January 2016 Print

Youth on the Internet

by Randall C. Flanery, Ph.D.

The appropriate use of any new significant technology is a challenging matter and has always raised questions regarding its consequences for the individual and within the society. Just as people anguished about the harm that could result with the advent of the telephone, radio, or television, so are we worried about the social consequences of the Internet. We are especially concerned for our youth, who are the most frequent users of the Internet and who prefer text messaging, email, Snapchat, Twitter, and Social Networking Sites like Facebook, all of which are designed to make the exchange of personal information extremely easy.

The ostensible purpose of many of these Internet applications is to enhance human relationships. The combination of human nature and the compelling availability of the Internet lends itself to a time-consuming, compulsive submission to our devices, such that their use actually has the effect of diminishing human relationships. With increasing use, these devices can lead to loneliness, alienation, depression, and addiction. It is very hard for us humans to remain masters of the technology and not become its slaves.

Compulsive Use of Digital Devices

The use of the Internet by youth to conduct their personal business has become almost ubiquitous. In this essay, I will use the term “youth” to refer both to teenagers, age 13 to 17 years, and to young adults, 18 to 30 years. There are many differences related to the developmental stages of life of these two groups; as such, their appropriate use of digital technology will differ respectively. Individuals in both stages are transitioning from the emotional and financial dependence of adolescence, into becoming fully functioning, autonomous adults who have established their own households, are launched on a career, and have found a marriage partner. In both stages, the person is cultivating the habits and beliefs that will be the foundation for living their lives. Thus, an essential task for them is establishing relationships of all kinds.

Contemporary youth can hardly imagine maintaining a network of friends without the cell phone and social media sites. Seventy-five percent of teens and 93% of young adults own mobile phones. Nearly all adolescents and young adults go on line daily, the majority doing so more than a dozen times a day. To what purpose are they accessing the Internet? To obtain information, to acquire things, but definitely for social networking.

On the face of it, access to the Internet, and hence to SNS, is promoting frequent communication with friends. These friends are connected, at least superficially. The Internet transmits images and information almost instantaneously. You can readily post an image of the restaurant you are going to eat at, a selfie of you and your friend, a comment on the food, a comment on the friend, and a comment on the comments of your other friends. This communication has the appearance of a conversation. It appears to promote companionship; you certainly know a lot of details. But does it really enhance the relationship?

Diminishment of Personal Relationships

Sherry Turkle, a clinical psychologist and a long time researcher of the use and misuse of computer technology for human purposes, has documented1 that reliance on modern digital communication has damaged human relationships. We are substituting “sips” of Internet communication via texts, tweets, Facebook updates, and emails for authentic human-to-human conversation. Convinced by the immediacy and volume of personal information exchanged, and believing that multitasking is actually efficient, “We turn to our phones instead of each other,” with insidious interpersonal consequences.

The specific consequences are that we can no longer sustain attention to one another and that we are losing the capacity to be empathic, thereby degrading human relationships in the process. Turkle sees the proper process of conversing, which is a key to cultivating relationships, as a “virtuous circle” in which we reflect within ourselves, “alone with our thoughts,” which prepares us to talk to others. Self-reflection then leads to conversation in which both parties attend carefully to what is said, how it is said, and what is not said. Essential to the process is empathy, which encompasses one’s being able to imagine the world from another’s perspective and to conceive how the other is thinking and feeling, even if it is not fully articulated. Out of these conversations comes new material, new content to be considered in solitude, which will broaden and deepen our understanding of ourselves and others. An unintended consequence of the ubiquitous availability of digital communication technology, a technology most highly utilized by adolescents and young adults, is that while being connected 24/7, we truly know each other less well, and if we do not exercise prudence about the use of this technology, we will end up lonely and alienated.

Most youth go online multiple times a day, every day, and spend several hours a day on online activities. Youth are even sacrificing their sleep, in order to spend more time “connecting.” When connecting, you are not performing other human activities, including wholeheartedly attending to the person in front of you.

Adolescents are notorious for not wanting to converse with adults, except when they want to, and then only as long as they want to. Even before smartphones they had ways to exclude themselves from everyone else. The smartphone is always available, even in the middle of an undesirable conversation. Furthermore, there is nothing like a head down over a phone to shout “Don’t talk to me, I am busy!”

And parents with their own phones are not helping. I am sure you have experienced someone damaging a relationship with you by turning to their phone, mid-sentence. I would wager that you have done the same.

A teenager comes rushing into the home, wanting to tell Mom about the events of the day. Mother is perusing the latest Facebook postings, or searching Pinterest for a chicken recipe.

“Mom ….?”



“In a minute, dear.”

More requests for undivided parental attention, also ignored. The youth starts texting her friends, and she has over 500 on Facebook.

Later, Dad comes rushing in for dinner, taking a business call as he walks through the door. Finally, Dad arrives at the table, placing the phone directly in front of him. Everyone knows that there will be more calls, and Dad must check the baseball score, and arrange a tee-off time. The mere presence of a phone at the table will dampen conversation. Fortunately, the kids are no longer bothered; they have their earbuds in, accessing the Internet. It never turns a deaf ear.

Consider for a moment, what is pushed away to spend several hours a day digitally communicating: Sleep? A phone beside the bed will delay sleep by 30 minutes or more, and your day will start earlier with the first notification you get, always before the alarm rings.
 Meals? Breakfast and lunch are multitasking opportunities to update statuses, find out where your acquaintances are, arrange to meet, or simply chat. The volume of information sent and received, the presumed efficiency of multi-tasking, obscures an essential reality: with increasing connection, there is greater loneliness, and an inability to tolerate being alone.

Yes, you are connected, but do you know what your texting partner is thinking? Or feeling? What is not being said among the many words? Seventy percent of what is communicated derives from how it is said, what is implied, and various nonverbal gestures, none of which will be found in an email or a “like” or a status update.

Quick, superficial, frequent. Easy snippets of adulterated communication is driving out actual conversation, which can only occur face to face, which takes time, and which requires single-minded attention to the other person, followed later by reflection upon what was said. If you can no longer attend fully to the person across from you, how will you be able to be reflect upon your own thoughts?

Internet Addiction

A sad paradox of ubiquitous access to the Internet is that while it is destroying authentic relationships and creating loneliness, the answer to this situation for the compulsive Internet user is to access the Internet even more. Some paltry quality of connection is better than nothing; perhaps having a whole lot of it will finally be satisfying.

Internet Addiction is a newly identified disorder that is considered to be a behavioral addiction. Many ordinary human behaviors can be used addictively: shopping, gambling, sex, for example. Any behavior that produces an immediate positive feeling can become compulsive when used repeatedly to escape from the unpleasant. Unrestricted access to the pleasures of the Internet is most certainly compulsive.

Adolescents and young adults are especially vulnerable to Internet Addiction, given their almost universal use of digital technology. Indications that use of the Internet has become addictive are: increasing use in order to feel satisfied, unable to limit or control use, jeopardizing friend and family relationships, interfering with job or academic performance, concealing the amount of time spent, and using it excessively as means of escape from difficulties and to alleviate dysphoric mood such as depression, guilt, or anxiety. By this definition, up to ten percent of American adolescents and young adults are addicted to using the Internet.

While many use the Internet to bring joy, nothing gladdens me like pictures of grandchildren or snarky jokes sent to me. But for many others, it does not elevate mood, but rather deflates it. Aggressively pursuing connection via the Internet, i.e., spending ever increasing hours online is associated with depression. While the reasons have not been fully explicated yet, one likely factor is that human interaction is reduced, leading to isolation and alienation, which are fertile emotional states for depression. Another factor is due to social comparison. All humans examine those around them, and compare themselves in order to draw conclusions about their own personal well-being. Since social networking users will likely post only the best and brightest moments of their lives and not the mundane, boring or disappointing, by comparison my life is dull, as am I. A full picture of human life cannot be obtained via Facebook; to get that you would have to engage in a real conversation.

More alarming is that public health officials have begun to notice a previously unidentified group of adolescents at risk for depression, anxiety disorders, and suicide. This at-risk group is characterized by reduced sleep, low physical activity, and high use of social media. Ominously, they are mostly overlooked by adults because these characteristics do not show obvious.

What Can Parents Do?

Parents can do a number of things, none of which are easy. The first, the biggest, and the most difficult is for the parents or significant adults to model the appropriate Catholic use of digital technology. By that I mean to show how to use a created technological tool for a good end. The authentic connection to another human being is a far greater good than is fact-checking, multitasking, updating statuses, or posting the latest cute picture of your cat, your dinner, or your current do-it-yourself project. Any other measure which might be attempted will be seriously undermined if you can’t put your own phone away.

Be a wise-minded, assertive parent. Monitor and limit what is introduced into your home. Decide what devices may be used, how much, and how often. Monitor and censor the content. Use technology to block certain sites and to monitor what the youth is doing on the device. Some software can generate a list of sites visited. Print the list and review with the user. Consider whether you want your adolescent even to have a smartphone before he or she graduates from high school.

Schedule digital device free time each week. For example, agree as a family when to put all devices away and for particular activities like meals. Don’t allow the youth to take the device to their room in the evening or to even leave by the bed.

And please don’t despair. If you become discouraged you might abandon the effort and end up abdicating your responsibilities to limit exposure to soul-endangering activities. By not attempting to counter the harm you see, you are allowing the contemporary peer culture to dictate what is acceptable for your child to do. Obviously, the attempt will require persistence and resourcefulness.

While it is challenging, I believe parents can at least be a voice against the harmful use of the digital technology. Other technological advances have posed similar challenges, and have been put to good uses. I trust that this technology will be mastered as well.

Randall C. Flanery, Ph.D. obtained his doctorate in Clinical Psychology from the University of Wisconsin in 1983.  He is an adjunct associate professor in Family Medicine at St. Louis University School of Medicine and is Director of Webster Wellness Professionals, St. Louis, MO.  Despite being an adult convert and a child psychologist, three of his 10 children are currently pursuing religious vocations.

Comprehensive information on the use social media can be found in the Pew Report, for example: “Teens, Technology and Friendships”: www.pewinternet.org/2015/08/06.

1 Turkle, Sherry. Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. Penguin Press, New York, New York.