Researchers are beginning to identify how the use of smartphones, computers and other technology changes the way the adolescent brain develops—especially areas of the brain responsible for decision-making, risk assessment, impulse control and processing emotions. Prevention expert Jessica Wong joins host William C. Moyers to discuss the potential consequences of overuse and overreliance, including feelings of isolation, anxiety or depression.
0:00:15 William Moyers
Greetings and welcome to the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation's Let's Talk series of podcasts. I'm your host, William Moyers, and I joined the organization in 1996. I'm also an alum of Hazelden, which means that for many decades now I've been in recovery from too much drinking and drugging. Thanks for joining us and for listening in 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 none other than Jessica Wong. Even though she's still young, Jessica is like me, an old-timer of sorts, having joined Hazelden almost 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 focused on young people and their families. Jessica's job is external too. She does outreach, connecting Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation's mission to people and families in 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.
0:01:34 Jessica Wong
Thanks for having me, William. It's a pleasure to be here.
0:01:36 William Moyers
And tell me where did you get the passion for this job?
0:01:39 Jessica Wong
You know the passion for me kind of converged from a couple of different places. The first thing was what I was seeing in our facilities, particularly our adolescent and young adult facility that we have in Plymouth, Minnesota. I was working with the clinicians and was often hearing stories of kids coming into treatment and having more of a difficult time giving up their cell phones and their devices than they were some of their drugs of choice. So that was interesting to me. But I also have a 16- and 17-year-old at home so I was watching some of the struggles that were growing with social media use and technology use as well from a personal perspective. And as those came together, I was out to Father's Day brunch with my family and I looked over at a table and there was a family of six. Two parents, four children, and all six people were on their devices. And it really saddened me to notice sort of the lack of connection that was happening there and the disengagement that was happening and that sort of sparked about 8 or 10 years ago a desire for me to do more research on this topic and explore it and now I've been speaking nationally, locally, on the topics of teens and technology use.
0:02:47 William Moyers
Well and you're well-known around the country for your presentation called Warp Speed.
0:02:52 Jessica Wong
0:02:52 William Moyers
Tell us more about that.
0:02:54 Jessica Wong
Well the—the name Warp Speed is interesting. Part of what I talk about with parents and with professionals when I do this presentation is how quickly technology is moving and our ability to really understand its impacts on society, on our families, is really challenged by how quickly technology is growing and—and changing. If you think about when radio was first introduced, it took about 38 years before it was in 50 million U.S. households. When television was introduced, it took about 13 years before 50 million U.S. households had televisions. And you go forward and now it's social media apps, you know about six months before they're downloaded 50 million times. But fast forward to you know the introduction of an app like Pokémon GO. And within two months it had been downloaded one hundred million times across the world. And so that really challenges our ability to understand how rapid—rapidly this technology is changing and becoming accessible to our kids and to our families. And our ability to understand the long-term sort of sociological impacts that it's having. So that's—that's where the Warp Speed idea was born is just a notion of looking at the—the quickness of the change and the sociological impact on our—on our families.
0:04:09 William Moyers
So when you're out doing that presentation, whether it's in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul or in rural Wisconsin or in California, what is it that you're trying to convey to the audience in that presentation?
0:04:22 Jessica Wong
You know that's a great question. I think for me my passion is helping educate families about the importance of balance around technology use. A lot of people see me and they think I'm the person that's gonna go there and tell them to get rid of all their cell phones and to—to cut off the Wi-Fi, and in fact that's not the case. If you saw my house we probably have six or eight computers and you know half a dozen cell phones between us. But the reality is balance is important and the reason is because too much technology use can make us more vulnerable to things like addiction. Which is sort of the connection also to my passion here as an employee at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, seeing the kids coming in as young as 12 years old with addiction issues and some of the vulnerability that's sort of born from early exposure to technology use. So, I wanna educate just on the dangers and to let parents know that it's not as benign as they perhaps might view technology use to be and it's important that we educate and have ongoing conversations as families about this topic.
0:05:23 William Moyers
So a lot of people—they know our organization Hazelden Betty Ford for what we've been doing for almost 70 years now, which is treating addiction and transforming lives. We're known as a renowned nonprofit treatment provider. When I talk about the role that people like you play in our organization and in the mission they—people get confused and say well what does—what does technology have to do with addiction? And explain more about that.
0:05:50 Jessica Wong
There's a lot of connections. One of—one of the main ones that I discuss is the role technology plays in access to things like alcohol and drugs. For example, you can purchase drugs online through the dark web. You—kids can learn online how to use certain drugs. For example, there's an app called snort cocaine that actually teaches you step by step what the process of snorting cocaine is which teaches kids sort of the movement and the gestures that are associated with doing that drug so when they're in a peer environment and asked if they're interested in participating, they have the confidence to be able to do so without looking like the fool, so to speak. So it's access, it plays a role in attitudes towards when we see publicized celebrities who are overindulging that are making the media or people who are passing away from overdoses, that certainly impact in the media impacts our perceptions of how we feel about the risks associated with certain drug use. And it also changes our brain's vulnerability and susceptibility to developing an addiction to a substance over the course of the lifetime. And that's something that I'll talk about. We're gonna do two sessions, talk a little bit more about the brain impact in the session 2. When we chat.
0:07:05 William Moyers
Well, on that note, is technology or is social media or are our phones—can that be addictive like cocaine or marijuana or methamphetamine or opioids?
0:07:18 Jessica Wong
That's an interesting question. And the reason being is that clinically it has not been identified as something that's addictive. However, there is being research that's being conducted. That's one of the things I talk about when I talk about Warp Speed and how quickly technology is changing. In order to determine truly the long-term impacts on technology use or social media use or use of Snapchat, we need long-term studies over time to see how it impacts somebody's growth and development. Obviously Snapchat hasn't been around long enough for us to—to have those understandings but there is research being done that is very much moving in the direction of determining whether or not technology itself can be addictive and things like video games and social media. I know that there are a lot of countries in Asia, China, and Japan specifically that already have treatment centers and resources available for people who they have identified as being dependent upon their technology devices. And if you ask teenagers about fifty percent of them will self-identify as being addicted to their devices.
0:08:17 William Moyers
But it's not as simple as just saying no anymore than we can advise young people to just say no and not, you know, use or experiment with illicit or legal substances. What is—is there a healthy balance with technology? Or how do you—what do you advise parents as it relates to the use of technology in the house?
0:08:35 Jessica Wong
Absolutely. Balance is important and you're right, it's not something that you can just disregard. The reality is kids will need to understand and know how to use technology in a productive way to be successful in their careers regardless of the line of work that they go in. So it's important that they have exposure to devices and to technology. However, over-reliance or overindulgence in certain parts of technology, social media in particular is one area of concern, and video gaming is another area of concern. That can certainly you know cause concern for parents and there are several things that I talk with parents about to help achieve balance. There's just easy things around the house that you can do. One of the things you can do I know for us we do technology-free zone in our home. You can't make that the laundry room, you can't make that the—the guest bedroom where nobody goes. For us it's our kitchen. So whenever we're in the kitchen we are not allowed to have our devices, we're not allowed to be sort of disengaged. We're present with each other, whether it's in there to grab a snack or in there having dinner. So much so in fact that I was making cookies with my girls a couple weeks ago and I had my phone out for the recipe and my youngest said, 'Ah ah, put that away!' So I had to go dust off the cookbooks and get a recipe out without having to use my device for that.
0:09:51 William Moyers
[laughs] There you go, I like that. You know, I've worked for this organization for a long time now and what I continue to marvel at is that I still learn from my colleagues.
0:10:01 Jessica Wong
0:10:02 William Moyers
And whether it's some of the other guests that we're gonna have on the podcast or you—you've taught me something that I didn't know about and that's to have a tech-free zone in my own house.
0:10:12 Jessica Wong
Yeah, there's a couple of other things too that can make it kind of fun to help achieve that balance as a family. One of them I like to recommend is something called the dinner dishes game. And so if you're getting together and having dinner as a family which is so important for a number of factors. It helps reduce teen substance use, it helps improve communication in the family, it helps reduce teen pregnancy. But everybody puts their device in the center of the table facedown with the sound off. And whoever reaches for their device first has to do the dishes.
[William Moyers chuckles heartily]
0:10:40 Jessica Wong
So, it can—you can have a couple of outcomes. You can have a three-hour standoff where nobody wants to touch their device because they don't wanna do the dishes but then you've got three hours where you're connecting with one another and engaging. Or, somebody reaches for their device right away but guess what somebody's doing the dishes and so that's another way to make it fun. The other one I recommend for parents too is re-setting their home Wi-Fi password every day. And saying that if they do their homework, if they get their chores done, if they walk the dog, then they're given the Wi-Fi password. Which helps kids understand that they have responsibilities first and that things like video games and social media are a social and sort of relaxation activity and they're not the priority in helping them achieve that balance that we've talked about.
0:11:22 William Moyers
So if parents or teachers or other people wanna go to our website or learn more about the tips that you've talked to us about today, is there a way to do that?
0:11:33 Jessica Wong
Absolutely. There are blog posts available on our website where you can learn more about some of these tips and tricks. With the family and helping build balance in your home.
0:11:42 William Moyers
Excellent. Now, you and I are out and about interacting with—with parents and—and with young people and in communities, and often times the question that we always get has to do with what we're best known for which is treating addiction. And I've encountered a lot of parents recently who want—who have a young one, young person in their family, that needs treatment and we are known for providing excellent young adult and adolescent treatment, and they ask me though but can my son or can my daughter or can my granddaughter or grandson, can they use their phones? Can they access social media in treatment? And I don't know the answer to that.
0:12:22 Jessica Wong
The reality is it varies, but for Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, at our adolescent young adult facility the answer is no, while they are with us in residential treatment. So at that residential level of care, we are taking away their devices. We really want them to be able to connect with their peers in the treatment environment and engage with their clinicians that they're working with, and get the opportunity to work through some of the mental health issues that they're struggling with. And certainly the addiction issues that they're coming to us for. So that is a really important part of our program and that's the reason why people have heard me say I wish that all kids could go through treatment not necessarily that—that they all have an addiction issue—
0:13:01 William Moyers
0:13:02 Jessica Wong
But that they would have a month or two months or three months where they get to take a vacation from this world where they're expected to be present on social media and they're expected to play games. A lot of families actually tell me that when they've denied their kids the opportunity to participate in social media, they actually lose the opportunity to build friendships. Because that's where those social relationships and plans for the weekend and getting together for sleepovers are happening over Snapchat. So if Mom and Dad aren't allowing something like Snapchat or Instagram or Facebook for their kids, they're missing out on—on those bonding opportunities with their peers. So, treatment is a safe place where kids can come who need the help and they can sort of leave that world behind and really engage and build connections and really learn how to communicate and work through their feelings.
0:13:47 William Moyers
So what's good about technology and young people?
0:13:50 Jessica Wong
There's a lot of great things. You know that's the important thing of course technology is responsible for a lot of medical advances and for certainly things related to education and in efficiencies with doing our jobs. Even you and I use technology on a day-to-day basis to—to do our job. So that's important. It can also help kids who struggle. We've seen some research where kids who are on the spectrum can benefit from interacting with technology in terms of helping them communicate—
0:14:19 William Moyers
The spectrum of autism?
0:14:20 Jessica Wong
Yes, the autism spectrum. Helping them communicate, helping them build social skills and understand social cues. So there's a lot of early studies that demonstrate the benefits of that. And there's also research that suggests if we have existing relationships that we're maintaining through social media, that can actually enhance the relationship. So you have a relationship with Aunt Mary but you check in with her from time to time on Facebook, that adds too. Where the concern comes from a relationship perspective with social media is relationships that are created and exist entirely within social media. So you've never met the person, face to face or as the kids call it “in real life.” And so you have all these friendships that aren't really friendships because they've always existed in this digital existence and there's never been a true human connection, which is so critical for—for development.
0:15:15 William Moyers
I know as a parent I have four children. You've shared it as well, we all struggle as parents or grandparents as it relates to our children or our grandchildren and social media. Is it fair to say that none of us is alone in this struggle?
0:15:34 Jessica Wong
Absolutely. You know one of the questions I get so frequently from parents is I feel like I'm the only one who's putting on restrictions on my kid. I'm told I'm the bad parent because I don't want them to play video games until midnight. I'm told I'm an awful mother because I won't let my daughter go on Snapchat. But I hear that question every time I speak. Every parent is struggling with this issue in one sense or another. And my hope is that parents will reach out and connect with each other, directly. And share some of their concerns, some of their hopes, and some of their rules and expectations around technology use for their kids. And they'll realize very quickly that a lot of us are struggling with this with our kids, regardless of their age.
0:16:16 William Moyers
Are there support groups for parents or for young people who are trying to free themselves from the—from the omnipotence of social media and technology?
0:16:27 Jessica Wong
Certainly, I've seen an increase and a growth in mental health professionals who specialize in technology's impact on the family. So that is something certainly I recommend to—to families. There are one or two treatment centers in the United States that will work with either families or individuals struggling with an overuse of technology. But unfortunately there aren't any formalized groups that are responsible for creating such a resource. Which I think would be really, really beneficial for parents who all feel like they're alone. But as we find with addiction, when we bring parents together who have kids who are struggling with substance use, they realize for the first time that they're not alone. And that peer-to-peer connection is so critical. And that could be very true in this case as well.
0:17:12 William Moyers
Jessica Wong, thank you very much for bringing your passion and your expertise to our podcast today. People know where to find you on the Internet?
0:17:19 Jessica Wong
Yes, absolutely. You can look at the Hazelden Betty Ford website, you can Google teens and technology use, you can Google Jessica Wong and find me. And find additional information on our conversation today.
0:17:30 William Moyers
Thank you. And thank you to our listeners and to our viewers for joining us today. Please feel free to look for us again on other podcasts on other subjects that really matter to the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. Thank you.