The Need to Re-examine How Teens Use Texting in the 21st Century

Most middle school and high school students have grown up with smart phones and computers for gaming and texting their friends.  The fact that they have grown up with technology being part of their daily lives is an important fact we need to remember.  However, there are also parents concerns about how much time their children are spending online.  Parents worry about if this is healthy for their childrens physical and emotional development.  Additionally, this brings up the common argument about how much time teens are spending on line.  Many parents have concerns that their teenager is addicted to their smart phones and gaming.  Teenagers feel that their parents are over reacting and they can’t become addicted to their devices.  Teenagers also feel that their parents do not understand that they have grown up with technology and texting is the way teenagers communicate in the 21st century.

Due to the Coronavirus, gaming is being examined very closely.  During quarantine and since the pandemic has started gaming and texting have become the primary way teenagers have remained in contact with each other.  Furthermore, gaming and texting are the safest way for teenagers to remain in contact with each other during the pandemic and until we have the coronavirus under control.  Think about it, places such as movie theaters and malls were closed for awhile and some are just now partially reopening.  Therefore, gamine continues to provide a safe way to hang out with friends.  This is very important to teenagers social development at their age.  Additionally, research is showing that teenagers who have little access to normal social activities are becoming depressed and anxious during the pandemic (CDC).  Therefore, we need to re-evaluate the issue of gaming during the pandemic.

Now the truth is teenagers can become addicted to their computer devices and gaming.  The World Health Organization (WHO) took a step this year and classified “Gaming Disorder” as a formal diagnosis.  As I stated, many parents have been concerned about this for years. Also it does not just impact teenagers, as many may think.  I have had couples come in for marriage counseling because Gaming was destroying a marriage.  For several years the American Psychological Association has said it would be adding Gaming addiction as a formal diagnosis to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, however, so far the APA has not been able to decide on the specific criteria for this diagnosis.  What the WHO has done is they have acknowledged what many parents have been reporting for years and helping us to take a step so it is acknowledged as a diagnosis.  While it is a diagnosis according to the WHO, gaming again is one of the safe activities teenagers can engage in during the pandemic.  This does create a difficult situation.

The United States appears to be behind other countries in identifying that video game addiction does exist and does create problems for individuals and families.  Seoul, South Korea and Tokyo, Japan have inpatient treatment centers for gaming addiction.  These rehabilitation centers have been open for years and have treated thousands of people over the years.  Therefore, other countries have acknowledged Gaming addiction.  However, parents in the United States parents are still worrying about it and debating the issue because the United States does not acknowledge the diagnosis yet.

As a psychotherapist who treats teenagers, I would have to agree with the parents and I say Gaming addiction is real.  I have seen teenagers become violent, punching holes in walls or physically threatening their parents, if there video games or cellphones are taken away as a punishment.  Teenagers have told me they cannot function without their video games or cellphones and will do anything to get them back. This sounds like and looks like a problem to me.  A cellphone or PlayStation should not be a teenager’s life line.

However, as I stated above, the pandemic does create a different situation regarding teenagers gaming online with friends.  Since this is a safe way for teenagers to maintain social contacts, I think we need to create new guidelines for the pandemic.  Parents are aware that teenagers can become addicted, but they can monitor how their teenagers are acting before and after using electronics.  Additionally, we do need to remember that teenagers today have grown up with electronics as part of their daily lives since they were infants.  They have a very different experience and relationship with technology and gaming than adults do.  Most adults started using cellphones and gaming in their 20s.  Therefore, the way teenagers experience technology today is most likely very different than how their parents relate to it. We need to consider this fact when we establish rules for how teenagers can use texting and gaming.  We also need more research examining this issue.

The statement from the WHO states that the Gaming must be interfering with activities of daily life, such as homework, and be present for at least a year.  These guidelines seem sensible to me.  Also the WHO cautions that issues such as depression and anxiety need to be ruled out before assigning the diagnosis of Gaming Addiction.  Many teenagers who are depressed or dealing with severe anxiety do self-medicate with video games.  Finally, the WHO states your child needs to be evaluated by a mental health clinician who specializes in treating and assessing children and teenagers.  This is very important because typically children and teenagers do not always have the typical symptoms we associate with depression or anxiety.  A clinician experienced in assessing children and teenagers can make the appropriate diagnosis.  Given these guidelines it appears to me that parents can allow teenagers to use their electronics more during this time of the pandemic.  Parents can make sure to balance electronic time with other activities such as exercise.  Furthermore, parents need to be observing their teenagers mood on a daily basis.  If the teen is looking depressed or acting anxious then the parents need to schedule a time to have their teenager evaluated by a mental health professional who specializes in treating children and teenagers. 

I have included a link to a segment on Good Morning America which discusses the diagnosis and other issues I have discussed to assist you in understanding what the WHO is referring to with Gaming Addiction, https://youtu.be/axG1tLdutmY.

The World Health Organization has taken an important step in helping us understand and define a problem many parents have been reporting for years.  This is not a bad thing.  I view it as a positive step. Technology is moving very fast.  In fact, it is moving so fast we cannot keep up with all the new issues we need to deal with as a result of new technology.  The more we understand this technology the more we all can benefit and avoid potential serious problems.

With that be stated, the Coronavirus pandemic does present parents and teenagers with a entirely new set of issues.  The pandemic points out the different relationship teenagers have with technology because it has been part of their lives since they were born.  Therefore, we need to pay attention to this fact and do more research examining how growing up with technology differs from having technology introduced to your life during college.  We may find some very unique findings which may change how we look at technology and our expectations for teenagers.

Dr. Michael Rubino is a psychotherapist with over 24 years experience treating and assessing children, teenagers and trauma victims.  For more information about his work visit his website www.RubinoCounseling.com or Facebook page www.Facebook.com/drrubino3. 

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