Teens, Technology and Overuse, Part 1

Let's Talk Addiction & Recovery Podcast
Group of teens at lake

The faster, smarter, more mobile technologies used by teens are changing so rapidly that the impact on adolescent development isn't fully understood. But there are plenty of early warning signs—from an increased risk of sleep disorders and anxiety to a greater susceptibility to drug addiction. Prevention expert Jessica Wong joins host William C. Moyers to look at emerging research around risks associated with too much tech use and to discuss practical ways parents can foster healthier behaviors.

There's been studies that show that social media use and video gaming in particular stimulate the same part of the brain that's stimulated by drugs and alcohol.

Jessica Wong

0:00:16 William Moyers
Greetings and welcome to the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation Let's Talk series of podcasts. I'm your host William Moyers. I joined the organization in 1996. And before that, I was treated for addiction. Which means that I am an alum of Hazelden and a man in long-term recovery from addiction to alcohol and other drugs. Thanks for joining us and for listening in on our series of conversations with my colleagues about the important issues related to prevention, research, treatment and recovery. Today we're talking about teens and technology, parenting in the digital age. And my guest is my colleague at Hazelden Betty Ford, Jessica Wong. Even though she's still young, Jessica is like me a veteran of Hazelden. She joined about 15 years ago. She has vast knowledge and experience in a number of areas. But her focus, her passion and her expertise, they're all on young people and helping their families. Jessica's job is external too. She does outreach, connecting Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation's mission to people and families and communities everywhere. Jessica Wong is also a Certified Prevention Specialist, which means she's also working to help prevent the problems caused by addictive substances. Jessica, thank you for joining us today. 

0:01:42 Jessica Wong
Thank you for having me, William. It's a pleasure to be here.

0:01:43 William Moyers
Now a lot of people will say but wait a minute, Hazelden Betty Ford, you're known for treating addiction and transforming lives, what does this have to do with what you know about teens and technology?

0:01:54 Jessica Wong
You know that's a wonderful question and it comes from a lot of different places. But the thing I wanna talk about a little bit is how technology use actually changes the way the adolescent brain develops.

0:02:08 William Moyers

0:02:08 Jessica Wong
There's been studies that show that social media use and video gaming in particular stimulate the same part of the brain that's stimulated by drugs and alcohol by gambling and by sex. And so, certainly it has the opportunity to create the same vulnerabilities that some of those other behaviors have. And so I think today we'll explore what some of the other ways technology has impacted that developing teen brain.

0:02:34 William Moyers
So the teen brain is more vulnerable to technology just like it's more vulnerable to alcohol and other drugs?

0:02:39 Jessica Wong
Yes. And—and the reason that is, is because the last part of the teen brain to develop is something called the prefrontal cortex. Or it's this part [gestures to upper forehead] of the brain, the front of the brain, that's responsible for decision-making, long-term planning, risk assessment and impulse control. And because that part of the brain is not yet developed, anything like substance use or technology use, gambling, anything that stimulates that pleasure and reward part of the brain, can hijack that growth and development of the prefrontal cortex over the long term. So currently it's roughly 24, 25 years of age where the prefrontal cortex is fully formed. But early research is suggesting that we will see that number grow over the course of time the more social media and technology use we use in the earlier parts of our life that that number could eventually be 26, 27, 28 years old before the prefrontal cortex is fully formed.

0:03:38 William Moyers
So we know at Hazelden Betty Ford that a drug, is a drug, is a drug. But is technology a drug in the sense that you can become addicted to it?

0:03:46 Jessica Wong
That's a great question. I think research is moving in the direction of really understanding that from a clinical perspective. There isn't any solid, long-term longitudinal data that would suggest in fact that it is definitely addictive. However, what we see from behaviors of our kids and from people who engage in too much technology use, we do see similar—similar components related to drug use. We see withdrawal if their devices are taken away from them.

0:04:11 William Moyers
Really? Wow.

0:04:12 Jessica Wong
We see a deconstruction of their social relationships that also can be very common with drug or alcohol addiction. We see a number of other factors and impact on their education, impact on their job lives. If they are engaging too much in certain aspects of technology use.

0:04:29 William Moyers
And yet it's ubiquitous. It's everywhere. And—and unlike you know the—the regimen of recovery that we prescribe at Hazelden is one that's abstinence-based. We can't expect people who might have developed a dependency on technology, we can't expect them to be abstinent. So—what's—give me some healthy tips on—on balance around the use of technology. Both for parents and young people.

0:04:55 Jessica Wong
Yeah that's—that's a great question. There are a lot of things that we can do because as you mentioned, technology isn't going to go anywhere. To expect that kids won't have access to computers or to cell phones or to other devices, at some point throughout the course of their day whether it's at school or at home or—or at their friends' house is really unrealistic. So there's a number of things that we can talk about. I think one of the important ones I talk about is the importance of not allowing devices in the bedroom overnight. I know for me when I was growing up and I would ask my dad if I could go stay over at my friend's house until 2:00 in the morning, he would say there's nothing that happens after midnight that you need to be a part of. And the same is true now with social media. There's nothing that happens on Snapchat at 2:00 in the morning that our kids need to be a part of. They need their rest, they need to re—you know restore their brain, they need to have that break from that constant access to—to their friends and to the outside world 24 hours a day. So, keeping the cell phone outside of the bedroom at night is a really important one. I could talk about a couple ones also with parents. That get mixed—mixed reviews. One I always recommend that parents have the passwords to their kids' devices. And set that expectation up from the beginning. So that they just go with it. That if they need to intervene, if their gut is telling them that something is going wrong or their kid is engaging in activities that are potentially dangerous that they would have the opportunity to investigate that. Which is really important. Unlike parenting decades ago, kids live entire worlds online. They have a digital world that they live in that because of the handheld nature of technology, we are completely excluded from. So we have to be able to jump in and access what their world is and assess and intervene if need be if they are engaging in harmful behavior.

0:06:44 Jessica Wong
So giving parents the passwords to devices. Another one I like to recommend that—that the kids hate is kids get a cell phone that's one generation older than the parents' cell phone. So if you have a flip phone and your son or daughter has an iPhone 25, there's no way you would know how to help them, support them, educate them, intervene if they were struggling with—with unbalanced technology use. So I always say when we get a new phone, then our kids get our phones, the last ones that we have. And they—they like to put up a fight but when I say would you like no phone or this phone, they always choose this phone. So that's another idea of a way to help parents stay connected and involved in the technology experience of their kids.

0:07:24 William Moyers
Even in our interaction, I've learned a couple of tips some information I didn't know 20 minutes ago. Where do people who might be tuning in to this podcast—where do they get Jessica Wong's tips?

0:07:49 Jessica Wong
Sure. They can go to the hazeldenbettyford.org website and there will be blog posts and information available about tips for parents related to technology use. There is—there is dozens of things and we could talk for hours about this William. So we've touched on a few—if there are parents out there who are—are hoping to find more resources and information, they can certainly visit our website.

0:08:01 William Moyers
Your experience is that parents are not alone. I mean what your family might struggle with, what my family might struggle with, I've got four children who are hooked into various degrees of technology. And it worries me. The people who might be viewing this podcast or listening in, we all are struggling with this problem, right?

0:08:20 Jessica Wong
Yes. Absolutely. It's definitely a—an issue that parents are experiencing with their kids regardless of—of their kids' age—ages. They are struggling with what—what age do I give my kid a cell phone? I wanna talk a little bit kind of back up a little bit and talk about that. Because my—my favorite analogy for the teen brain is that the teen brain has all of the energy and the power of a race car, but it has the brakes of a bicycle. They don't—because they don't have that prefrontal cortex that we spoke about, they don't have the ability to determine whether something is safe. Or whether something is good for their long-term benefit and growth. And so I really encourage parents to help be the prefrontal cortex for their kids until their kids have their own, until they develop that over the course of their adolescence and young adulthood. And one of the—the things that I tell parents is that if you're going to be the brakes for your kid's brain, this race car with all of this power and this energy, that what they need to stop that race car from crashing is brakes. And what makes brakes work is friction. Race cars won't stop unless you apply friction. And so parents always come to me and say 'But if I tell them they can't have their phone in their room overnight they get really angry at me.' So that friction that you feel as a parent when you're helping them make safe choices and develop that prefrontal cortex that's so important is just a byproduct of them being good parents and following through. So, parents just tend to shy away when their kids push back and when their kids give them attitude. And that is really critical for helping them develop healthily. So I encourage them to stick with that and stick to their guns and if they believe in something to push forward.

0:10:15 William Moyers
A couple of years ago you and some of our colleagues developed a program that you took on the road called Warp Speed. Is some of the messaging that you've shared with us today, is that part of that presentation? Tell us more about Warp—Warp Speed.

0:10:31 Jessica Wong
Yeah absolutely. That's a presentation that really is comprised of—of two components. We talk about the impact of technology on the brain. You know another example of that is there's a psychologist Linda Henkel who did a study that showed devices and websites like Instagram and Snapchat are a detriment to our memory recall. She had people go through an art museum. Some of them had their devices to capture pictures of the art, some of them had nothing. Once they were done, they were given a test to determine who remembered more of what they saw. And of course it's no surprise that those who took pictures of the art with their devices remembered less. And so, that can be a note to parents that when you're at your son or daughter's softball game or you're at the—the school play, and you're taking pictures and getting everything on camera, to also stop and take in the experience and commit it to memory. Because we're not remembering and tracking the experiences of life the way we did prior to always having a camera handy with us.

0:11:36 Jessica Wong
So there's that part of the presentation that really explores all of those impacts on the brain and memory function. And there's the second part of the presentation that explores some of the different apps and some of the different things that kids are doing on their devices. Some of which are—are quite scary and quite intriguing.

0:11:57 William Moyers
Is there anything good about technology and young people?

0:12:00 Jessica Wong
Yes. Definitely. Technology certainly can be a tool for education. A tool for helping maintain existing connections with relatives with friends, with family members. It's also certainly something that's critical in the workforce. Something that they will need to have access to going forward. It's just important my mantra that people hear me say over and over when I do this presentation or when I'm connecting with parents, is that it's all about balance. And that technology use is never going to go away but as long as they can help their kid use technology in a balanced way, and they're not playing video games for 12 hours a day, and they're not on Snapchat all day long while they're supposed to be at school, that technology can certainly have some long-term benefits.

0:12:50 William Moyers
What happens to young people, adolescents and teenagers, who have developed a—an addiction to one of the quote
"traditional" substances like alcohol or marijuana or opiates, and they seek help at Hazelden Betty Ford, they get treatment, what happens to them and the technology that they bring with them to treatment?

0:13:12 Jessica Wong
Sure. One of the first things that they do when they enter our facility is give up their devices. And—

0:13:18 William Moyers
What's that like?

0:13:19 Jessica Wong
That can be a challenge. Certainly. Usually you see the parents rejoice. And you see the kids really struggle with that. Unfortunately, their devices are locked away, they're taken away while they're in treatment, and we really want them to have that experience of building peer relationships, connecting with one another, engaging in the clinical work that needs to be done. And participating with their peers in the treatment environment so they can get well and hopefully move past the addiction to the substances that they're struggling with.

0:13:50 William Moyers
What about the use of technology in supporting young people in recovery? Does—is there a role there for technology and young people who are walking that walk?

0:14:00 Jessica Wong
Yes. Absolutely. There are a number of tools, some of which Hazelden has developed, that can help augment long-term recovery success. Engagement in recovery after one completes treatment is really sort of the critical factor that determines whether somebody's gonna be successful long-term. And one of the ways that we found to successfully engage whether it's young people or adults who have struggled with a substance use on a long-term basis for better outcomes with their addiction treatment is to weave in apps and different technology as a component of their recovery. And that has proven to be really effective. In addition to some of their additional ongoing work on their sobriety.

0:14:44 William Moyers
So there is a good application of technology in—in young people who are in recovery then. 

0:14:52 Jessica Wong
Yes, absolutely. And—and for young people in general there's a lot of—a lot of great things that can come from it. Certainly. As long as we're using it for those purposes.

0:15:02 William Moyers
We need to wrap it up here in just a moment but before we go, we thought it would be good to let our viewers and our listeners take with them a couple of—of key tips. What are the three messages that you would leave parents with who might be listening to this podcast today?

0:15:19 Jessica Wong
I'll repeat the one that I—that I repeat constantly which is that help—helping your kids find balance is so important. Parents tend to have a hands-off attitude as it relates to their teen's technology use. They sort of disengage and I think it's important to understand what our kids are doing. To know why they're doing it. And to have them teach us and explain to us how they're using their devices. And to then impose limits on that. Kids have access to on their devices everything in the world. In a way that they don't when they're driving a car, for example. In a car you can only go so far. And I know when I was younger, I was grounded to my room and that was the worst thing in the world. Now, kids who are in their room can access anything on the planet. They can order drugs, they can call their friends, they can you know gamble online, they can go on social media, they can do a number of things. So, educating parents about some of the dangers that exist. Because we're familiar with a lot of the—the upsides to technology and making sure that parents know that those exist, are talking to their kids. One—one thing I would recommend to families is implementing Tech Talk Tuesday. At the dinner table. Which is making it a point to have some technology-related topic for the dinner discussion that day. Whether tonight we're gonna talk about Instagram or tomorrow we're gonna talk about the new game that everybody's playing which is Fortnite. Or we're gonna talk about the importance of not having our devices in our room overnight. Picking a topic and everybody in the family weighing in and coming together to explore how that has impacted them. Or what they want the rules and expectations to be in the household.

0:16:58 William Moyers
Thank you Jessica Wong for joining us today and sharing your incredible expertise on these very important topics. We look forward to having you back on another podcast in the future. And to our viewers and to our listeners, thank you for joining us today for one in a series of Let's Talk Podcasts that are being brought to you by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. I'm William Moyers, have a good day.

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