When people ask me what I think the main cause of the increase in mental illness is, screens always come up. With the debut of the iPhone and iPad, there hasn’t been substantial research about how increased screens have effected young minds. The good news is that research is starting to arise. The bad news is that it’s not looking good and our job as parents helping our children navigate just got harder. I always say to my boys that I will not limit their screen time until I see a need for limitation. For example, when I ask for them to get off and they argue, that’s when I have a problem with it. When the suggestion of bike rides and walks together become “lame”, that sends a red flag. When friends come over and all the kids come to us parents with sullen faces and proclamations, “We’re bored without video games”, it’s clear screens have become an issue. One summer these issues increased in our home, so we decided to take that entire summer off of all screens. It was hard at times, but we laughed together more that summer and found needed rest for our minds.
I think we need to be way more concerned with the amount of screen time we are having as adults than our children. If we want our children to put down their phones, we need to go first. Phones have taken over our lives. We can be contacted anytime, anywhere and they often interrupt meaningful moments. I am the first one guilty for this. How many times was I on my phone while my youngest played at the play place in his early years? For me, it was a time to get work done or unwind. Little did I know, he was watching me. When I’m on my screen all the time when I’m around my children they just assume this is the way life is. Then they wonder why we’re asking them to get off theirs? Many parents don’t like it when I say this, but the first person who needs a screen check is us. Set the example.
The way I handle screens with my boys is to help manage the vast freedom screens require. We cannot guard our children forever against the waves of information and sometimes sketchy material they will come across with one click of a button. It has always been my desire to teach my sons how to navigate through this, while encouraging the value of guarding their heart above all else to be the filter in which they decide what is permissible and what should be avoided. This is no easy task. It would be much easier to allow children to watch and play whatever they want or take screens away all together than to teach them how to manage screens. It’s all hands on deck that takes time and dedication on the part of the parent.
3 Ways screens affect children (and us if we’re honest)
Video games keep the gamer engaged by giving them a sense of control and choices which lead to instant rewards, being gratified immediately. Instant rewards increase dopamine levels, the feel good chemical in the brain, through the roof. The problem with feeding reward systems and dopamine in the mind is that it takes more and more to appease it. What’s interesting is that research is finding in children the same reward circuits that are being activated with video games are the same reward circuits that feed harmful addictions.
Screens have caused our children to become overstimulated and unable to process the delay of gratification. The problem with video games, multi-tasking, and constant iPad use is that this type of activity releases dopamine. When you’re used to the high arousal state screens constantly provide, it’s hard to see something like nature as fascinating. The dopamine needs to be fed, and at higher levels each time. Video game creators are constantly leveling up video game stimulation by creating visuals that are faster and more complex, increasing the intensity in rewards, which then increases the adrenaline experienced. How can a bike ride compete? It’s pale in comparison.
The other problem with raising dopamine levels through the fast-paced rewards that are given through video games is that it puts the body into a high state of arousal, followed by a crash. This is where we see our children become disregulated, moody, anxious, and sometimes aggressive. Dopamine is what makes the player want to play more. Game designers are geniuses at creating intensity in their games to satisfy the inner reward system. Coming down from high dopamine levels causes a child to become disorganized or anxious. The other problem is that serotonin, important for being social, having a stable mood and coping with stress, becomes more disregulated with video game play, making games more like self medication.
The hyper-arousal that video games create is caused by the constant state of being in “fight or flight brain”, making it hard to relax or think things through. When a child lives in their fight or flight brain continually, it becomes hard to regulate. The nervous system is in a state of stress, and if that is prolonged, it can actually cause damage. If you’ve ever experienced a child who normally is fairly even tempered turn savage after being asked to stop playing a game, it’s because their nervous system is on overload.
Loss of curiosity
To be human is to be curious, inspiring creativity. Unfortunately, slow cooked creativity that comes from a curiosity about life can’t compete with the high levels of dopamine release a video game can provide. Normal things become boring. Nature is too slow. Relationships become too much effort for too much pain compared to the instant gratification rewards a game offers. There is no comparison.
However, when we were about one month and a half through a screen free summer, I noticed how much my boys actually need games for downtime. I realized after couple of times when I allowed the boys to play for a limited time near the end of the summer that it actually refreshed them. I realized at that moment that it was going to take time and great intention on my part to navigate the waters of balancing screens in our home. Coming back into the fall and permission again for screens, my goal was to train my boys to learn how to handle them. My youngest, for example, cannot handle the same amount of time on a screen as my older son without becoming moody and disregulated. I’m teaching him to notice the signs and get off the screen before it gets out of control. As for what my boys really thought about this process, they will tell you it was horrible, but deep inside it has built the awareness inside of them that screens can easily get out of control. We all noticed the difference in our mood over the summer, but they won’t tell you that.
There’s no pat answer. Every child is different. You can teach your children to be masters of the screen, rather than the other way around. We don’t have a mental health problem, we have a problem with disconnection. Connection is our goal always, not what we do with screens. With us by our children’s side, we can help them navigate screens. With connection at the centre our children can discover a healthy way to balance screens because they will have a secure base with us to navigate from.
My book, “Bring Them Closer”, coming out this fall, covers the issues surrounding why our children are suffering with mental health issues. If you’re concerned with screens, anxiety, depression, opposition, ADHD, or suicidal thoughts regarding your child, this book is a must read. You can pre-order a copy of the book here.