Managing our teenagers’ online obsessions
Written by: Jo Lamble, Psychologist
In my office, the biggest concern parents have is how to deal with their teenagers’ screen time. We didn’t grow up with the internet, so we can find it really hard to relate to being continuously online. It’s not just foreign to us, it’s scary.
But we really need to understand how hard it is for them to manage their online behaviour. Adolescents don’t have strong willpower (even less than us) and they have a general fear of missing out. So imagine how hard it must be to concentrate on your homework if the temptation to go online is always there. It must be so difficult to study or do music practice or even watch TV with the family, when their friends are forever in the wings. Our main message to our kids needs to be: You’re normal for wanting to be continuously online. Let us help you to manage this because it’s going to be hard for you to do it on your own.
A concerned mum sent in the following email:
Sam (different name) has always loved playing cards and video games. He’s a bright kid and someone who loves the stimulation of using two screens at once. Recently, he’s discovered poker. It started innocently enough with him playing with his friends. We even played a few games with him just for fun. But it seems he’s become increasingly more obsessive about it, especially since discovering online poker. He has got to the point that he will play 10 hands in one go using two screens. And he plays for money now but says he tracks his spend on an excel sheet. His girlfriend doesn’t like it and it’s caused a few issues with them. We have talked to him about the dangers of this becoming a real problem but he is very defensive. He’s also told us he wants to travel – to Las Vegas that is. We have also noticed that he has switched his computer from poker to something else when we’ve walked into the room. He is 19 and a university student. Should we be worried? How do we talk to him? Should we not play poker with him?
Online gambling is so accessible to our teens, so Sam’s story is not unusual. It’s sad that playing a game of poker with our teens can feel dangerous these days. Signs that your teenager may be experiencing issues with gambling include:
- Spending increasing amounts of time gambling
- Finding it very difficult to cope when the internet is off or they can’t gamble
- Using money they can’t afford
- The gambling is interfering with their ability to function – study, sleep, spend time with friends and family
- Lying or being secretive about their behaviour
If your teenager is displaying these signs, it’s time for a gentle chat. Choose a time when you can be alone with them and outline your concerns based on what you’ve noticed. Make it clear that they’re not in trouble. You just want to help. Gently warn them about the pitfalls of gambling and suggest ways you can work together to curb the obsessive behaviour.
Whether your child is gambling online or are forever on Facebook or YouTube, many of us can relate to this mother.
Here are some general strategies to manage your teenager’s online behaviour:
Don’t put your head in the sand
Many parents only use the internet for email or to Google something, so it’s hard to understand what their kids are doing online. It’s important that we try to keep up to date with online and social media trends. Otherwise we lose credibility when we discuss it with them.
Don’t be judgmental
If teenagers sense that we are judging them or their friends, communication becomes difficult. You can show concern, but steer away from saying what they’re doing is ridiculous or wrong or a waste of time (even if you think it).
Encourage them to show you what they like to do online
We can learn a lot from our teenagers, especially when it comes to the internet. Openly asking them to show you what they like doing online is better than snooping, which can destroy trust.
Make a contract
Because most parents are paying for their teenager’s internet access, we have every right to negotiate how they use it. It can be a good idea to set up a contract with them outlining hours of use and what they’re allowed to do and not allowed to do. Give them a say on what goes into the contract because then they’re more likely to stick to it. You might, for example agree that there are no screens at dinner and gaming can only happen in communal areas. Make the consequences of breaking it very clear and try to follow through on these consequences. The details of the contract should be reviewed every year because the rules can change as they get older.
Find out how we can help our kids love the game, not the odds.