Teen Defense Against the Digital Darkside
A year and a half after the pandemic upended normal life, the amount of time kids and teens spend on their devices and social media has reached shocking levels—eight, ten, even twelve or more hours a day is no longer unusual—and the repercussions for their mental health, physical fitness, social skills, relationship building, and even for our democracy, are dire. Slaying Digital Dragons by Alex J. Packer PhD. is a timely new book, which is geared to teens. It does not shy away from tough issues or preach top-down. With empathy, respect, and lots of zany jokes, Packer discusses all the psychological and technological dynamics at play, empowering young people to decide for themselves to take charge of their digital lives.
Teens care about the future. They are idealistic and passionate. Yet their physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual lives—along with the future of democracy and the planet—are under attack from the digital world. Never in the history of civilization has one technology hijacked truth, reality, and public discourse—sinking its claws into every aspect of human existence to monitor, manipulate, and predict our behavior for profit or hidden agendas.
Big Tech boils us slowly. By the time we realize the threat, we’re hooked. The tool has become the master.
I wrote Slaying Digital Dragons to empower teens to take charge of their digital life—to ignite their natural resistance to being manipulated, deceived, and told what to do. The key to “getting through” is recognizing that for teens, online life is real life. So, I don’t judge, preach, or assume. I use humor, validation, empathy, and wacky challenges to encourage self-awareness and healthy choices. While acknowledging the wonders of the digital world, I offer warning signs for unhealthy use and show teens who recognize those characteristics in themselves how to reset their screen scene.
The brain’s prefrontal cortex experiences dynamic growth during the teen years. If anything weakens this development, teens could have difficulty concentrating, remembering information, solving problems, regulating emotions, expressing themselves, learning new skills, making good decisions, and setting and achieving goals. This could lead to heightened distractability, irresponsible behavior, poor academic performance and social skills, and diminished future options.
The relentless visual and auditory assault teens experience online, designed to capture their attention, bulks up not the prefrontal cortex, but more primitive “fight-or-flight” areas of the brain. This, along with rapid-fire task switching between apps, creates a state of heightened nervous system arousal that can cause chronic stress.
Social media hijacks teens’ psyches. It exploits FOMO and adolescents’ healthy desires for approval, connection, and belonging to create a Pavlovian ensnarement of “likes” and notifications that demand constant engagement. For some teens, this artificial “reality,” relentless social score-keeping, and pressure to post can lead to depression, loneliness, anxiety, low self-esteem, and unrealistic expectations for themselves.
Asking Big Tech to solve the problem would be like asking the alcohol industry to solve abusive drinking. It’s not going to happen since, for both industries, more consumption equals more profit.
Big Tech’s business model is based on keeping you engaged and, better yet, addicted. This requires tracking you, manipulating your emotions, invading your privacy, and using everything they learn to target you with products, posts, and provocations they predict will best grab your eyeballs and empty your wallet.
Research shows that fake news—designed to arouse emotions and prejudices—spreads roughly six times faster on social media than do factually-based posts. Since engagement is the goal, Big Tech doesn’t care whether, to get it, their algorithms incite violence, deny reality, weaken democracies, or push hate, lies, and conspiracy theories. So, no, I don’t see Big Tech creating solutions unless and until federal regulation, legal jeopardy, public pressure, and users voting with their delete buttons threaten their bottom line.
The pandemic greatly exacerbated the overuse of social media, but it also complicated the issue of screen time and limits because young people needed screens for school, socializing, and various extracurricular activities. How do you differentiate between good screen time and bad?
Screen time is tricky. Adults tend to focus on how much time teens spend on their screens: More = bad. Less = good. But it’s not how much time you spend, it’s how you spend that time:
• Are you creating or vegetating?
• Are you a passive spectator, or are you digging deep into yourself to learn, connect, and create?
• Is your screen time a healthy balance of homework, friends, education, and entertainment—or are you spending eight hours a day killing space invaders and mining obsidian blocks?
• Does being online make you feel happy, productive, and socially connected, or depressed, lonely, guilty, or inadequate?
• Is your screen time focused, or does it assault you with a cacophony of attention-grabbing “gotchas”?
• When you’re not staring at a screen, are you physically active, seeing friends, spending time with your family, and keeping up with your responsibilities?
• Is moss growing on you?
You have to look at the entire picture to determine whether screen time is “good” or “bad.”
Tools for Tech Success
Make your phone your tool. Don’t become its tool. Be mindful about the time you spend on your devices. Recognize that along with all the wonderful, positive things smartphones, social media, and the internet have made possible, there’s another side to them: The Dark Side.
Big Tech, special interests, and social media are stalking you—trying to manipulate your emotions, influence your thinking, steal your data, monetize your life, and get you addicted to their site. The wrong kind of screen time can harm your body, brain, relationships, psyche, reputation, and future opportunities. To protect yourself:
• Join the resistance against Big Tech. Take charge of your screen scene.
• Reject the shallow, nasty, and judgmental aspects of social media.
• Stay away from platforms that make you feel bad.
• Post to share your life. Don’t let posting become your life.
• Be alert to the lies, misinformation, and biases found online that can destroy serenity, truth, trust, and the foundations of civilization.
The internet was designed by adults for adults, and yet kids and teens use it constantly. To see improvement in outcomes Congress needs to legislate a fundamental right to privacy so users would have to opt in to being tracked and having their data collected. Apps need to shed addictive lures (Snap streaks) and social media report cards (“likes”). Video games need to incorporate mandatory time-outs. Facebook should abandon its pursuit of “Instagram for kids.” And someday pigs will fly. The internet will continue to evolve as virtual reality, artificial intelligence, brain-computer interface, facial recognition, and other technologies emerge. Time will tell if this makes the internet more humane, civil, and life-affirming, or pushes us in even darker directions.
The digital world is like any environment containing potential threats (big cities, highways, school corridors). You can’t control it. You can only control yourself. Armed with the knowledge, self-awareness, and tools for personal growth they’ll find in the book, teens can create a healthy screen scene by leading an examined life. Staying alert. Exercising caution. Using “brand” sanitizer to create a digital trail of flowers, not turds. And by always remembering that the most powerful app is their brain.
Mitigating the Darkside of Online Life
The Digital Dark Side exists and will persist. Knowledge and self-awareness will help teens resist its negative aspects. Example is a powerful teacher. Parents should model healthy use. They should ask about their kids’ online experiences and listen non-judgmentally. They should plan phone-free rituals and outings, create family screen-time rules, and encourage joyful, fulfilling offline activities and interests.
Schools need to teach digital media literacy, organize screen-free clubs and activities, and embrace school websites that celebrate kindness and diversity and foster a healthy school climate. They should develop policies that protect student privacy and promote good digital citizenship, recognizing that off-campus digital behavior can have profound in-school consequences.
Investments in shiny tech “innovations” shouldn’t shortchange budgets for arts, music, sports, libraries, and counseling. Online learning should enrich the human experience within the classroom, not replace it. Teachers should encourage students to curate their online footprint mindfully, creatively, and responsibly.
Striking a Healthy Online-Offline Life Balance
Teens thrive by maintaining healthy proportions between elements that nourish growth and fulfillment—family/friends; work/play; solitary/social; physical/mental, online/offline. While some imbalance can be nourishing or necessary— pursuing a passion, flourishing on TikTok, cramming for exams—in general, positive life balance is threatened if any on- or offline activity crowds out others essential for healthy development.
The best protection against this is knowing the warning signs that suggest one’s life balance is out of whack. Besides obvious signs, such as thumbs the size of cantaloupes from too much texting, or walking into street lamps because you’re buried in your phone, the book contains zany research-based challenges that encourage teens to explore their screen scene by examining the impact of their digital life on their physical, psychological, emotional, cognitive, and social health.
If teens identify aspects of their screen scene they’d like to change, the book provides a guided self-intervention for resetting their life balance—a process I call “giving yourself an App-endectomy.” #
Alex J. Packer PhD. is an educator, psychologist, and award winning author of numerous books for parents and teenagers including How Rude! The Teen Guide to Good Manners, Proper Behavior, and Not Grossing People Out.