With greater and greater regularity, in my clinical practice, I am meeting with families who are presenting with almost identical problems.
Kids, from early adolescents to teenagers are suffering from anxiety.
“I can’t get them off the damned screen.”
An estimated 95% of teens have smart phones.
The kids that make up what is called Generation Z (born after 1997) are experiencing the highest rates of anxiety and depression ever. Self-harm and suicide rates are up and kids demonstrate less and less ability to manage stress.
What is it about screens that is so addictive and what is the current thinking as to why they have such damaging effects on people?
Whether it be video games, online chat, or “LIKES” of social media posts, screens provide entertainment and stimulation in forms of instant gratification.
Every point scored, opponent defeated, or emoji posted stimulates the immediate production of dopamine, one of the brain’s "feel-good" chemicals.
Prior to today’s levels of technology people more regularly engaged in delayed gratification. They invested more time and effort in long term endeavors which produced more lasting benefits (pleasure, happiness) over time.
The electronic generation has been separated from the stabilizing and resilience building effects of engaging with family, real life socialization, and physicality. Kids receive validation from external sources to such a great degree that they have a dwindling sense confidence in their own adequacy to deal with social interactions. It is a growing concern that we are producing a generation completely unprepared for adulthood.
With the concern of screen addiction and its damaging effects growing at an alarming rate, I would like to provide you with some warning signs that indicate the presence of a potential problem and the possible need to seek professional help
1)Can’t give up the screen: You ask a child or loved one to put the screen away or to do something else and they become distressed and irritable or rush through some other activity to get back on the screen sooner.
2)Competes with real life socializing: Your child meets up with a friend or friends and, rather than interacting with each other, the phones or tablets come out and online gaming commences. You make plans to go somewhere to do something with the family and your child says they do not want to go and asks if they can stay home.
3)Loss of interest in other activities: If screen time has taken the place of activities that had previously been fun and appealing there may be cause to be concerned. For example, if your up-and-coming soccer star decides that she doesn’t want to participate this season and opts to spend her time in online chat.
4)The screen has become a pacifier: If your child has lost their ability to regulate their moods and seems to need screen time to calm down from being upset, or to just be happy then I would urge you to seek help from a professional.
If these warning signs are present in your life and you have determined that there is a problem with screen addiction, rest assured that there are strategies that you can use and steps you can take to regain normalcy in your life.
1)Communicate and Educate: When there are problems in our lives, communication is essential in solving those problems. Without attacking or creating a feeling of blame, talk to your child about the issues of screen addiction. Educate them that it is not just them, but a worldwide concern. Explain to them the nature of dopamine stimulation and addiction.
Enlist their help by getting them to a place of agreement that changes need to be made. An effective way to create this agreement is to ask the child about their goals and aspirations. Ask them what they would like to see themselves doing in their future. Ask them to consider how the use of screen time contributes to achieving that goal. Often, it is easily recognized that screen time in fact detracts from achieving goals.
If a child is unable to identify any aspirations or goals, this is indicative of the problem and should be pointed out and made part of the discussion.
2)Remember it is an addiction: Expect resistance, signs of withdrawal, and periods of relapse. Like chemical dependency, screen addiction has both physical and psychological components. It will not be solved with one well intended conversation. It will take time and consistency in your efforts. Be understanding and accepting of the challenges along the way.
3)There must be limits: Because you have taken the time and care to enlist the child’s agreement, it will be easier to at least set a plan for restricting screen time. This is essential and restrictions need to be realistic and enforceable. Ideas for limits are:
4)Fill the void: When restrictions are in place and your child is making efforts, remember they are making a sacrifice. They are giving up something that fulfilled a need for them. Kids need to have a sense of what they are making the sacrifice for.
Help them fill the time with positive experiences such as sports, classes and other activities which encourage healthy habits. Enlist the help of school mates and their parents to encourage as much in real life interaction as possible. If some of these activities can take place under the guidance of an instructor, coach, or mentor then you have an enlisted another level of support that can have a powerful impact on your child’s positive development.
5)Reinforce it: For your efforts to be effective, they will require consistency over time. Parents must model the same restraint and discipline regarding screen usage that they are asking of their children.
Parents need to get off the “damned screen” too and make the advantages of in real life interaction a part of your regular conversations. Praise your children not only for their accomplishments in the classroom or playing field but also for their positive interactions with other people and their effective handling of difficult social situations.
These warning signs and strategies will play a very important role in helping you identify and deal with the issues surrounding screen addiction. When utilized properly, they will help you regain a sense of normalcy in your life and provide for your child’s positive development.
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