For the first time in more than two decades, suicide is killing more teenagers than homicide. Teen suicide is on the rise. Time Magazine reports that anxiety and depression is skyrocketing with an estimated 30% of girls and 20% of boys (about 6.3 million teens) have reported anxiety disorders and three million teens ages 12 to 17 having had at least one major depressive episode.
The question we need to be asking is not just “Why?” but “what is the answer to changing the tide that is engulfing our suicidal and anxious youth?" This generation is desperate for help…so what do we have to offer? Where do we, professionals, begin? I propose that we need to begin with looking at the society our children now live in. I believe that the “iFamily”, the family centered around technology, is the new normal and the root cause of many of our teen’s struggles.
What is an iFamily?
These are the signs that you have encountered an "iFamily" if…
- Parents and kids are texting each other in conversation instead of talking over dinner.
- Pictures on wall, board games, and family night are replaced by a flat screen TV in every room, computer games, and time spent alone on sites like Facebook, Instagram, or Netflix.
- Family members exhibit “nature-deficit disorder.” They spend hours online and indoors rather than hiking, swimming, or other outdoor activities.
- Family members go directly to technology when they feel depressed or feel any negative feelings instead of talking to one another.
- Family members are constantly checking their social accounts instead of talking with one another.
- One or more family members feel withdrawal symptoms (angry, irritated, or depressed) if they are away from technology or the internet for longer than a day.
- A parent tries to “friend” their teen on Facebook to communicate with them instead of knocking on their bedroom door and asking to talk.
A teenager shows sudden signs of depression or anxiety almost overnight and their social accounts more frequently. This may be a sign of cyberbullying.
What Did Steve Jobs of Apple Know?
Here is the irony. Most people know that Steve Jobs introduced the first iPhone in 2007 and the first iPad in 2010.
But did you know that Steve Jobs and his wife rarely let their own children use these same devices? Nick Bilton in his NY Times article, Steve Jobs Was a Low Tech Parent, wrote:
So, your kids must love the iPad?” I asked Mr. Jobs, trying to change the subject. The company’s first tablet was just hitting the shelves. “They haven’t used it,” he told me. “We limit how much technology our kids use at home.... Every evening Steve made a point of having dinner at the big long table in their kitchen, discussing books and history and a variety of things,” he said. “No one ever pulled out an iPad or [Apple] computer."
When and If Technology Should Be Given?
Currently, the average age for a child getting their first smartphone is 10.3 years of age. This is too young because the prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain that controls impulse, does not finish developing until the mid-20s. Therefore, younger children with smartphones lack impulse control and are extremely vulnerable to addiction. Common Sense Media polled 1,240 parents and children and found 50 percent of the children admitted that they were addicted to their smartphone.
One popular option is to start the child off with dumbed-down mobile devices, like feature phones that can only send text messages or place phone calls, and to assess whether they can use those devices responsibly. This close monitoring will bring about both trust and safety.
And because of prefrontal cortex development, impulse control risks, and addiction, I recommend raising the age from 10.3 to 16 years old or higher and with the use of dumbed-down devices.
Causes of the iFamily, Teen Suicide, and Other Mental Health Problems
Regardless of when and where technology is introduced, Steve Jobs knew what many of us don’t- Technology cannot be a supplement or substitute for family connection and quality time between parent and child. This is because the direct link between an iFamily and a lack of emotional connection can be profound. Research studies support this link.
A recent study published in the Journal Clinical Psychological Science, showed that the use of electronic devices including smartphones has more than doubled to five hours per day from 8 percent in 2009 to 19 percent in 2015.
Teenagers who spent the most time glued to their phones were 70 percent more likely to have suicidal thoughts or actions than those who reported one hour of use per day.
In other words, it is a major concern if family members go directly to technology when they feel depressed or any negative feelings instead of talking to one another. This lack of emotional connection between parent and teenager can become the perfect storm when a crisis hits such as being bullied in school or drug addiction.
One Solution: Reconnecting Parent and Teenager
However, just because a family fits the criteria for an iFamily does not mean that their teenager will become suicidal or experience anxiety, depression, or other mental problems. The key is that an iFamily environment causes its members to be less connected and more vulnerable to stress or crisis. It is analogous to someone who may be immune deficit and therefore more susceptible to colds or other illnesses.
Therefore, one of the best potential solutions for problems and potential issues within an iFamily is preventive maintenance before a crisis hits or to actively increase emotional bonds if the child or teenager is currently depressed or suicidal.
An Ounce of Prevention
The Number #1 tool or technique we use at the Family Systems Trauma Institute is called the Positive Teen Report (PTR).
The PTR provides a clear road map for the parent or caregiver to inject consistent unconditional nurturance and bonding. This tool establishes lost emotional connections between parent and child. In turn, this counteracts the negative effects from an iFamily environment.
For example, if a teenager or parent goes directly to technology when they feel depressed or feels any negative feelings, the PTR interrupts this routine by allowing the parent and teen to emotionally bond each day. It is both prevention and a jump start solution if the teenager is already experiencing mental health issues.
Using this technique, the parent or caregiver hands their teenager an average of 1 PTR per day unconditionally. The PTR will be handed to the teen in person and read off by the parent or playfully and creatively given in the following manner:
- Hidden in the teen’s cereal box
- Placed on the teen’s pillow with a stuffed animal
- Sent by mail
- Put in their lunch box
- Drawn on their bathroom mirror with a wax pencil
The PTR in Action
To jump start this iFamily toward solutions, the therapist provided the father with the PTR trauma playbook and conducted role plays without the son present until he mastered the PTR delivery. The therapist played the part of Michael (the son) while dad played himself. The therapist then troubleshooted every possible negative reaction Michael might have. For example, what would the father do if Michael initially rejected the PTR offer, threw it away, or acted as if they didn’t care? When the father was ready, the therapist brought Michael in for a dry run.
Within two weeks the change was nothing short of miraculous. The PTR served as a catalyst to repair the torn bond between the father and son. Instead of turning to technology, they turned to one another. In turn, Michael started coming out of his room and father and son began to spend time together on the weekends.
Not every iFamily will have this kind of transformation. However, the PTR is a concrete technique to get a emotionally disconnected family unstuck or prevent disconnectedness all together.
If technology can cause a teenager or parent to become distant or isolated, a technique or tool like the PTR can fill in the missing gaps. Human beings crave emotional bonding and something as small as the PTR can go along way to jump starting the process. It can help move a depressed, anxious, or suicidal teenager from a place of hopelessness to one of hope.
Steve Jobs recognized the risk of technology in families even before iPhone and iPads became the new normal. He and his family fought for emotional connectedness with their children. The PTR represents a concrete solution to show parents how to reclaim their offspring from the negative impact of technology and how to bring a suicidal, anxious, or depressed teenager back from the brink.
The iFamily and its Link to Rising Teen Suicides: Causes and Solutions was originally posted on familytrauma.com.
Scott P. Sells, PhD, MSW, LCSW, LMFT, is the author of three best-selling books, Treating the Tough Adolescent: A Family-Based, Step-by-Step Guide (1998), Parenting Your Out-of-Control Teenager: 7 Steps to Reestablish Authority and Reclaim Love (2001), and Treating the Traumatized Child: A Step-by Step Family Systems Approach (2017). He can be contacted at email@example.com or through LinkedIn.