Tristan Gorrindo was in conversation with Stephany Tlalka, Mindful’s assistant editor, digital. Tristan Gorrindo is a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hopital.
Mindful: Why is the relationship between teens and technology so precarious at times?
Tristan Gorrindo: It’s kind of like having a new dance partner. With any new partner, you’re learning to dance and you’re invariably going to be stepping on each other’s toes. That’s the same thing with technology and teen development. The two are going to interact in ways that are going to cause problems and raise lots of questions, but that should be the expectation, right? So, we should ask: How do we give kids the tools to pick up and keep moving and at the same time empower parents to be able to set some limits and know what’s in bounds and out of bounds even if they don’t totally understand the technology?
MF: Developmentally speaking, what’s going on with kids during their teenage years?
TG: A teenager is trying to accomplish a couple different tasks. They’re going through a process of identity formation and a natural part of identity formation is separating from one’s parents. They’re trying to figure out, “Can I be different from my parents and have my own friends and my own interests but when it gets a little scary can I come back in and seek comfort with my parents?” And so this is the natural course of adolescence, which is stepping away from and then going back towards one’s parents. And that process of identity formation requires trying on lots of different hats. So one day I’m going to be goth, and the next day I’m going to be a jock, and then the next day I’m going to be, like, a really chill guy who doesn’t care about anything that’s happening in the world. You make friends and then people fall into these cliques and then these cliques break up and new cliques form—that’s part of this identity-formation process. It’s part of the process of figuring out who am I what I really value, and as I try on all these different costumes, discovering which ones resonate with me.
So that’s what is happening developmentally. Then add in neurological development. The part of the brain right behind the forehead that controls judgment and impulsivity is undergoing a rapid period of development, so adolescents are biologically more prone to making impulsive decisions. You have kids, then, who are trying to reach out and fit in and not necessarily have their parents micromanaging their lives, and you add in an element of impulsivity and poor judgment. That’s where you find kids sending off “sexts” (sexy texts) to their boyfriend, naively assuming that when they break up two weeks later, he’s not going to still have that on his phone and forward it to all his lacrosse teammates, which is an example from a high-profile case here in Massachusetts from a couple of years ago. Or we have kids who, in a fit of rage, respond in a very public way to something someone else says on Facebook, which then draws all sorts of negative attention their way.
In that emotional moment, their brain isn’t yet wired well enough to slow down and say, “Oh wait, hang on, is this really a good idea?” That was really the genesis of W.A.I.T., to give teens a structured tool they can practice and even tape a reminder of it to their laptop—a way to help them slow down by walking them through a few questions before they post something.
W.A.I.T. wasn’t really meant to be a “to post or not to post” kind of tool. My intent in coming up with it was really to try to give teens a structured way of evaluating what they’re posting to social media and get them to slow down a bit. Maybe at the end of the day, if they really want to post something that’s driven by anger or jealously, or one of those emotions, at least they’ve had a process of evaluating that thought.
MF: How much does a parent’s lack of web know-how complicate the problems teens run into online?
TG: That’s the other piece. I think parents who don’t understand the technology, I suspect lean towards either setting totally strict limits (as in: “You’re not going to be on the Internet at all”), or they are totally laissez-faire. They don’t understand the tech, don’t know how to set the limits, and so they don’t.
MF: What about the wisdom of keeping teens unplugged and offline as much as possible?
TG: Abstinence is not an option. You’re better off teaching your kids how to use these tools effectively and appropriately and help them navigate the times when they are going to trip and stumble as opposed to just trying to insulate and wall them off.
A lot of these social media sites don’t come with an instruction manual, but if parents are willing to try it, they’ll figure out pretty quickly the ways kids can use the web appropriately and where they’re going to get themselves in trouble. But it’s that psychological barrier: “Oh, tech doesn’t feel comfortable, it doesn’t feel natural, I don’t know if I can wade into this and try to figure it out, I don’t think I can trust myself to do this.” That’s the obstacle that keeps parents from really diving in.
MF: What’s the best way forward for parents, in terms of developing a rapport with their teen about web use?
TG: You really want to teach your kids before they’re teenagers, like when they’re in their later years in grade school, to come to you and be able to talk to you about what’s going on online. The problem with adolescents, and this is where the “separation” piece causes trouble, is that when a situation starts to evolve, they might try to manage it themselves, not ask for a parent’s guidance. And then often the situation just gets worse.
Also, keeping the conversation casual certainly helps. There’s a really nice opportunity for teens here: they know something more than their parents. So parents should draw on this and ask things like, “Can you explain Instagram to me?” Let your kids be your guide. Approaching from the perspective of “Teach me about this, I’m really curious about your life and what you’re using,” is much better than: “Teach me about this so I can monitor you better.” Be curious about your kid’s life and partner with them, have them teach you, and at the same time kind of establish the dialogue that mom or dad is here to help should things take a turn in an undesirable direction.