The penetration of technology into our lives is undeniable, and perhaps this is especially noticeable in adolescents. According to the National Institute of Statistics (2022), 94.9% of minors between 10 and 15 years old have used the internet in the last 3 months and 69.5% of them have a mobile phone. Furthermore, according to a recent UNICEF report (2021) , 98.5% of Spanish adolescents are registered on a social network, while 83.5% are registered on more than three social networks.
One of the activities most carried out by adolescents (even before the legally permitted age, a fact that is particularly worrying) is using social networks.
These data only support what we see every day, and that is that the use of the Internet and telephone is massive and normative among the youngest.
Problematic use and addiction, are they the same?
The approach that has been mostly used to address behaviors related to the use or abuse of social networks (and other uses of technology) by adolescents has been that of addiction . However, this approach has conceptual limitations and often involves an unnecessary pathologization of everyday life.
In contrast to the use of the term addiction, we (like other authors) prefer to talk about problematic use.
In opposition to the predominant model of addiction, which is nourished by criteria related to substances such as tolerance or abstinence, the problematic use model conceives that a set of cognitive processes and behaviors can become dysfunctional and lead to negative consequences.
In this way, dimensions such as a high preference for online interaction and emotional regulation through social networks may be linked to poor self-regulation (characterized by a constant worry about being online and compulsive use of social networks).
The negative consequences for the user are: interpersonal problems (loss of relationships with significant others or abandonment of other pleasurable activities or school) and intrapersonal problems (for example, the feeling of having lost control over one’s own life). These negative consequences are the key to talking about problematic use.
Is it the norm or the exception?
The aforementioned UNICEF report estimated at 33% the percentage of adolescents who would be making problematic use of the Internet and social networks. Another recent study qualifies this percentage and presents more encouraging data, estimating the number of adolescents who are at risk of presenting problematic use at 13.2% and adolescents who clearly make problematic use of social networks at 2.9%.
We are then talking about a range between 2.9% and 33% and possibly reality is, as almost always, somewhere in the middle.
The differences between both studies focus on the evaluation instrument used and how problematic use is conceptualized. In any case, and to the question that heads this article, there is no other answer than a categorical denial on the part of the authors.
How can we help them?
Although the percentage of those affected is debatable, what we do know is that there are many boys and girls potentially affected. This should lead us to educate and train in the correct use of social networks. To do this, we would like to provide some suggestions to families and adolescents.
For families the message is to get involved: navigate with them, educate them in correct use, maximizing benefits and reducing risks. It can be achieved with the following strategies:
- Social media and technology are not inherently bad. On the contrary, they are full of opportunities and possibilities. Although we understand that it is an object of fear, its restriction is in no way a guarantee of success.
- Before they enter the world of technology, it is essential to provide them with specific knowledge to maximize the possibilities of balanced, safe and useful use of social networks. This includes skills in questioning the accuracy of content, recognizing signs of problematic use, building healthy relationships through social media (and face to face), resolving conflicts on social platforms, providing critical thinking, or avoiding harmful comparisons.
- The use of social networks should be based on the maturity level of each adolescent, so adult supervision and adaptation of the functions and permissions of the platforms based on age is recommended.
- Parental contracts for the use of technology can be a powerful ally in the first steps. Compliance with goals and agreements establishes a basis for trust and greater possibilities of use. In the same way, transgressions, whether due to content or time of use, must be accompanied by agreed upon and known consequences. It is important that the use process is consensual and in relation to the skills shown.
Tips for children and adolescents
- As a user you must be aware of the use (sometimes abuse) you make of social networks. Their purpose should be to provide us with value and facilitate communication and relationships. If our concern for them is greater than what they give us, we are not making good use of them.
- The fact that we can use them continuously is not a reason to do so. Knowing the actual usage time we spend (there are applications for this) can help us consciously gradually reduce it.
- It is not necessary to activate notifications for everything and not be constantly connected. Social networks are just another tool but we have to be the ones who decide when we want to use them. It is advisable to turn off notifications and choose certain times a day to update ourselves: review and respond to messages and publications.
Author Bios: Juan Manuel Machimbarrena is Associate Professor of the Department of Clinical and Health Psychology and Research Methodology, Alexander Muela Aparicio works at the University of the Basque Country / Euskal Herriko Unibertsitatea, Joaquín Manuel González Cabrera is a Teacher and Researcher. University Full Professor (Level 1). Currently, Principal Investigator of the Emotional Wellbeing Area at the Institute of Transfer and Research (ITEI) and Principal Investigator of the Cyberpsychology Group (UNIR) at UNIR – International University of La Rioja and Miriam N. Varona is a Mental Health Nurse and doctoral student at the Faculty of Psychology of the UPV/EHU