We spend a lot of time thinking and talking about teens and technology at Shelterwood. Today’s young people are deeply impacted by almost unlimited online access, smartphones and social media. Always-on technology can be a powerful tool for connection and an enemy of true social engagement.

Melissa Winston is a licensed marriage and family therapist at Shelterwood who has helped many teens and their families work through thorny technology-use issues. Melissa says kids who have grown up doing most of their connecting over technology can have trouble when it comes to interpersonal skills, especially when it comes to resolving conflict or advocating for themselves.  

“They have a really low tolerance for distress,” says Melissa. “Which makes them socially inept in many ways, because people are frustrating!” 

Melissa explains that teens need to learn how to be uncomfortable to handle communicating with people who are different than they are. It’s foundational for navigating everyday interactions, but technology can act as a buffer that prevents young people from learning those social skills. 

“Kids are struggling to feel connected. They don’t feel heard,” Melissa says. “Even through they are connected electronically 24/7, they are very disconnected relationally.” 

Dealing with tech detox
Technology use is very restricted at Shelterwood. It’s a big adjustment for teens used to having free access to their phones. Melissa says it takes a while for residents to adjust to not being able to turn to tech for a quick dopamine hit. Young people whose brains are wired for constant tech-enabled stimulation struggle with cold-turkey unplugging.  

“When they are left alone with themselves and their thoughts, it’s tough,” says Melissa. “They really struggle. But that’s where the work begins. It’s difficult to deal with your issues if you don’t know what they are! That’s a big part of our process—unpacking that.” 

Melissa says a common refrain in her therapists office is, “This is too hard.” It takes a while for teens to learn how to tolerate their feelings when their distractions are taken away. Learning to stay in the discomfort eventually allows them to process those emotions. 

“A lot of what we do is pressing in,” says Melissa. “We sit in those uncomfortable feelings and talk about what caused them. How did we get here? What do we do to manage them? How do we express ourselves in a way that can resolve this conflict?” 

START connecting in real life
To create space for that kind of deep emotional processing, Melissa encourages parents to seek out resources that can help them set developmentally appropriate technology boundaries. START (Stand Together and Rethink Technology) is a Kansas City-based nonprofit designed to do just that—while connecting families in real life

Krista Boan, START’s director of communications and curriculum, co-founded the nonprofit when she realized there were plenty of online tech guides for parents, but not enough opportunities for them to connect. 

“We realized the most powerful thing is bringing people together to have face-to-face conversations,” says Krista. “It was a rediscovery of the gift of community.”  

START piloted its facilitated workshops in the Blue Valley school district this past year and then branched out to faith communities, businesses and health care continuing education programs. They offer tips, tools and trainings, where real conversations between parents struggling with the same questions can take place. 

“You’re not alone,” Krista tells parents. “Every family we’ve ever talked to is having the same battles. If you think you’re alone, you’re not!”

Attention-grabbing tech design and constant entertainment distraction have sweeping consequences, from less time building empathy through conversation and reading to a culture-wide shortage of human eye-contract. Families everywhere are reeling from the effects. 

Everyone is struggling
Many parents feel shame when they start to talk about how their family is managing—or not managing—technology. Maybe they feel like they don’t know enough to keep up with their tech-savvy offspring. Or they gave their oldest child too much freedom and are trying to make different choices with younger ones. Or they find their own relationship with technology troubling. 

“It’s hard to talk to your kids about technology until you’re ready to say, ‘I’m struggling,too,’” says Krista. “You have to lead from a place of empathy.” 

START creates a safe environment for parents to share those struggles. START doesn’t believe in going completely tech-free or following proscriptive guidelines. Instead, the curriculum/program/organization  gives them incremental steps that can help prepare their children to become self-regulated and healthy device users.

They also talk about the importance of exposing young people to rich offline experiences. “You cannot just take tech away without giving them a transplant of something better,” Krista says. START helps parents brainstorm ways to integrate device-free zones and device-free rhythms that allow for deeper conversations and in-person relationship-building. 

“We get one life,” says Krista. “We get a limited amount of time and attention. What do we want to use it for? In what ways does technology support and enhance those things? In what ways is it an obstacle?” 

Those questions help families create a framework for technology that is centered on promoting their unique values and passions. START believes there is always time for families to recraft their relationship with technology.

“You are still the number-one influencer in your kid’s life,” Krista says. “You can carve out time for genuine connection. Your kid might act like they don’t want it, but it’s worth it. That’s our encouragement to parents: It’s never too late.”

Is your teen overusing technology or struggling to connect in real life? Let’s talk about how Shelterwood can help.