Our kids are facing an epidemic, and we are completely ignoring it. Those are strong words, but electronic consumption is wreaking havoc on our children’s brains and bodies. Despite the cries from the psychology world, no one is listening.
I want to be one more voice in the crowd saying, “Wake up! We are in trouble.”
Parents, we need to make a change for both ourselves and our children.
Our Kids are Facing an Epidemic, and We Are Completely Ignoring It
What is the epidemic? Media Consumption.
How do I know we are ignoring it? Both the scientific data and the personal observation tell me it is true.
Among my daughter’s class of twelve year olds, she is one of only a few that do not have a smart phone.
I work with high school youth and get to observe both those teens and my own children’s peers in the tween world. Asking questions and observing behaviors associated with media consumption contribute to my conclusions.
We can all observe kids as young as six walking down the street hypnotically with their heads buried in their phones.
It takes only slight observation to see that people are ignoring the warnings about media consumption. Just glance around a coffee shop, restaurant, waiting room or school event to witness the truth.
If you don’t believe your own eyes, maybe you can believe some of the current stats:
- “US teens spend an average of more than seven hours per day on screen media for entertainment, and tweens spend nearly five hours, a new report finds — and that doesn’t include time spent using screens for school and homework.” – CNN Health
- 19% of 8 year olds, 72% of 13 year olds, and 91% of 18 year olds own a smart phone. See all the ages at a infographic produced by Common Sense Media.
- U.S. adults spend 12 hours and 7 minutes on media a day. – eMarketer
- “45% of teens now say they are online on a near-constant basis.” – Pew Research
- Top media usage has includes TV/video consumption (53% tweens/39% teens), Gaming (31% tweens/22% teens) and social media use (4% tweens/16% teens) – Common Sense Media
How Digital Media Impacts the Brain
Much of my understanding of this topic was taken from this article by Dr. Jeff Hansen, who credits a number of leading experts on how the brain works. Please visit his 50 page paper for an even deeper look into the topic. He has given me permission to share his findings.
There are major physical and mental health concerns with media use, and it’s important to understand the neurological impacts on the brain.
Some of the correlations between the mental health of our kids and the increase of media use are staggering, but this is not a case of correlation does not mean causation. There are scientifically proven chemical reactions that happen in our brain with exposure to screens.
Terms to Understand:
Dopamine: Dopamine is most directly associated with addiction. It is a “feel-good” transmitter and impacts thinking, moving, sleeping, mood, attention, motivation and reward seeking. Dopamine triggers the pleasure center of the brain, which also initiates a desire for more. This can be good for us and our survival, but the circuit can be highjacked in an unhealthy way with addictions like drugs, pornography, gambling, social media and video gaming.
Dopamine is released in media consumption.
DeltaFosB: This is a protein that accumulates and activates the genes associated with addiction. It works to rewire the brain to crave an addiction.
Showing how these two work together, Hansen states, “Dopamine is yelling, ‘This activity is really important, and you should do it again and again.’ DeltaFosB is responsible for ensuring that you remember to repeat the activity.”
CREB: CREB is another protein, which acts to slow things down. It inhibits dopamine and endogenous opioids to take the joy out of addictive behaviors, but it often leads to a desensitization and tolerance. This means there is a higher dose needed to produce the same “good” feelings.
In essence, with addictive behaviors, like media consumption, there is an onslaught of dopamine release. DeltaFosB encourages us to repeat the behaviors. CREB tells us to put on the brakes but then causes a desensitization where we seek more in the future. All of this impacts our capability of producing dopamine naturally, so we seek more addictive behaviors to get the hit we need.
Hansen says, “Then, as a ‘double whammy,’ this chronic exposure to addictive behaviors or substances negatively impacts the prefrontal cortex, which among other things is the brain’s decision-making center which is associated with impulse-control or the ‘braking mechanism.'”
Science points to the fact that an unhealthy use of media consumption rewires our brain chemistry, but there are other concerns as well.
Beyond the Brain: More Phsyical Health Concerns Associated with Media Use
Beyond the brain, screen use dysregulates our eye system, which is in charge of managing our sleep-wake system and impacts the secretion of melatonin.
Media consumption impacts the health of our body because we are often inactive during media use. Exercise releases endorphins in a natural and healthy way. We are not experiencing that positive chemical hit we need as we sit sedentary with our phones, computers or televisions.
Also, media consumption increases blood pressure, releases stress hormones and moves blood flow away from organs like the gut.
According to Hansen, “Research indicates that all forms of screen time create subtle changes in the cardiovascular system, which can cause significant damage over the course of time.”
According to Kardaras, the author of “Glow Kids,” the overstimulation of glowing and flashing lights can cause damage to the myelin in neural pathways. “Myelination is an important process that acts to insulate nerve cell axons to increase the speed at which information travels from one nerve cell to another.”
Further, media consumption can lead people into a state of chronic hyperarousal that leads to blood flow shifts, elevated cortisol (which is associated with obesity, diabetes, hormone imbalance metabolic syndrome and high blood pressure), and chronic stress. – Hansen
Our overall health is suffering because of our media usage.
What is the Mental Health Epidemic Associated with Media Consumption?
Our children’s mental health is at stake as well. Heck, our own mental health is at stake.
We have already talked about the concerns of dopamine release and addictive behaviors altering the chemistry of the brain. Like any good infomercial, but wait, there’s more…
According to Healthline, social media use is linked with depression and loneliness.
Further, “For each additional hour of TV watched by a child under the age of 3, the likelihood of an attentional problem by the age of 7 increased by about 10%. So a preschooler who watches 3 hours of TV per day is 30% more likely to have attentional problems than a child who watches no TV.” – Brain specialist John Medina in “Brain Rules for Babies“
Kardaras confirms that there is ample research to support that exposure to video games and television use in adolescence leads to a much greater risk of attention problems. Brain-imaging research shows that prefrontal cortex is compromised with exposure to screens.
Kertsing, author of “Disconnected: How to Reconnect our Digitally Distracted Kids,” suggests that many of our misdiagnosed ADHD kids were not born with a disorder but have “acquired attention deficit disorder.”
“Childhood psychosocial and neurodevelopment issues have increased proportionally with the insidious growth of electronic screen exposure in daily life.” – Dr. Jeff Hansen
Electronic Screen Syndrome (ESS) is identified by Dunckley in “Reset Your Child’s Brain” as “a constellation of symptoms from exposure to electronic screens as characterized by a state of hyper-arousal (fight or flight) and mood dysregulation.”
Kids with ESS are being misdiagnosed with mental disorders, childhood bipolar disorder, and ADHD. Screens keep kids in a hyper state of arousal and focus that is followed by a crash. This results in a variety of chemical, hormonal and sleep disturbances that are causing symptoms of anxiety, mood swings, insomnia, poor self-regulation, irritability and problems in focus and school. Read more about that in Psychology Today.
According to Science Direct, high users of screens time (7 hrs. vs. 1 hr) were twice as likely to suffer from anxiety and depression. I’d encourage you to read that entire study. Seven hours may seem extreme, but CNN Health reported that U.S. teens spend an average of 7 hours on screens, and that does not include homework time.
In regards to homework time, Pediatric Neurologist, Dr. Marin Kutscher, says that if kids are multi-switching from homework to digital distractions, it destroys the ability to focus. “Depending on the study, research indicates re-orientation to a task can take 1-5 minutes and, in some cases, as long as 25 minutes.
In addition to our physical and mental health, there are huge concerns with our children’s safety and morality.
Suicide among kids and teens is at an all time high. See here. According to Dr. Hansen (pg. 19 &20) “The CDC recently reported that suicide rates among the ‘Most Digitally Connected Generations’ has increased at an alarming rate in the last 10 years after being flat for nine years. This 30% increase in suicide correlates with the advent of the smart phone.” See here.
Let’s talk about sexual predators. Social media is a breeding ground for kids being sucked into sex trafficking and other sexual behavior. Read this mom’s account of setting up a fake Instagram account. If you want to understand the grave realities in an “innocent” realm like Instagram, watch this terrifying video (trigger warning) about an undercover team going after online pedophiles.
Pornography is a massive issue impacting our lives. Half of young adults (49%) and one-third of teens (32%) say all or most of their friends regularly view porn. 47,000,000 porn videos are viewed by 7 to 14 year old children in the USA every single day. For more disturbing facts, visit here.
It could be a coincidence that as digital media consumption is on the rise so is suicide, depression, anxiety, mood disorders, ADHD and more, but knowing what we do about how media impacts the brain, I doubt it. Here’s a graph (older but still relevant) to show show correlations.
What Signs to Look for that Point to Media Addiction
Social media addiction or Electronic Screen Syndrome can be confused with a variety of mood disorders. There are some warning signs to look for to discover if this is impacting your family include:
- trouble concentrating
- increased meltdowns
- anger and rage
- sleep issues
- attracted to screens like a moth to a flame
- chronic stress
- hyperarousal or “revved up” – ADHD like symptoms
- mental disorders
- violent behaviors
- less happy than normal or loss of interest in otherwise pleasurable activities
- interests that seem to only revolve around screens
- dampened curiosity or thirst for knowledge
What Do We Do About this Epidemic that Everyone Seems to be Ignoring?
There are mental and physical health ramifications associated with our media usage. There are interpersonal concerns as well. Our kids are at risk from so many angles. What do we do with all the information you just consumed?
Educate Your Kids
Share this article with your kids. Help them to understand the reason behind your concern about cell phones and screen time.
I have heard it said, “Rules without Relationship = Rebellion.” Be the kind of parent that engages in the conversation rather than just sets the limits.
Studies show that it is good to be an authoritative parent, one who is highly warm and loving but also sets strong boundaries.
Part of building that relationship is creating understanding, letting kids know that all of your choices for them stem from your deep love and concern for their well-being.
Ideally, kids would choose this for themselves. They might see the ramifications of phone use among their friends and be wise enough to know that is not what they want for themselves.
Educate One Another
Share what you learned in this article with others. The more parents are educated, the easier it will be for the masses to make the necessary changes. It is an epidemic, so we do need extreme change.
If we have enough people standing up to say, “Enough is enough. We will fight for our children’s health,” the easier it will be for everyone to make good decisions in this arena.
Confession – I think I have a media problem. Sure my job is wrapped up in social media and the online world, but I have to fight to find a healthy balance. I like games like Ticket to Ride, Words with Friends, and I find myself scrolling through Facebook when I am bored. It is a go-to to keep myself occupied and entertained rather than learning to just be.
I have needed to work on intentionally leaving my phone plugged in across the room. Keeping my head up to engage with my kids, play a game, watch a movie or enjoy life is a choice I have to make, and sometimes I fail. I’m a work in progress too.
There have been times where the phone distractions contribute to my own sense of anxiety. I recently went a weekend without my phone. The amount of angst and anxiety I felt when I was around it again was palpable. The problem was, I wasn’t annoyed with my phone and the pulls there, I was annoyed with my kids, and they felt it.
The more we can model a healthy balance of screen life, the more hope there is for our children to do the same.
Get Your Kids Active
Your kids are going to come into this world with a variety of interests and talents. Whether it is church, sports, theatre, music, art, dance, the great outdoors or science club, get your kids engaged with real world activities.
We don’t want to keep our kids over-busy, but we do want to experience the joys and triumphs found in living without screens.
Give them plenty of outdoor and creative play as well. Unstructured boredom is actually healthy for them.
It’s easier to start with screen limitations when they are young rather than needing to reign it in after prolonged exposure. Follow the World Health
Organizations guideline of having no more than 1 hour of screen time for kids age 2-4, but less is even better.
Don’t always turn on the iPads or screens in the car. Sure, a movie on a long road trip is fine, but keep it the exception rather than the norm.
Avoid taking screens to restaurants. It is so much easier for parents. So much easier. However, we have to treat those times as learning and growing experiences as well. Kids should learn to engage in conversation, sit at the table and be polite. Use it as a time to teach. I know it is exhausting. Need adult time? Keep the kids home with a babysitter and head out on your own.
Avoid Smart Phones
It feels impossible in this day and age, but avoid smart phones. Our counselor gave us a huge thank you when we told him our kids don’t have phones. After 40 years of experience, he is seeing the fall out from the media exposure. His advice is no phones until high school and flip phones at that time.
I know how hard that feels. They will feel left out of social media communication. “Everyone has one.” A flip phones is harder and lame. They won’t have the newest and best that their peers have in terms of technology. It’s all going to be challenging.
Acknowledge that. Again, talk about it, and try and get them to make the choice for themselves.
Know Your Kids
I just said to avoid smart phones, but some kids will be able to navigate this technology fine. They are naturally disciplined, wise, not sucked into getting their self-worth through social media, and they have self-control.
For other kids…and I would claim the majority (even the “good” kids)…they are much more susceptible to getting sucked in to the temptation. I have one kid who is obviously drawn to screens more than the others. This one might need more help navigating this world of media usage.
Set Limits Where Necessary
Have screen-free times. Doing homework should be one of those. It is so hard these days when kids are needing to research online, use the calculator on their phone or want to listen to music while they work. I would encourage you to find work-arounds.
If kids cannot set their own reasonable limits for screen time, I’d encourage you to do it for them. It’s a hard decision. There will be kick back. I understand that you don’t want controlling parenting to lead to rebellion. Hopefully you have built years into a loving relationship where they ultimately trust you.
There are time limits you can set on iPhones.
Have screen free hours set for you home.
Put phones away during family meals.
Enjoy Media Consumption Together
Build in family time around media consumption. We have pizza movie night on Friday nights. We have watched Little House on the Prairie as a family. Currently our family looks forward to every Wednesday night where we watch Survivor together.
Having a Wii game night planned or other ways to both engage and do media at the same time can be healthy when done in moderation.
Monitor. Monitor. Monitor.
I know we don’t want to live in a world of paranoia where people don’t have privacy or freedom, but it is scary what is happening online.
I talked to one Dean of Students who said that the behavior of kids online is the #1 concern she has for her students. She is pulled into the world of naked selfies, bullying, and addictions regularly.
Take the advice of this principal, who shares his counseling after what he has seen happening among his students online.
We all think, “Not my kid. My kid is a good kid,” but you would be surprised what these “good kids” are doing and sharing online.
This is a hard world to navigate. Technology is not going away. There’s a balance to find between controlling the situation and teaching kids to navigate technology through their own discipline.
Right now we are giving our kids the entire world at their fingertips when their brains are most malleable and not fully formed. Our kids are facing an epidemic, and we are completely ignoring it.
Please join me in the fight for our kids. They need warriors at this time.
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