Into the Digital Future: Raising Teenagers in a Digital Age

Jordan Shapiro

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This week, Dr. Hina Talib, a pediatrician and adolescent medicine specialist, joins us for an enlightening discussion on raising teenagers in the digital age. We delve into the impact of technology on youth well-being, emphasizing the need for open conversations and listening. Dr. Talib highlights the importance of understanding individual experiences and fostering positive online communities. The conversation touches on age verification, content moderation, and the importance of sleep and movement. With valuable insights and practical advice, the discussion provides a thoughtful guide to navigating the complexities of parenting teens in the digital world.

Hina Talib: Thank you for having me. I am Dr. Hina Talib. I am a pediatrician and an adolescent medicine specialist, which means I take care of teenagers in that special age range from about 10 to 25 years old. I practice here in New York City. I’m also a writer and a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Jordan Shapiro: Wow! That’s that’s that’s great as you know, as someone who lives in a house with four teenagers whom I love dearly, but I can’t wait for them to be gone also. So why do you get into adolescent medicine? What were you thinking? Why are you so passionate about this?

Hina: You know you are not the first person to ask me that. A lot of people say, oh, just bless you for taking care of this age group, and I’ve heard it my whole life honestly. I just love working with teenagers. There is something about this age group that is so empowering and vibrant and creative and futuristic to me, almost, it’s just. I believe that being able to see them for who they are, and helping them reflect who they are to the world, and engage in the world in a positive way. I believe it will change the world for the better. It’s just a privilege for me to be part of that. And yes, I know it’s dicey, and I know it’s hard, and I think all parents, and even pediatricians, who take care of teenagers. We all just have to laugh about how hard it is sometimes, but I always try to remind people that it’s also really magical. And a lot of what looks really kind of striking from the outside is actually developmentally normal. It’s just a little turbulent at times.

Jordan: Yeah, I often think about it. Teenagers, they’re totally fantastic, you know. I hate the idea that we’re always like, Oh, my god teenagers!, like it’s hard, and I hope I didn’t come off that way. I mean it is hard, but it’s hard because they’re little tiny adults without a lot of practice. It’s like, if you had a bunch of roommates who never learned how to live with other people.

Hina: That’s a really funny analogy. I like that. I do think teenagers get a bad rap overall, but I think that I think they’re very special, and I think that anybody who cares for teenagers or parent teenagers would agree with me. Of course, it’s just we have to help and sometimes helping means actually not saying anything

Jordan: Yeah, I know I was looking for those for any of our listeners who are like, how do you do this? How do you deal with teenagers? I was checking out your Instagram. It’s myteenhealth?

Hina: teenhealthdoc

Jordan: And you have not only a ton of awesome advice, but all of these like infographics. They tell you great questions to ask, conversations to have or to be considered. And you have a ton of followers there, like I can hear my teens. My teens will think they’re important. They don’t think Miles Davis is important because he doesn’t have enough followers, but you are.

Hina: Oh, oh dear, yeah, it’s great. Teenagers do definitely keep me timely, which is great. But even they will tell me. You know. Instagram is like, it’s now old, and it’s like, Oh, okay. Well, I joined Threads, so hopefully, that’ll make this cool again. But yeah, you know, I think adolescents and their relationship with social media is actually something that’s a super hot topic right now. And in fact, parent’s relationships with their own social media should be, too.

Laura Higgins: I think we’re going to come onto that in a little bit. So I’ve spent a bit of time on your channel, and I really get that passion that you have for young people and the positivity around it. You really focus on practical advice about how to talk to young people, how to relate to them, and really kind of putting into focus themes around respect privacy, and just advocating for kids to have their space in the world and we were saying it at the beginning of the chat, it’s sometimes easier said than done. How can parents start these conversations with their teenagers if they haven’t already been having those conversations?

Hina: You know, it’s always great to start a conversation with connection and with something positive. So if you’re already doing that because you are laughing at the same joke, or watching something on Netflix together that you both enjoy, or playing a sport or watching a sport that you are getting excited about, and you’re on the same team that those those feel good moments are a good time to have a conversation about, you know, “I was thinking about you, and I was thinking about how X, Y, or Z is challenging. And how are you doing? We just want to know how you’re doing.” Instead of — sometimes people like to make a conversation, a whole big, scary moment. “We’re gonna have a conversation. Let’s have a talk. Let’s do it Sunday at 9 o’clock in the morning.” And then they’re worried about it. Because what is it my parents want to talk to me about? Why did they set a time? and why is it tomorrow, not today? And so sometimes just going with the flow of when your family is kind of already feeling good and happy, and having a connected moment is the right time to just it might feel like you’re saying it out of nowhere, but I found that it is actually the right time to say “I was just thinking about you. I was thinking about this. I just want to know how you are.”

Jordan: Thanks, that’s great advice. I think certainly something that I might go away and practice, because I feel like one of the things that parents in general are just not very good at when it comes to teenagers, is listening. That’s myself included. I don’t want anyone to think I’m pointing fingers. You know, we think we know best, we think it’s our job to tell them. We still are in that mindset of, I have to scream at them to not cross the street while traffic is coming, because they’re little people who can make bad mistakes, but they’re starting to grow up.

Do you have advice for how we can do a better job of listening to the teens, to understand what their issues are, what they’re dealing with, because I think we’re often wrong as their parents.

Hina: Yeah, you hit the nail on the head. And the thing is it is the most important parenting skill for many different life stages, but particularly for adolescents who do have a lot of thoughts going on in their heads and aren’t always equipped to share them in the most helpful ways. But neither are some adults to be fair. I think that listening is super important.

My advice would be to say half or less than half of what you intended to say, so really to be conscious of listening more than talking. Open-ended questions are helpful. Not all teenagers like to, or feel comfortable, having face to face conversations. So sometimes, having them talk when they’re chatty, and then just be there to listen. So catch their chatty moments. Their chatty moments might be when you’re picking them up from an activity, and you’re in both. In the car. Our conversations are huge because you’re not looking at each other, and it’s less stressful and perhaps you’re listening to a song both like and and then you can talk, but listening is a skill so if you are not good at listening as a parent, that’s okay. Very many people are not. And it actually is something that you can learn about how to be a better listener. And it means creating the space, truly listening and not speaking over them, reflecting back what you hear to make sure that you heard it right, and that you’re kind of synthesizing it right? And then asking their permission if they want you to jump in with guidance or advice? Or are you just here to vent? That’s cool because I’m happy to just listen.

Laura: I love that, particularly that last bit of advice. I think that is so key. I think we all go into protect mode, especially if our kids are having a hard time. It’s like I want to do something to help you. And sometimes it can make things so much worse. And we do take away that agency and that resilience building that teens need to go through.

Jordan: Yeah, I want to. I want to also ask you, like, you know. We do a lot of talk about this sort of adolescent as a category, right? The teen as a category. And of course, this is what your work is, but there’s also a lot of really specific cases, individual cases, you know, for where adolescence has unique challenges, whether we’re talking about socioeconomic differences in economic groups. LGBTQ communities, BIPOC community, you know, there’s very specific structural things that are shaping the experience of teens. And when can we generalize, universalize, and be like, “this is the teen experience.” And when do we really need to look at the specific causes?

Hina: You know, it’s interesting because I share this advice on my Instagram account and in other outlets. When I’m asked to comment about adolescent health issues, I always feel so nervous doing it because I truly think that when you’re parenting an adolescent or young adult, there’s a lot of nuance, and you’re best suited to parent the kid that’s actually in front of you and not take the cookie cutter advice that’s being shared with the masses through the media through the parenting metaverse.

Jordan: Except for this podcast…

Hina: Yeah! Because we are speaking to you. Yeah, you know, I think that that’s like that is an area that I struggle with internally. And I try. I’m actually trying more and more these days to say, if this doesn’t apply to you don’t let it bother you, because this piece of advice may not apply to the child that you have, and we actually have to look at the child that you have the circumstances that they’re living in, what else they have brought in.

You know, I often say, like from zero to 10, a lot of great things happen in life. But for a lot of kids, also, a lot of not so great things happen in their lives. A lot of hard things may have happened in their lives, and they only process that or begin to really process that from 10 to 20. So some kids come into their adolescence with, you know, having had complex health conditions, having had changes in their household structure, having financial hardship, having experienced racism having, you know, been gathered in so many different ways. And they process that in adolescence. So you absolutely have to look at the whole picture when you’re kind of giving and and taking advice.

Laura: Putting a real human twist on it. And again, one of those things that sounds easier said than done is to really know your child. I think a lot of us feel that sort of disconnect starting to happen when they’re teenagers, but you do have to trust your instinct that you have shared your life with this person again. Those listening skills, I think, would be really really helpful there as well. Okay, I’m going to shift gears a little bit and bring it back into my sphere. So kids and tech, what do you think are the main pros and cons for young people in online spaces?

Hina: So echoing what I was saying before, I really strongly feel that it’s very hard to give cookie cutter advice on this topic. I think you really do need to parent the teen in front of you. I do think that for many adolescents that I work with, they have positive relationships with their media. I have found that some of those that have the most healthy and most positive relationships with their media. This is going to be controversial, actually started with their use earlier when they were very accepting of rules, and we’re a little bit more rule followers before they or you know, and for others who are given them at a certain age, when it was sort of like, okay? And you’re just given this phone without, you know, really having had the developmental lead up to it and the conversations and the graded exposures to it that parents who give and share devices at younger ages do so. You have to look at the kids in front of you. I think that the important part of it is the development and relationship with the device to see what they’re using it for, how it’s making them feel what their intention is and helping them to really conquer it. Now for some kids, it’s gonna be a problem. They’re going to have problematic uses. For other people, it’s episodic that it’s problematic, meaning that there are big feelings related to events that are happening online, right? There’s an entire world online for them. So you can have drama in your in-person life. You can have drama, and you’re online, and you need the tools to resolve the drama. Or, you know, in both places the tools are very different. So I think it’s a lot about development, relationship, intention, support. And I mean, I can’t hit this home enough. It is parenting, and I’m going through this right now. I have a five- and seven-year-old. I’ve already sort of regretted — or I’m not sure that we’re having the best relationship with the Switch right now. And it’s hard. It’s like this Switch is winning, so I’m living it, and I’m working with the parents in my school, having conversations as parents about what are we going to do when, as are we going to unite as parents in second grade, third grade, fourth grade to talk about what we are comfortable with having device wise for our our little kids, because the middle school parents are telling us what they regret it and what they’re going to do and it’s really eye opening, it’s really shocking. And so here I am; I’m a pediatrician, I’m a mom, and an adolescent medicine specialist, and in this, with folks like it is, it’s not easy, it’s not. And I think you know.

Laura: So the takeaways I got there were about setting the kind of norms and the expectations and helping them to build healthy relationships where possible. But also it’s that positive role modeling which you know increasingly, you know, all of us are online, more and more. And so there is definitely a balance needed there.

Hina: Yeah, it is so much about the parents’ relationship, too. I hear a lot of parents coming at me, telling them that they can’t be on their phone. Telling me I need to take the phone away. You know, it’s a consequence, right, that I can take the phone away. And it’s sort of like, well, what are you doing with your phone? And if you’re if you’re telling them to take the phone away the hour before bedtime and charge it outside in the hallway. Where’s your phone? And so it’s really, you know, and when you’re speaking to them, and when you’re sort of moving through your day in your home, in your car, are the phones out? And are there spaces where there are no phones? Because if you’re not doing it, then it’s much, much easier, and they’ll accept it much, much more if you ask them to do it. If you’re not doing it too. And if you’re talking about well, how’s their cell phone, you know? Talk to them about how your relationship is, you know. And my children knew the word Instagram at a very young age, because I was a media person on Instagram, and I’m not proud of that. And so I. You know, I definitely have to be more intentional about when I’m taking pictures and when I’m having my phone and doing my work and calling it work. I am doing this for work. And then, now I’m going to put it down, but being very verbal with, I think the people around you about when you have your phone out and back, you have it out, I have found to be helpful. And it just makes you remember, too.

Jordan: Yeah, and of course you can extrapolate that to so many things, even beyond tech. You know, I often think about the parents who go, “I can’t get my kid to read books,” and I’m like, Well, when’s the last time they saw you reading a book? Right? And so I kind of want to take that and and that idea, and and and ask you a question moving back to the tech question, especially specifically to adolescents. And you know, as you already pointed out, very different questions for younger kids out of lessons. You know, how do we understand? Like, how do we figure out which are the again? And I mean this culturally, not necessarily as parents like, which are they? Which are the things that we have to be really attentive to that are just part of the teen experience, whether we’re talking about social anxiety, sexual awakening, body image, recklessness. You know all these things that are just a normal part that are now happening within a context of digital tech. And what’s actually because of the digital tech world.

Hina: Yeah, I think that in some ways there are strong parallels because you can find yourself in tricky, sexual and reproductive health arena situations in real life as well as online. You can find yourself in bullying situations, in real life and online, you can find yourself with substance abuse,

unfortunately, online as well. It’s being sold and talked about and and and in real life, obviously as well. So there are ways to talk about it. I almost think that everything that we talk about in real life, we should. That is sort of like a risk category of things that adolescents might encounter, that we, as pediatricians, you know. Sometimes when, after these things have happened, they end up playing a role in it. But if you’re thinking ahead, you know all the counseling that we do about safety, in real life there should be a corollary for. And this could happen online. And this is how you handle it online. So you practice saying “No” to substances that you’re not wanting to experiment with in real life. You practice how to say it online, you practice how to say “No” to certain sexual encounters that you’re not ready for in real life. You practice a funny response that you can send to somebody if they’ve asked you for a sext, so like you, you really do. I think that there’s a lot of learning and bi-directional conversations that should just become more fluid. We should all just be talking about this could happen here, or it could happen in this place. And how do you sort of prepare yourself? And in anticipation of these opportunities coming your way, in those cases.

Laura: And being really transparent about it as well, I think, isn’t it? So what do you think tech companies and platforms should be thinking about when they’re designing with kids and teams in mind, and particularly thinking about youth well being?

Hina: Hmm. You know, I think that content moderation and algorithms to me are very important for us to keep talking about. And I think the age verification is also very important and very dicey. I don’t know exactly the right answers on, you know, on all of those, but I have heard, actually adolescents themselves tell me “I would just love a reset button and for my page”. Other than having to completely close it and start a new page if there is an algorithm reset button when they know. Okay, I’ve gone down a rabbit hole. This was not healthy. I don’t want to be looking at this content, all it’s showing me this content. I’ve tried to use the tools to block the words, and this and that, but I’m still being shown the content.

And so I’ve heard them say I would love just, and I’ve heard other people talk about it. And I ask adolescents sometimes. Would you use that? Would that work? And it’s very clear that they would use their reset, if it meant that they didn’t have to start their entire account again.

Jordan: So I like that. I think age verification is important. I love that idea, especially when I think back to my own teen years and remember, like I, I can always remember, like the end of the summer spending a lot of time thinking, How do I want to show up at school? Who am I going to be this year this year? Imagine you could just reset your profile? I remember thinking very years ago about how hard it must be to, you know, I know a lot of people like, you know.

With the Internet, everything’s remembered, and that’s bad for jobs. I always thought about this like teenagers need to reinvent themselves constantly until they figure out what works. And it’s really hard to do when there is a permanent visual record.

Laura: And if you have to go through and delete it, one photo by photo or caption, but it’s a lot of work. So yeah, but so hopefully, some of our friends in the text base are listening. Because I think that’s a really great recommendation.

Jordan: So yeah, I think the age verification, you know, is important too, absolutely. And so what are some of the sort of things that we’re not talking about enough when it comes to teens, adolescents, digital technology? What’s something you think about that, really hasn’t entered the mainstream conversation yet, but you really wish it would.

Hina: I think that in practice, in clinical practice, some of what comes back to me more often than not is sleep and movement. And so I think that it’s been helpful for me to really focus these conversations on. If the conversations around the device and the media use is sensitive and already been heated. I sometimes shift to talking about sleep and movement and I get to the same endpoint with a lot more buy-in because it’s a value that the kid shares and the parent shares. Everybody agrees that sleep is important. You know my favorite question is, “How satisfied are you with your sleep? How satisfied are you with your social media? How satisfied are you with your level of movement of your body?” And so I let them grade it themselves, and then sort of ease into those conversations but I don’t think we talk enough about adolescent sleep.

The adolescents are chronically sleep deprived as an age group, and I think media does play a role there. And I think there’s skills to be taught on how to protect your sleep and movement too. You know, it’s a different conversation, but for some people it does make it less likely for them to move because they’re, you know, satisfied with, in the moment, spending their free time that they do have in the day doing a more sedentary activity. So those are a couple of issues, and there was something else that. Oh, you know, I think that I think that it by and large a lot of the media headlines on a lot of the articles, and a lot of the reaction to our Surgeon General has. It tends to be very negative, but even though the surgeon owners report actually does talk about the positive uses of media, but the headlines do tend to be very negative, and I think it’s as some as an adolescent medicine specialist. I do provide care for LGBTQ and for other youth who feel different in different ways, whether it’s that they have different abilities or they have different health issues. And they find community in these spaces, and they adore these communities, these communities of people who look like them or go through challenges like they do have been so very helpful. And so I think what doesn’t get enough attention is how amazing these supportive communities there are online for people who have a very niche health condition similar to yours, or who, you know, identify as LGBTQ and have gone through very similar challenges that you have, or very experiences. And it’s actually even more important for them to see that. And so yeah, and we need to protect those spaces, don’t we? The community within them, but also the spaces themselves. yeah, I think I feel that very strongly. And I know I know that those spaces can get tripped up, too. But I see their value, and I want to, just as you said– that we have to protect the spaces also and access to those spaces which you know involve children who are under 18 sometimes, and that’s okay.

Laura: Absolutely. So, this has been such a wonderful conversation. Is there anything that you really would love to add or share that we’ve missed?

Hina: I think the work of parenting is really hard. I remind parents that if you will, if you got through those toddler years you will get through the adolescent years too. There are a lot of parallels to how you supported your kiddos during that time, that that will carry you through the time. And I think that the technology is not insurmountable. We just have to take control, and it has to be in the home. I have talked, you know, to educators and to other people in the community, and it can’t be, “No, you do it.” “No, you do it.” “No, you do it”. It has to be all of us together, pediatricians and teachers. And as creators and the tech company. We all have to do this together, and that is a big feat, but I feel like we’re on to something. I feel like people are really thinking about this and and and your podcast talks about a lot of this. And so I’m grateful that you guys are putting this out there.

Laura: Thank you. I’m off right now to go and tell my teenager that he’s like a toddler. I think that’ll go down really well.

Hina: Joking, of course!

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Jordan Shapiro

Author of Father Figure: How to Be a Feminist Dad (www.FeministDadBook.com) Twitter: @jordosh