by Jennifer Newton Martin, LPC
In today’s internet driven world it sometimes seems that screens and smartphones are taking our young people and turning them into robots: irritable and unimaginative, robots. With three young daughters, 10 and under, and even with pretty conservative usage of screens, I can regularly see my children go from imaginative, creative, and relaxed to irritable, frustrated, and bored in the blink of an eye when they are allowed too much screen time. You might think that you are imagining things, or that there is nothing that you can do, or you might not be making the connection between your child’s irritability and their screen usage at all. Whatever the case, I want to encourage you to be alert and engaged when it comes to this crucial element of your child’s life. There is plenty of evidence to support that the concerning behavior that you are witnessing could be directly linked to screen and internet use.
Research and Problematic Screen Usage
An article published in 2019, by researchers who conducted a large study looking at children and youth and device use, found that one in four children/youth were found to have what they dubbed PSU, or problematic screen usage. They also found that in these children with PSU there were usually correlating mental health concerns such as anxiety, depression, poor sleep, and poor educational outcomes. In fact, even professionals who work in the internet marketing industry are starting to voice their own concerns about the blatant disregard of these fairly clear mental health findings. Employees from companies who drive much of the internet marketing such as Google, Instagram, and Facebook, are starting to speak out against what they see as detrimental marketing and internet practices.
Screen Addiction and the Social Dilemma
Recently, a documentary called The Social Dilemma was released on Netflix. Previous employees from some of the largest drivers of online marketing were interviewed throughout the film. These previous employees reported experiencing frustration, and even fear for the future, due to the invasive and manipulative marketing techniques being utilized by these companies. These individuals believe that the technology and algorithms used by companies to target and manipulate people are exploiting the basic human drive for connection. Despite the fact that human kind is becoming increasingly addicted to devices, these companies are choosing to continue selling advertising privileges to the highest bidder: advertising that includes studying individuals usage of their devices, playing on their emotions, and fostering addiction.
Mental Health Outcomes of Problematic Screen Usage
Tristin Harris, a previous employee of Google, says in the Social Dilemma that, “we are training and conditioning a whole new generation of people [to believe that] when we are uncomfortable or lonely or uncertain or afraid, we have a digital pacifier for ourselves that is atrophying our own ability to deal with that.” Tristan Harris’s statement is demonstrating what counselors would alternatively call the development of an unhealthy coping mechanism. Unhealthy coping mechanisms allow us to forego the emotional work of feeling our discomfort, addressing it, and seeking to alleviate it in a healthy manner. Younger and younger children, not to
“Unhealthy coping mechanisms allow us to forego the emotional work of feeling our discomfort, addressing it, and seeking to alleviate it in a healthy manner.”
mention adults, are using distraction, entertainment, and fake connection to soothe themselves, rather than turning to the adults, caregivers, and friends in their lives for comfort. This is compounding the problem of an already increasing rate of mental health concerns in our society such as depression, isolation, poor self-esteem, and addiction.
Tips for Limiting Screen Usage of Children and Adolescents
If you are a parent and are concerned about signs of addiction or mental health problems in your children, don’t be afraid to step up to the plate and intervene. Child and adolescent brains are not fully developed and therefor, even if your child knows that they should set limits on their device use, they may not be able to achieve setting healthy limits. Don’t let the fear of experiencing your child’s wrath keep you from imposing necessary and healthy limits. Don’t let your child be lost in a sea of poor marketing policy, online manipulation, and addiction. Now is your chance to rescue them. One day their mental health will thank you.
Some tips for managing your child’s device use:
Don’t allow your elementary and middle school aged children to have their own smartphone. This may seem countercultural, but the rate of young children experiencing depression, anxiety, and poor self-image has risen at an alarming rate since smartphones came into existence. Just because your children’s friends have smartphones doesn’t mean that your child needs one. Again, think long term with this one. No amount of fitting in or “keeping up with the Joneses” will make up for the detrimental emotional impact of problematic screen use.
Utilize already in-place disciplinary measures, such as removing privileges, to allow you an excuse to decrease your child’s screen use. For example, if your child does something that would normally result in them being grounded, or some other disciplinary measure, utilize removing screen time instead. For my children, this is the number one consequence for poor behavioral choices. They will comply with just about any rule in order to not lose screen time. However, when they do deserve consequences, screens are the first thing to go. This kills two birds with one stone.
Consider making screen time a reward, rather than removing it as a punishment. Research shows that behavioral modification is most successful when positive rewards are utilized rather than negative consequences. If at all possible, make your designated amount of screen time a reward that is given only after all other requirements are met. For example, I often allow my children to have an hour of screen time after their room is clean, or after their homework is done, or after they have exercised. Again, this is a win-win situation because you are able to impose more limits on your child’s screen time as well as utilize something that they love as reward for good behavior.
For more information on Tristan Harris and his work at the Center for Humane Technology visit www.humanetech.com.
If you feel that you struggle with poor boundaries and limit setting, see my blog on Enmeshment and Boundaries. If you can, seek to grow personally in your ability to differentiate yourself from your children and to create and maintain good boundaries. There is an extensive amount of literature circulating online about boundary setting. This might be the perfect opportunity to work on your boundary issues as a parent!
For more information on addiction formation, see my blog on neural pathways and addiction and change.