Risk and Distortion

What parents need to know about coming of age in our digital world

Rapidly emerging technology is changing the way young people are navigating adolescence and young adulthood. In an age when two-thirds of adolescents own smartphones, use of social media and other technology influences everything from how a young person develops self-worth to how he or she learns about or engages in risky behaviors, including underage drinking and other drug use. Such unprecedented technology consumption also puts parents in unknown territory, leaving them uncertain about when, how, and even where to set healthy limits around technology access and use.

Jessica Wong, business development director for Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation's adolescent and young adult services, helps parents and professionals across the country find resources for young people who are struggling with mental health and substance use issues. She shares emerging trends for parents and professionals to consider.

The risks, they are a changin'.

While it's not yet clear how technology use affects the developing brain, early indications are troubling. Elementary-aged children consume an average of 7.5 hours of entertainment technology (TV, video games, Internet) a day, not counting computer schoolwork.* And that's the low end of usage. The amount of time spent consuming entertainment technology increases with the age of the student. "Researchers have difficulty keeping up with the impact technology has on the developing brain because technology and usage trends continue to evolve at an unprecedented pace," notes Wong. "By the time research on the impact of technology is complete, the findings are obsolete," she adds. "Some studies indicate overuse can delay development of the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for impulse control. As a result, teens today are at greater risk for developing physical, psychological, and behavioral problems, including substance abuse and addiction," says Wong.

To thine own selfie be true?

Especially during the emotional roller coaster of adolescence, a steady diet of social media can skew a young person's emerging sense of self. When an adolescent experiences life largely through the portal of social media, he or she can develop a distorted, hyperawareness of personal shortcomings and triumphs. "The number of 'likes' a teenage girl gets on her Instagram post can make or break her entire day," says Wong.

Where’s the party?

Adolescents who drink and use drugs may be in the minority, but they tend to have a major presence on social media sites. "Messaging about alcohol and other drug use is pervasive. It has a normalizing effect on teen drug use," says Wong. Not only are adolescents getting a warped picture about peer drug use, they are also using technology to learn about and access drugs. Popular online videos offer step-by-step instructional simulations of snorting cocaine or smoking marijuana. "Fear of looking stupid is one reason some teens might turn down drugs," says Wong. "Touch-screen simulations take teens through the experience so they feel less inhibited in that situation." The effort to get drugs is no longer a barrier to using either, says Wong. It’s hassle free and as simple as sending a text message.

Welcome to a brave new world of parenting.

Today, half of all teens between the ages of 12 and 17 access the Internet primarily via their phones. That means 24/7 anywhere access to anything and everything. "Many parents don't know how to use important features on their child's smartphone or what to look for if they want to monitor their child's activity," says Wong. She offers four quick tips about use and access:

  • Give your child a phone that's one generation older than yours so you're familiar with use and function and can stay on top of new apps
  • Reset your home Wi-Fi password daily and share the new password only when homework and other responsibilities have been completed
  • Be specific about your expectations around safe and acceptable downloads, inappropriate content, and online privacy
  • Set texting and talking allowances and consider having your child contribute to the bill

Wong describes herself as a technology enthusiast and an early adopter and emphasizes that technology is not inherently bad. "Our children will need to understand and use technology to be productive members of society. The key is safe, age-appropriate use."

We know how to help. Hundreds of young people find freedom from addiction every year through Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation's programs for adolescents and young adults, and parents often serve as powerful change agents in that process. But it's not an easy road for parents, and the path isn't always clear. That's why the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation provides extensive help and support for parents and other family members. Learn more today by visiting hazeldenbettyford.org/youth or by calling 800-257-7800.


*"Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds," Kaiser Family Foundation, 2010 

Jessica WongJessica Wong is the national business development director of the Youth Continuum at Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. In her current role, she provides resources and information for families and professionals needing treatment and recovery resources for adolescents and young adults across the country.

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