Daughter and mother
by Ellen Belluomini, LCSW
As if parenting during the teenage years was not hard enough—now enter the progress of technology. Technology can add function and dysfunction to the family system. The role of the social work practitioner is to identify technology’s role and use it as an advantage in the therapeutic process. A social worker will investigate, evaluate, and use appropriate interventions with parents struggling with their adolescent children. What parent would have thought their child would send nude pictures of herself on Snapchat or meet strangers on Tinder for hook-ups? Parents cannot turn a blind eye to the next advancing trend or slang term in social media.
Adolescence is a normal time for taking risks and learning to make decisions without parents. Technology gives teens autonomy. More than 80% of adolescents use a smartphone to text, keep up with social media, e-mail, and play games. While adults use Facebook to connect with their friends, their teens drift to other platforms, such as instant messaging apps, Instagram, or the latest trending social media site. The popularity of apps and their uses changes frequently. As soon as I hear a client discuss a new application, I research the potential effect it may have on the client, both positive and negative. Parents should be taught to do the same with apps their children are using.
Determining how technology fits into the identifying problem or solution is a skill. Unfortunately, because of the rate of change in innovations, adolescents are often at risk as technology progresses. A social worker will need to identify and address three areas specific to technology during treatment of the family system—boundaries, education, and resources.
Defining boundaries helps adolescents learn to set limits and create an area of safety for exploration into adulthood. Through boundaries, parents can protect an adolescent from unintentionally placing himself or herself at risk. Social workers help set the boundaries, working with the family to define healthy autonomy versus behaviors affecting the child’s mental health.
Boundaries can be in the form of time limits, sharing information about the adolescent’s use of technology platforms, limits on types of technology used, or behavior expectations of the adolescent. Parents can create a contract for smartphone usage requiring the child to discuss with the parent any new applications downloaded. Parents and children can then have discussions about the application and create boundaries around usage.
Education About Technology
Education in family therapy about an adolescent’s technology use is not just about explaining technology patterns to parents. Education includes context, content, and process. What is the context (beliefs or intentions) of why the technology is being used? How is the content affecting the behavior of the adolescent? What process will be used to optimally shift the adolescent from destructive to constructive behavior?
Families can use this structure in the future to evaluate adolescents’ behavior. Adolescents may be upset because their friends all have boyfriends or girlfriends, but they do not. They join a chatting/dating application. Parents can discuss with their adolescents the risks of these types of sites and expose them to a healthier platform to meet friends.
Depending on the severity or types of behaviors the adolescent is exhibiting, technological resources can add therapeutic value or safety measures. Because of the popularity of app usage with teenagers, therapeutic apps can increase treatment adherence. Apps can focus on types of therapy (CBT, DBT) or tools, such as diet monitoring and mindfulness programs. Adolescents seem more engaged with technology tracking instead of a paper chart. If an adolescent is exhibiting unsafe behavior placing him or herself at risk for harm, parents have tracking options. Programs now exist to track movement through GPS or negative car behaviors while driving. Apps are always improving, including tracking of social media activity, setting up boundaries for cell phone usage, and overall “spying” on any technological platform. Social workers must be mindful of these types of spyware and the impact of this behavior on the family system. Spying can be addictive and destructive. This technology in the hands of an overly strict or authoritarian parent would cause more grief than good.
If used correctly, technology can provide parents with a new type of connection to their children. Adolescents may balk at being given boundaries, but numerous studies support an increase in parental connection that constructive boundaries create in a parent-child bond.
Social workers need to consider the impact multiple levels of technology usage brings to the family system. Parents can then use the power of technology to heal the family.
Ellen M. Belluomini, LCSW, received her MSW from the University of Illinois, Jane Addams School of Social Work and is currently a doctoral student at Walden University. She is a lecturer at Dominican University. She has developed online and blended curricula with an emphasis on integrating technology into human services practice. She writes a blog, Bridging the Digital Divide in Social Work Practice, to increase awareness about technology’s uses. She presents and consults on various issues related to social services. Her clinical work has been in private practice, management of nonprofit agencies, and programming for vulnerable populations.