The Need for Connection: Unlimited Connectivity and Its Limiting Effect on Adolescent Relationships

Tuesday, 28 January, 2020

Elise Thrift

Have you frequented your favorite restaurant lately? If you have, it wouldn’t be out of the ordinary to see couples sitting across from one another inundated with the images on their smartphone. Just a few tables over you’ll notice the same scenario for a family of four. Both the parents, as well as the children, are connected to their screens rather than one another. This mental picture is an example of the social construct that is common today.

The “Need” for Connectivity 

In my work as a Clinical Director at Shepherds Hill Academy, I see the impact that unlimited connectivity can have on individuals and the family system. Moreover, this massive need to connect with everyone is actually limiting our deeply relational nature as humans. 

Research by Savci and Aysan (2017) found that “Technological addictions adversely affect the quality of relationship of adolescents with their peers, friends and family. This prevents the adolescent from seeing himself as a meaningful part of his relationships. Therefore, the level of social connectedness of adolescents with technological addictions decreases or the development of social connectedness is hampered” (p. 210). Unencumbered access is not only distracting but it is actually harmful. 

Technology in Residential Mental Health Care 

I have had the privilege of working with teenagers who need residential care like Shepherds Hill Academy. While the diagnoses that I address with the family are commonly mood disorders, anxiety, substance use, family discord, and oppositional behavior, there is almost always a component of technology addiction that I address. 

As my clients get used to not having their devices, it’s amazing to see their interpersonal development and core values bloom. They begin to have deep introspection about what it means to be connected to others and how technology was often a distraction from their issues. Many of the teenagers I work with know that they don’t want the unlimited access that a smartphone provides when they transition home-and most of them make the decision to limit or even eliminate social media. 

A Family’s Testimony on the Impact of Technology in Their Home 

*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of the family 

John and Karen describe the dilemma they faced as parents when introducing a smartphone. “Our child was given an iPhone when she was eleven. Within one day, she was lying to us to spend time with the phone. Within one week, she was rarely without the phone, would become insolent when we would ‘interrupt’ her. With increased age came increased dishonesty: hiding apps, inappropriate photo-posting, cyberbullying, and one social failure after another” (personal communication, January 16, 2020). The family’s story is like many I hear. In truth, their daughter began down the dangerous road of technology addiction. 

Susan, their daughter, reflected on her experience as a 17-year old at Shepherds Hill and her year without her iPhone. “Being unplugged at Shepherd’s Hill for a year, I learned how to live with a capital ‘L’. I learned to enjoy moments rather than just documenting them. Life was less stressful and I found that I actually remembered things better. What I didn’t have was an overriding feeling that I had to constantly impress someone or be someone I’m not. Without a smart phone, I made real friendships and can focus appropriately and realistically on them. When you have a smart phone, it becomes a constant leech on your hip. If you say something wrong or mess up on it, you feel like everyone – through the phone – will suck the joy right out of you. At Shepherd’s Hill, unplugged, I got to experience true Joy for the first time” (personal communication, January 16, 2020). 

The Science of the Brain : Neurobiological Impact of Technology 

The sense of well-being that she describes is actually a neurobiological change that occurred in her brain. Our knowledge about neural plasticity in the brain tells us that we can create new pathways. When we are addicted to technology, our brains emit the neurotransmitter dopamine causing a feedback loop for more and more. Interrupting this cycle, by having limited or restricted technology can create these new pathways. This change takes time and consistency but can make a dramatic difference, as in Susan’s case. 

The family made the decision to curtail a smart phone when Susan came home after 13 months in residential care. Instead, they provided her with a Gabb phone which has limited features to help Susan stay focused on the therapeutic gains she gleaned from her time away from technology. 

“We needed to mitigate distraction so that her hard work was not thwarted. We also need to provide a communication device with voice calls and texting.” They have found a noticeable difference with these new boundaries and noted that, “She processes conversations quickly and responds appropriately. She also finds her self-esteem in things other than the ‘goings-on’ on her phone” (Parents, personal communication, January 16, 2020). 

Incorporating Boundaries in the Home 

Here are a few simple steps that parents can take to implement a technology plan in the home: 

• Designate Technology Free Zones – Bedrooms, Dinner Table, Etc. 

• Promote Family Tech-Free Time – Family Game Nights, Trips, Activities 

• Have a Central Location in the Home for Technology Use 

• Designate a Time for Technology Turn Off Before Bedtime 

• Include Teens/Children in the Plan and Boundary-Setting 

• Parents are Not Excluded from the Rules! Take Part with Your Family 

I encourage every family that I work with to seriously think about the boundaries of technology and its impact on their kids. The reality is, we as adults also need to address these issues as our society continues to morph and change. Is your family taking steps to minimize the negative impact of technology in your home? The time to start planning and working together is now.  

SOURCES: Savci, M., & Aysan, F. (2017). Technological Addictions and Social Connectedness: Predictor Effect of Internet Addiction, Social Media Addiction, Digital Game Addiction and Smartphone Addiction on Social Connectedness. Dusunen Adam: Journal of Psychiatry & Neurological Sciences, 30(3), 202-216.