Digital Kids: Why Mindful Screen Use Matters

by Christa Hines on February 7, 2018

Digital Kids: Why Mindful Screen Use Matters

The statistics are alarming.

  • The rates of depression and anxiety are skyrocketing among our youth.
  • More kids report feelings of loneliness.
  • Teens who spend more than three hours a day on an electronic device are 35% more likely to have at least one suicide risk factor.
  • Girls, in particular, struggle with body image issues as they dedicate hours to trying to capture the “perfect” selfie in an endless pursuit of likes.
  • Teen suicide increased by 46 percent in 2015 compared to 2007.

Source: Jean Twenge, Ph.D., author of iGen

What is going on?

Jean M. Twenge, Ph.D., and author of iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood (a must read for parents), points to a correlation between the rise of smartphones and social media around 2011 and the decrease of in-person interactions among our youth since then.

As a species, humans are biologically programmed for in person social interaction. When we spend time with caring friends and family, our brains and bodies are flooded with reward chemicals and feel-good hormones. These chemicals keep us healthy and help us manage stress. Overall, we feel happier and more relaxed.

Social media can’t offer the same biological benefits that face-to-face interaction can, which begs the need for moderation. Our brains simply don’t respond to screen interactions in the same way we respond face-to-face. We may experience short bursts of the reward chemical dopamine while playing a video game or while attracting likes on social media, but instead of feeling satisfied, the dopamine bursts are like a drug, making us crave more.

That’s not to say that social media is all bad. Many kids who are active on social media also have a fulfilling, supportive social life offline. Social media is entertaining, and it offers kids fun ways to connect with friends and family who live far away. It enables them to interact with peers who share their interests. And they have an opportunity to express their individuality, creativity, humor and points of view.

But heavy screen users don’t develop the essential social skills that will help them develop resilience, the ability to carry on conversation, manage conflict and build self-confidence. Without these important skills, kids will struggle in multiple aspects of life, from interviewing to relationship building. And because they are unprepared, many of these activities will create anxiety and fear.

What do you do?

Banning screen time isn’t the answer. Rather, take a practical approach that keeps screens from taking over your family’s life.

Avoid giving screens to kids under the age of two. During this developmental window, babies and toddlers are gaining valuable speech and language skills that they learn from you and other caretakers.

Get kids involved. Research shows that kids who are involved in extracurricular activities (music, scouting, theater, sports, etc.), religious activities, or volunteer work are less likely to experience depression. If your teen is old enough to work, encourage a minimum wage job which will help them learn how to interact professionally and confidently with customers and an employer.

Model and establish firm boundaries. Create rules and boundaries around screens that your entire family follows (including you). For example, all electronics are turned off and plugged in to a central charging station by 9 p.m., or no electronics behind closed doors.

Make digital free time fun. If dinner time is screen free, play interactive games like trivia, Mad Libs, riddles or conversation games. Check out chat packs or make up your own like Would You Rather? or Two Truths and a False.

Teach kids mindfulness techniques. Get kids thinking mindfully about screen time. Talk to them about how too much screen time can affect heathy brain development and interfere with other activities. One great resource is the book Timmy’s Monster Diary: Screen Time Stress, by Dr. Raun Melmed, a developmental pediatrician. This children’s mindfulness chapter book shares tips for managing screen time in an entertaining way. (My 10-year-old read this book in only a few hours—and gave it a thumbs up). It also shares resources and tips for parents and creates a gateway for meaningful conversation between you and your child.

Teach social skills.  From the time your child begins to talk, you can help them work on social skills. Check out my book Happy, Healthy & Hyperconnected: Raise a Thoughtful Communicator in a Digital World for tips and strategies.

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