Digital Devices and Social Media: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

By Alison Laurio

graphic with person holding mobile phone, with YouTube, Facebook, Instagram logos in bubbles at the top

When his son said “Dad, I want to write a newsletter,” Jonathan B. Singer sat down with the 6-year-old, who he allows to use his Chromebook with permission.

“He types a title, selects the font, selects speaking, and in two or three hours, he has a four-page newsletter,” said Singer, associate professor at the Loyola University School of Social Work in Chicago and founder and host of the Social Work Podcast.

“He wanted to insert a picture, so we find a photo and I talk about copyrights,” Singer said. “Honestly, when I think back, I’m not a better person because I spent five hours typing on a typewriter and using White Out. My son is learning the same thing, and there’s no difference except he gets his newsletter in an hour instead of a day.”

There is debate over whether youths’ use of technology and social media on phones and devices is harmful or helpful. Many agree it is both: there are concerns and there are benefits. They also agree it is up to parents to be aware of what their children use, how often they use it and what they are doing on it. And, adults need to continue monitoring use—and perhaps place limits on it.

Teacher Poll

A Gallup poll of U.S. teachers in March found mixed opinions on digital-device use by students.

Forty-two percent of teachers believe the effects of digital devices on students’ education is mostly helpful. Twenty-eight percent believe it is mostly harmful, and 30 percent said it is neither.

“Meanwhile, an overwhelming majority of teachers in the U.S. (69 percent) believe students’ use of digital devices has mostly harmful effects on students’ mental health; a slightly smaller share of teachers (55 percent) express this concern with respect to students’ physical health,” Gallup states.

The poll notes 2015 research by Pearson, which found “majorities of students at all grade levels own a smartphone, including 53 percent of elementary school students, 65 percent of middle school students and 82 percent of high school students.

A Teen’s View

In 2015, Omaha North High Magnet School student Keli Wheeler, a participant in the Nebraska College Preparatory Academy, concluded in a paper titled “Social Media and the Effect on Youth” that “negative impacts of social media are starting to surface making procrastination easier and sleeping harder. These issues can only grow and increase the way that the Internet does.”

“It’s a great idea to monitor teens’ usage of media to understand what they are doing, where they are going, and how much time is really being spent on networks.”


Twitter and WhatsApp logos in bubbles

Jessica Denise Hallman Holton, MSW, LCSW, said in her private practice she is seeing some addictive qualities, not only with adolescents, but with adults too.

“I’ve seen it across all ages, from adolescence—which is pretty big—and also with adults, when social media becomes a priority over other things,” she said.

Holton, past president of NASW-NC, past chair and member of NASW’s Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drugs Specialty Practice Section Committee, vice president of Addiction Professionals of North Carolina and chair of its Professional Standards and Best Practices Committee, is researching the neuroscience of addiction for a presentation to clinicians at a nearby military base who want to learn more about process disorder.

“Social media programmers are really, really smart,” she said. “They target the reward system in our brain. It all deals with rewards.”

FMRI scans enable you to see the part of the brain light up when it gets hijacked, Holton said.

“What I observe in folks is classic,” she said. “They’re using that to cope or to make themselves numb. It’s across the board.”

The frontal lobes in youth brains—the part that likes to feel good—are not fully developed, Holton said, and social media is programmed to make the user feel good. Add the facts teens want to fit in and do not want to feel out of place, they can stay on social media until they get that good feeling.

“The good feeling comes from getting dopamine, a highly addictive hormone,” she said.

It is a problem if social media is used as an avoidance tool or the person does not want to do anything else, Holton said.

With teens it’s mostly avoidance, like when they’re feeling anxiety before a project is due, she said.

“They get online...and ah,” Holton said. “You have to help the kid understand what they’re avoiding and what they get rewarded for, and help them understand they get other rewards from giving other skills use.”

Teens should be encouraged to talk to their peers in person, not just on social media, and parents can use social media as a reward, she said. And, the phone can be put in the other room.

It is possible self-esteem is involved in social media use, said Daniel J. Flannery, PhD, the Semi J. and Ruth W. Begun Professor and Director of the Begun Center for Violence Prevention, Research and Education at the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Services at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. He also is adjunct professor in the School of Medicine and the departments of psychiatry and pediatrics.

“I certainly don’t think that link has been firmly established, but I think it’s possible kids with low or lacking self-esteem can spend more time on social media because they can control who they are,” he said. “Self-esteem is about a lot of different things: being a student, a kid and in a family. I don’t think if they have low self-esteem in one area they’re at risk.”

There are warning signs of overuse parents can watch for, like anything that prevents kids from doing daily activities, Flannery said.

“If they’re not interacting with others—peers or family—because they’re spending excessive time on social media and you see an impact on grades or behavior, it’s become a problem,” he said.

Flannery said his children, who now are young adults, used to use cell phones a lot. Now they do not like talking on the phone and are not comfortable having long conversations. Phone conversations, unlike texting or tweeting, allow you to get the tone, the emotion, the affect of the words, he said.

“You don’t get the sense of that in a text,” he said. “That’s the downside.”

Youth are not addicted to technology. If anything, they are addicted to each other. That speaks to something that's true for every generation: teenagers want to hang out with each other.

Parents should notice the changes in technology use, from the 1990s cell phone use to today, when many are using social media including texting, tweeting and Facebook to connect.

“The apps they’re using are much more prevalent, and it’s how they’re spending time,” Flannery said. “With all the technology that’s available now on social media, kids are experiencing things that are more immediate and more intense. Things like school shootings, mass shootings, natural disasters. And that stuff is repeated over and over and over. It’s constantly popping up all the time.”

“Maybe some kids who don’t let things bother them are OK. But some are more sensitive and have a hard time when dealing with the overexposure of sensitive stuff. If that’s what you think is normal, your sense of security can be off-kilter.”

If it’s a school shooting, no matter where it is, when they see it over and over on social media, they might not feel safe and may not want to go to school, he said.

From video games to TV and movies to the Internet and social media, violence is everywhere, Flannery said.

“I don’t think we can get away from the responsibility we have as adults, parents, teachers, caregivers, to keep our eyes and ears open to what’s going on, because some kids may not handle it well,” he said.

graphic of mobile phone with app icons

Singer, PhD, LCSW, believes for some youth, there is an experience that is similar to addiction.

“Some using technology such as games and getting feedback has a similar effect as a slot machine,” he said. “I see youth and technology like (author) Danah Boyd. Youth are not addicted to technology. If anything, they are addicted to each other. That speaks to something that’s true for every generation: teenagers want to hang out with each other.”

Because adolescents’ brains are hardwired to seek out rewards and risks, they are neurologically prone to addiction. They have intense longings and feel euphoria at a first kiss or bliss if someone says “I like you,” and their brain is hardwired to seek out those feelings, Singer said.

“The Internet and technology is built by programmers who use the same techniques as with gambling,” he said. “The mechanism of addiction is similar regardless of the thing one gets addicted to.”

Singer said it is really hard to do anything these days without technology, but if an adolescent has FOMO, or fear of missing out, and is constantly checking to see, “there is a problem.”

“It’s nuanced,” he said. “It’s why you’re doing it and what that means.”

Safety Issues

The issue of safety has two sides. When a problem or crisis comes up, whether it is relatively small like a teen getting a flat tire on the car or running late in getting home, to some of the school shootings where children are talking to or texting their parents while it is happening, having that connection through technology is helpful.

“We all probably feel a little bit safer if there’s a phone to give parents real-time updates,” Holton said. “Absolutely, having these devices helps.”

On the other side, she said, is something important.

“With pornography, the kids who are watching it are younger and younger,” Holton said. “It’s at their fingertips. It’s accessible. It’s giving adolescent boys a false perception of what sex is and girls a false perception of how they’re supposed to act.”

“We’ve done a horrible job by not talking to kids about sex. We have to talk about sex with kids.” Singer agrees, and also said for 10-year-olds to stumble on and take quizzes on things like “What kind of person are you?” exposes kids to things that are not developmentally appropriate. “These are things parents should be looking out for.”

Even good kids will do things to evade their parents. Kids are savvy, and adolescents can be manipulative if you want to know what they are doing.

Flannery said social media and cell phones are useful beyond cases where something goes awry, like their child getting sick at school and needing to come home.

“I do think the advent of cell phones has been a positive for parents interested in monitoring their kids and staying in contact with them,” he said. “But, even good kids will do things to evade their parents.”

“Kids are savvy, and adolescents can be manipulative if you want to know what they are doing. Some parents put a tracking device on their children’s phone. It’s a useful tool if you’re a parent, particularly if you’re a single parent with multiple kids.”


There are good things about the connectivity technology provides, Flannery said.

“Social media allows children to be exposed to more people and more stuff in the outside world,” he said. “My 16-year-old has a Chromebook that’s required for school. It has access to information, digital art and things like that. People aren’t avoiding the technology and the benefit of it.”

A benefit for parents is knowing they have the capacity to stay in touch with their children, he said.

“There’s comfort in knowing you are able to contact them if something happens,” Flannery said. “It’s much safer if something happens because you’re able to get in touch more quickly. If your child is disabled, that’s especially important.”

Singer said he has two sons who are 6 years old and a daughter, age 10.

“They don’t have to put the brakes on their fascination of the world,” he said. “If they want to know how much a blue whale weighs, they can go to Google. It’s something they know they have—all the collected wisdom of the last 100,000 years at their fingertips.”

Snapchat, Facebook and Vine logos in bubbles

“They’re going to learn things that we can never imagine. To them, knowledge is theirs for the taking.”

Although social media use might cut down on face-to-face interaction, children still are having interpersonal communication, Singer said. For example, take a 13-year-old who goes to a fairly affluent school who is not interested in or cannot afford many of the things classmates do.

If that student hangs out online and shares his interests, like snapping photos and his favorite music, that is interpersonal connection, he said. It’s just happening online.

“At age 13, I wanted to go to the roller rink with friends or go to the arcade with friends and play games,” Singer said. “Those are all things kids are doing online. The things they are doing are the same, it’s just seen differently.”

Another way kids communicate with each other is through apps, he said.

“They’re using Instagram as a way of sharing,” Singer said. “Some teens create a mini movie of ‘my day’ that lasts for 24 hours and then is deleted.”

Apps have become important in health too, through the development of apps that explicitly target certain behaviors, like those that help kids develop mindfulness skills or others that help in a crisis. There is a suicide-prevention app for those at risk that can walk them through why it’s worth living, he said.

A Parent’s Role

Some teens might be going on the Internet to look at pictures of people cutting, burning or starving themselves, Singer said, and that’s why parents have to know what technology is on their childrens’ phones and know how they are using that information.

Because teenagers are teenagers and their brains are developing, parents need to assist them, Holton said.

“First and foremost is modeling,” she said. “If a parent tells them one thing but does the opposite, they watch that. Everybody needs a bit of a break from technology, and parents definitely have to model that by showing we don’t have to be on the phone all the time.”

Parents also need to make sure children are not using social media as an escape, Holton said. They should know who they are talking to, what they are doing and whether that is helpful or harmful. Then, they need to set and explain rules.

“Of course, the grown-ups have to follow those rules too,” she said.

Taking away social media is probably one of the most used punishments, Singer said.

“It used to be ‘you’re grounded’ or ‘you can’t go outside,’ but that doesn’t work these days,” he said.

Singer said there are things parents can do to monitor use: know what apps are on the phone, know what those apps do and know what the risks are for those apps.

Parents also should know how kids are using those apps, he said, and websites like Common Sense Media have app reviews.

Flannery said once you give a 16-year-old access to the World Wide Web and all that’s on it, you have to remember not everything on it are things you want kids exposed to. They have to be aware what their kids are looking at.

The keywords are awareness and monitoring, he said.

I think our responsibility as parents is to recognize how our kids are doing. If they're spending a lot of time on the Internet and they seem depressed, ask what's going on. Always set a time in the evening to unplug.

“Parents should exert controls depending on the age of the child,” Flannery said. “They should monitor what social media is used and the time it’s used. First they need to make sure it’s appropriate.”

“I think our responsibility as parents is to recognize how our kids are doing. If they’re spending a lot of time on the Internet and they seem depressed, ask what’s going on. Always set a time in the evening to unplug. All those things matter.”

It’s OK to take away the phones from time to time, and always know what their passwords are, he said.

When it comes to apps that can improve quality of life, Singer pointed to the Virtual Hope Box, an app developed by the military for soldiers.

“It takes the old idea of putting good memories in an old cigar box—things like pictures, ticket stubs, things we used to do, things that made you happy, things that gave you hope,” he said.

The app allows that same collection of good memories and keeps them online.

“It allows you to collect things that are very personal and very life affirming,” Singer said. “If you’re feeling sad and wonder if this world is for you, you can open it up, look at them and you feel better.”

“And it’s something you carry with you all the time because it’s on your phone.”

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