Many parents worry about screen time, but don’t necessarily understand all of the threats. I’m going to talk through four major categories for parents to consider.
1. Biological – Screens affect the brain and eyes primarily through the blue tint of the back light. This is changing all the time as new screens come out, but be aware that the light is extremely (unnaturally) stimulating and disrupts sleep and blinking significantly. Even sleeping near a screen changes our sleep patterns, as part of the brain appears to keep “one eye open” in case a message comes in. Experts recommend that children don’t use screens an hour before bedtime and do not sleep with screens in their rooms.
2. Chemical – This is more complicated, but screen addictions are real and chemically measurable. This is mostly associated with gaming, but we all experience slight stimulation when we see the little red dot indicating a notification and we all release endorphins as we tick off the checking of those dots–reading our texts or clearing our notifications. Adolescents are particularly susceptible to social media which imitates an addiction (adults report this too), but the chemistry here gets mixed in with social pressures and they are hard to separate. Lastly, due to their addictive nature, or how easy it is for us to pay attention to our screens, our concentration and attention when we’re NOT looking at a screen has suffered. This is a huge problem at school, obviously, where teachers and texts cannot compete with the entertaining nature of a device. Our devices are absolutely affecting our brain chemistry and we are only beginning to learn the ins and outs of it.
3. Social – Two dangerous elements of social interactions on our devices are that it’s virtually unsupervised and it never turns off. So imagine allowing your 14 year old to go to a large party in a warehouse with 50,000 other teenagers and then leaving them there for days without any adult around. Except it’s worse than that–since it’s virtual, everyone can craft their own brand or narrative. People can make themselves seem perfect, popular, skinnier, happy. They can make others feel awful in very subtle ways (I would argue that this is much more hurtful written down for some reason than when the same thing might happen in the hallway). Kids feel left out, uncool, unloved, behind on the latest news, etc. (they may *feel* isolated but they won’t look like it). And it never stops unless a parent stops it. It is VERY hard for kids to manage all of this without adult help. Also, the false sense of anonymity makes almost everyone (adults and kids alike) bolder on the internet–almost everyone will say things in a comment or text or even an email that they would never say to someone’s face. I predict that there’s some sort of neural inhibitor missing when you’re not looking at someone face to face (my own surmising, not research). It’s just kids being kids (impulsive, a little egocentric, and fighting for a sense of emotional survival) without adult supervision. They NEED adult supervision to coach, warn, provide perspective, call other parents, and periodically absolutely forbid something.
Secondly, screen time can stunt kids who are awkward and truly isolated because it gives them an excuse to avoid interaction. Much of socialization involves surviving awkward conversations, learning how to approach a group of kids and join in, and grinding away slowly at the process of building relationships. Kids who aren’t as good at this use screens to avoid these situations, so they are even less likely to develop these skills.
4. Self-Regulation – Devices give us all a way out when sometimes true growth or character is developed by not having a way out. While it’s fantastic that they have made our lives easier, we are learning that children benefit a lot by NOT having an easier life in many ways. The confidence and grit and independence that we want them to have can only be developed through actual practice, working through discomfort, fear and insecurity. Constantly having a lifeline to parents, or to avoidance/escape, or to entertainment leaves kids vulnerable to anxiety, depression, self-doubt, and helplessness.
Was this too depressing? Part 3 will be the benefits of screen time!