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Written by Sue Younger, MA(Hons), MCW (Hons), DipTchg, DipProfEth, Trustee

The digital world changes rapidly. Parents and caregivers can feel powerless when the online landscape is unrecognisable from when they were themselves adolescents. Digital devices might seem like portals to a world that will swallow their rangatahi whole, a confusing world where their caregivers cannot follow their young people.

But parents should feel reassured that the offline and online worlds are more interconnected than they think. In much the same way that, although we can’t follow them to school, yet we have a role to play in the way they negotiate school, parents are important in the way their children will behave online also. If you are doing your best and parenting with love and common sense offline, then chances are ‘you’ve got this’ online also.

While every family has different circumstances, making sure that rangatahi are not online too much of their time, being aware of the kinds of activities they are choosing and being there for support when they need it are all important. This is just one more aspect of parenting a teen and the good news is that most rangatahi will be fine online. (Clearly this becomes a real challenge during lockdown at a high level, and parents can only ever do their best.)

Like most things, technology use can be both a “risk factor” and/or a “protective factor” in the lives of adolescents.

They can find a dizzying amount of information and see images from all over the world. There are important friendship and support networks available, and there are opportunities for them to be creative.1

But there’s also false information, aggressive marketing, bullying, adult content that adolescents may not be ready for, violent pornography, hate speech and criminal activity. Online life is a mix of things, in the same way as offline life.

Just as we need skills to navigate real life, we need skills to make the best use of technology. Not just technical skills, but also the ability to critically evaluate content, and apply it to the real world. We need good judgement.

And there is also an opportunity cost. Time spent online is time not spent playing sport, interacting in real life with others, learning practical skills, experiencing nature etc. Real-life experience is crucial for their healthy development.

So how do we balance all this up? In what ways does screen use affect brain development and behaviour? It is really hard to know. Anyone that tells you it’s “all good” or “all bad” is over-simplifying things. It’s very complicated, this research. But here’s what we have managed to find out:

Offline and Online lives are inter-related.

It’s pretty clear now that online experiences tend to overlap with what’s going on in an adolescent’s offline (or ‘real’) life.2 Rangatahi who have healthy relationships with their whānau and peers are likely to also have positive interactions with others online.3 Those who struggle with their offline relationships are more likely to have a lower quality of online relationship.4 So it’s not as if people have “two different lives”, though it may seem that way. Rangatahi who are mostly making good choices and demonstrating good values offline are probably doing the same online.

Social and emotional development. Risks and benefits.

Social Media

Social media, when used to maintain existing friendships, can improve a sense of connectedness and wellbeing for rangatahi, and enhance the quality of their relationships.5 It can provide them with opportunities to connect with others in supportive ways. For marginalised youth in particular it can allow them to find others who understand what they are experiencing.6

It is clear, also, though, that ‘real-life’ relationships continue to be extremely important for adolescents. Relationships that take place only online are likely to be weaker.7 Adolescents who frequently use mobile devices may not be investing enough time in face-to-face interactions, which are essential for healthy development.8

There are certain on-line social activities that are associated with particular risks:


Sexting is sending nude photos, sexually explicit text messages or similar. While rangatahi originally choose to whom they send the photos and messages, they can be forwarded on. Young people can be bullied and harassed as a result and may feel deep shame and regret. There’s no way of knowing with whom sexts have been shared, and they can resurface years down the track when, for example, future employers seek information online about work applicants.

Sexting is often done under coercion, with females more likely to be pressured than males.9

There does seem to be a link between sexting behaviour and:
• adolescent depression10
• feeling afraid11
• feeling sad or hopeless, and having suicidal thoughts12
• the use of illicit substances13 and alcohol14
• sexual risk behaviours including multiple sexual partners, unprotected sex, STIs (sexually transmitted infections).15 Interestingly, sexting is less likely among adolescents with high self-esteem16


Cyber-bullying is using media technology to hurt or embarrass another person.17 It’s one of parents’ greatest concerns about technology.18

Again, online life tends to mirror real life. Those who bully online are likely to do so in real life as well. Similarly, those targeted by bullies online are likely to also experience real-life bullying.19

Cyber-bullying is linked with a number of negative outcomes for adolescents. These include depression, self-harm, loneliness, fear and anger, and increased risk for suicidal ideation and suicide attempts.20


Sexually explicit content online is a very difficult area to navigate. Parents and whānau vary widely as to their attitudes and social and cultural mores, of course. But there are real risks in this area, just as in offline life.

Young people now have greater access to pornography than ever before. And rangatahi are highly vulnerable to the potentially negative effects of sexually explicit material.21 Adolescents who frequently access pornography are more likely to develop unrealistic sexual values and beliefs22, engage in casual sexual behaviour23 and engage in, and experience, sexual aggression.24 If they are watching violent content, they are at greater risk of displaying sexually aggressive behaviour.25

There is also the danger that adolescents can be exploited by sexual offenders through social network chat rooms, emails and online games.26

It helps when parents are aware of what their children are viewing, and instil an understanding of the way in which disturbing material does, and does not, reflect real life and real relationships. It’s important to discuss ways of keeping themselves and others safe online.

What about online gaming?

To parents, playing online games can give the impression of being just a lot of shooting and running through battle-sites. They might think it is harmless entertainment, or time-wasting, or disparage it as violent. But in fact there is a wide variation amongst games, from highly strategic and thoughtful games, to those that might encourage violent and criminal behaviour.

Games can involve planning, decision-making and problem-solving skills.27 Some games require fast reflexes and hand-eye coordination or social and interpersonal skills.28 Action games can support the development of spatial skills.29 Some games even elicit positive emotions, lessen anxiety and promote relaxation.30

However, some games can trigger feelings of anger, sadness or anxiety.31 Digital games often promote war and violence.32 Frequent players of violent video games can become desensitised or immune to other’s pain and suffering.33

As you would predict, there is also that ever-present connection between offline and online lives. Children with existing emotional, behavioural and learning problems can be more affected by violent content34 and adolescents who already show hostility35 and aggressive tendencies36 are more likely to have these characteristics worsened by violent game play. In other words, how they are doing in general can affect whether they are adversely affected by gaming.

So once again, parents can help by limiting the time spent gaming, and by being aware of the quality of the games their rangatahi are choosing, and the suitability for their ages.

Intellectual and cognitive development. Risks and benefits.

There is concern that ‘information overload’ may alter adolescents’ capacity for in-depth thinking.37 Are they learning to deeply analyse anything, or are they just bombarded with information, no matter how well or poorly they understand it? This may impact over time on their ability to explore, analyse and apply knowledge in depth.38

Say they are given an assignment about seagulls and their ability to adapt to different environments. It is not enough for students to google and copy and paste all the information available about seagulls, their biology, their prevalence etc. They need to be able to sift this information and decide what is relevant to their specific assignment. They need to be able to pull it all together in their own words.

This need to learn to process information is not new, or different from learning in the past. It is just that they now have vast amounts of information available at the press of a key. Providing them with opportunities to analyse, integrate and apply what they are seeing on the screen may be useful. Many schools are working on this, but parents have a role here too.

Physical well-being.

Sleep is vital to well-being. But many adolescents are not getting enough sleep to support their health. Night-time use of screen media may be partly to blame.39 High use of screen media is associated with reduced sleep and disrupted sleep patterns. Sleepiness and fatigue are linked with poorer academic performance,40 increased risk-taking behaviour, and anxiety and depression in rangatahi. There is also a link between poor sleep and drug abuse.

Many studies have found that avoiding use of screen media for at least an hour before bed-time and keeping devices out of the bedroom supports a better night’s sleep.41 This is one area where parents could support their adolescents taking the healthy option.

In addition, the need to exercise and get fresh air is an issue with technology too, although this is based on common sense rather than research.

When it comes to technology use, what can parents and caregivers do?

Although they can feel powerless, whānau do influence adolescent attitudes and behaviour around technology use.

Some guidelines:

  • Lead by example. Try to model by using screens yourself in a moderate and positive way.
  • Monitor adolescents both as to the amount of time spent on screens and the nature of their activities and content. (This is a juggle because we want to respect their privacy, but is important for them to know they are monitored.)
  • Talk with adolescents about keeping safe online, being responsible and respectful, and have rules around suitable content. Try to build empathy with those who are victimised. Point out that there is no reason to treat relationships online any differently from those in ‘real’ life.
  • Discuss best practices, ethical dilemmas and strategies with adolescents and set limits around where, when and how adolescents (or how the entire family, adults included) can use media.
  • Encourage a good routine for sleeping, that does not include being on screens immediately before trying to sleep.
  • Provide opportunities for in depth thinking and analysis.
  • Where possible discuss the information that comes in online and how to tell whether it is accurate. Role model a healthy scepticism about the accuracy of content on the internet. Talk about the importance of being able to trust your sources.
  • Make sure they have “rich” opportunities offline. Things such as sport, arts and culture, and hobbies play an important role in their development and should not be missing because they are always on screens.
  • Keep on communicating with them in real life. Provide them with lots of opportunities for real life interaction with other people.
  • Watch for any signs of addiction, over-use or bullying and act as soon as possible.
  • Remember that how they are doing offline is likely to overlap with how they are doing online.


Parents can influence the amount of time rangatahi spend online and also the content of their activities. A range of moderate, ‘ordinary’ activities that are fun, sociable, educational, creative and/or entertaining can be beneficial. However, there is harmful content online and this should be avoided. The things that are working well for you as a parent in other aspects of life – maybe things such as time invested, making them feel loved and setting limits – are likely to work well in this area too.

The wisdom of the ancients comes to mind. ‘Moderation is best in all things’, said the Greek poet Hesiod in about 700 BC. Many of our parents and grandparents say the same thing. This advice is very well borne out by the research, when it comes to the use of screen-based technology.

Glossary of Māori words

Rangatahi – youth
Whānau – extended family

  1. Rideout & Robb, 2019
  2. George & Odgers, 2015
  3. Valkenburg & Peter, 2007
  4. Weisskirch, 2009
  5. Valkenburg & Peter, 2009
  6. Munt et al., 2002, cited by Collin et al., 2011
  7. Donath & Boyd, 2004, cited by Collin et al., 2011
  8. Giedd, 2012
  9. Van Ouytsel et al., 2017
  10. Van Ouytsel et al., 2014
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  12. Dake et al., 2012
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  15. Temple & Choi, 2014
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  38. Giedd, 2012
  39. Gamble et al., 2014
  40. Carskadon, 2011
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This article was first published in Brainwave Review, Issue 32, Spring 2020