’re collaborative. They’re good communicators. They’re community minded. They have creativity. So those 21st century skills that are so important for the future for being future ready in an ever changing fast paced world.


About Dr. Shimi Kang

Dr. Shimi Kang is the author of The Tech Solution, Dolphin Parenting, and The Self-Motivated Kid. An award-winning medical doctor, researcher, and expert on neuroscience, Dr. Kang provides science-based solutions for health, happiness, and achievement in the workplace, classroom, and at home. 

Dr. Kang has been featured in major media outlets, including BBC World News, Washington Post, the Huffington Post, CBC, Psychology Today, South China Morning Post, TIME Magazine, NPR, UK Daily Mail, Al Jazeera, SETV-Shanghai, and Times of India. She is currently a contracted expert contributor to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). 

With 20 years of clinical experience and extensive research, Dr. Kang provides practical tools to cultivate the key skills of resilience, connection, creativity, and more. She is the founder of Dolphin Kids and host of the YouTube show, Mental Wealth with Dr. Shimi Kang.

Dr. Shimi resides in Vancouver, Canada with her family including teens of her own.

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