Advice From Our Experts

Digital Stress: What is it, how does it affect teens and how can you help?

Recently, I came across an article about digital stress and its effects on teenagers. Working in the Division of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine, this is often a topic of concern for teenagers and their families.

More now than ever, teenagers are constantly connected to their peers through cell phones or computer internet access. For adolescents, communication is an integral part of their social experience. This can lead to positive interactions for the adolescent but it has the potential for negative ones as well.

To help explain digital stress and how parents can help, I enlisted the help of Dr. Mari Radzik, Coordinator of Mental Health Services at the Division of Adolescent and Young Adult medicine.

“What I’ve seen in my practice over the years is how pervasive the online social media experience is for youth. Now that Facebook has moved into parents use, adolescents have moved to other social media sites such as Snap Chat or Instagram. Our youth today would much rather text or social network on their phones,” Dr. Radzik said.

This type of connection with friends and significant others is often easier to hide from parents and caregivers and could leave the adolescent vulnerable to the effects of digital stress.

Some teens may encounter stress from social media, texting or emails.

What is Digital Stress?

Digital stress is stress caused by negative interactions in emails, texts, social media, chat rooms and forums. Based on their research, Weinstein and Selman identified two types of digital stress and six stressors. Type 1 is seen as an expression of hostility, meanness and cruelty. It includes the following stressor types:

  • Mean and harassing personal attacks – Usually anonymous, hateful messages directed at an individual. Example: “You’re ugly” or “I hope you die”
  • Public shaming and humiliation – Humiliating messages about an individual that are posted in a public way. Example: Posting someone else’s private information on Facebook or sharing a nude photo intended for one person
  • Impersonation – Pretending to be someone else either by hacking someone’s account or by creating a fake account

Type 2 encompasses stresses related to navigating closeness in relationships. This includes:

  • Feeling smothered – occurs when one person feels overwhelmed by someone sending excessive messages
  • Pressure to comply with requests for access – feeling pressure from a friend or significant other to give them access to online accounts or to send sexual messages or nude pictures as a symbol of trust
  • Breaking and entering into digital accounts and devices – going through someone’s texts, pictures, emails, or online accounts on their phone or computer without their permission

What are the signs and symptoms of digital stress?

Common signs that your child maybe experiencing digital stress include the following:

  • Anxiety or panic attacks
  • Isolation or withdrawal from social activities
  • Increased secrecy
  • Anger
  • Depression
  • Failing grades
  • Rebellion
  • Stomachaches, headaches or other general body aches not explained by a medical condition

Tips for parents to combat digital stress

Dr. Radzik suggest the following ways to help your teen prevent and overcome digital stress

  • Manage cell phone and internet use starting at a very early age
  • Model appropriate cell phone and social media use. Example: Every time a parent takes a “selfie” with their infant, they are demonstrating that this is the venue in which to take and send pictures to others.
  • Discuss the risks of posting pictures and comments online prior to giving your child their first cell phone or allowing them unmonitored internet access. Privacy concerns, confidential information and protecting the child are all topics the parent should discuss.
  • If you notice a change, open a non-judgmental discussion with your child. If they cannot speak with you, seek outside professional help either through their school, pediatrician’s office or at a mental health agency.

Providing an ongoing open line of communication with your teenager will encourage them to report negative experiences to you. However, sometimes your teenager may not feel comfortable sharing this information. In these cases, parents should be aware of any changes in your child’s behavior, mood, social interactions and school performance.

Open discussion about the stressors that can occur from the use of cell phones, social media and other online interactions will enhance the coping of children and adolescents with these now important methods of communication.

For more help with this topic, contact the Division of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine at Children's Hospital Los Angeles.