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‘Teenagers are the loneliest population:’ JoCo group aims to balance use of technology

Tracy Foster, one of STaRT’s three co-founders, listens to responses from a group of professionals from Johnson County Mental Health during a STaRT training session.
Tracy Foster, one of STaRT’s three co-founders, listens to responses from a group of professionals from Johnson County Mental Health during a STaRT training session. Special to The Star

Smartphones, tablets and other tech devices are here to stay. But striking a balance between the virtual world and the real world can be tough, especially when you’re setting boundaries for kids.

Figuring out how to handle the demand to be connected all the time is what inspired Tracy Foster, Krista Boan and Brenda Walden to create Stand Together and Rethink Technology.

“I had a fifth grader and we were feeling a lot of pressure as a family to give her a phone, and I didn’t feel ready,” Boan said.

The more they researched it, the more the women found that too much screen time can lead to poor sleep, increased loneliness, self-image issues and being physically — but not emotionally — present.

“When we look at data, we find that our current teenagers are the loneliest population… even though they’re more digitally connected than ever,” Foster said.

With kids especially, that can result in negative behavior.

“We got the parent community together and realized there was a huge hunger and need around this topic. Parents were experiencing side effects,” Boan said.

After Boan connected with other parents who also didn’t want their middle-schoolers to have smart phones or be on social media, Boan was able to set those limits with her daughter, without her feeling socially isolated.

“She has really rich relationship with a lot of girls who also don’t have those things,” Boan said.

“We found there was power in coming together and saying, ‘You don’t want to give your kid a phone? You don’t want to give your kid Snapchat? Neither do we.’”

Although STaRT only got going about 18 months ago, it’s gathering momentum fast. The group’s members have had requests from all over the world to share their curriculum, and Diane Sawyer featured them in a special report on ABC.

For now, the organization is focused on developing pilot programming in Johnson County.

Their curriculum isn’t about rejecting technology, but setting limits on how and when you use it.

“We can embrace the wonder… to have these tools and resources available but minimize some of the unintended side effects,” Foster said.

This month, professionals from Johnson County Mental Health attended a special STaRT training session, at the request of its director, Tim DeWeese.

“I like it because it’s poignant to personal life, work, just society in general,” said Andrea Spieker, team leader for adult services at Johnson County Mental Health. “It’s giving more specific information and backing to things I’ve kind of seen but didn’t have the specific knowledge behind.”

Several of the attendees pointed out how children and teens get hooked on the constant feedback and attention they get through social media and can misinterpret what it really means.

Another issue that came up was about parents who are physically in the room with their children but who were much more connected with their phones than with their kids.

STaRT’s training sessions feature videos from various professionals and lean heavily on group discussions to connect attendees’ personal experiences to the group’s suggested strategies for planning how and when to use technology.

“One of the things we hear from older parents is they are experiencing empty-nest syndrome at a younger age, (because) they’ve lost that connection with their child,” Boan said.

The group is registered as a 501(c)(3) non-profit under the name We Start Now, Inc.

“Sometimes, I think because of our origins of being moms, people tend to think, ‘Oh, it’s just a groups of moms,’” Boan said. “But we are strategic and professional in our organization’s design strategy and working really hard to create something that could be replicated in other places.”

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