Priming the Pump November 2016

Written by Miquela de Rivera, Ph D

Help! I’m texting, and I can’t stop!

Students can be “all thumbs”—not clumsy in the conventional sense but with head down, eyes on the cell phone, thumbs flying.  Digital technology has become the nemesis of some teachers, parents and friends.  Many teens and young adults find themselves compelled to be online or using social media continuously yet making it distracting and disruptive, especially in the classroom, during study time or when interacting with others.
The limits and guidelines for internet and social media use are best set by parents when children first begin using technology.  (I knew Latino parents who bought their four-year-old daughter an iPad “because she wanted one,” and they thought it would help her fit in with others, only to have her step on and destroy it within a week of purchase.  Common sense still matters, even with technology). Teens and young adults, however, find themselves addicted to their phones, unable to curb the compulsion to check apps, the internet and other social media for even a few minutes.
Parents of younger Hispanic children are wise to master technology and set some basic ground rules for its use: parents have complete access to the child’s use of the computer or phone; dangerous or inappropriate sites or video games are inaccessible; electronic or “screen” time is limited; and all electronic devices are off between 9:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m. (and to make sure, children are often required to turn in their devices to their parents during those times to assure that there is no sneak usage).  Since relationships in Latino families are primary, a child focusing on electronics during personal family time would be considered rude and inappropriate.  Prohibiting cell phone access or use during meals or other face-to-face interactions helps encourage traditional values of respect and connection with family. 
If someone minimizes or denies their struggle to curb iPhone use, look for indicators.
If digital relationships—through games, dating sites, chatrooms or other venues—are more common than in vivo face-to-face relationships, deeper personal connections lag. Sexting and fantasy sites can be highly addictive and dangerous. Online behavioral addictions such as gambling, gaming, auction bidding, online trading or shopping can interfere with everyday functioning.  
Online activity can release brain chemicals that soothe or stimulate, similar to drugs, thus their addictive power.  While those internet activities or social media connections can quell social anxiety or dissipate fear of relationships, they ultimately worsen them.  And while digital technology is initially designed to make work easier, it can enslave the person who is always “on,” answering phone or text messages around the clock.  The blue light on the screen of a digital device disrupts sleep because of its wavelength.  And those who struggle with attention problems will find the problem worsening—a challenge for students and teachers alike at any academic level.  A digital addiction can result in social isolation, heightened self-absorption, decreased self-esteem (the lives of others always look better on Facebook even if postings are exaggerated or false), incomplete tasks, lying to cover up usage and ongoing anxiety about what is being transmitted.  
For those in the throes of digital compulsion, instituting some guidelines—whether self-imposed or set by others—can help.
Limit times when the device is within reach or on.  Class time, library or study hours, mealtimes and during sleep are the basics.  Arrange digital settings where notifications are saved instead of immediate and allow notifications, emails and texts to be checked only two- to three-times a day for a limited amount of time (30 minutes is typically reasonable check-in period, if time permits).  If a person copes by going online, but online use is now a problem, consider other ways of handling anxiety, depression or fear.  Exercise, a support group that meets in person and engagement in a hobby or other cause can reduce an addictive online dependence.  
Completely stopping social media or other online use is typically not reasonable or feasible because students use computers for their work.  Whether reading online, researching a project or writing an assignment, computer use makes sense.  Cutting down digital time is more reasonable than total shutdown.  If someone needs help cutting down, try limiting use to legitimate study time only and otherwise go completely without a digital connection—with help from others.   •