January 02, 2018
By Gregory J. Skibinski, LCPC, CADC, CSAT, CMAT, Executive Director, Agape Counseling Ltd.
Spending too much time with digital devices is having a negative effect on kids’ focus, learning, and memory. According to Common Sense Media, teens spend nearly nine hours a day in front of a screen. That includes phones, tablets, and the TV, which kids watch while doing their homework or messaging each other on social media.
Currently, more than two-thirds of teens own a smartphone and 37 percent own a tablet. Parents and teachers often tell me that teens sit in class trying to resist the temptation to pull out their phone and check their text messages or check social media with apps like Snapchat, Instagram, or Finstagram. It’s not a coincidence that your 16-year-old seems so dramatic. When their device buzzes and they see a “Like,” they get a rush from it that most adults don’t, making it harder for them to put their phones away.
If you can remember the awkwardness of those teenage years, especially in social situations, kids can now simply stare at their phones when they feel uncomfortable instead of socializing (which is true for some adults too). People often hide behind their cellphones. We need to address this and create more situations where we can foster face-to-face interactions. We need to improve on creating anything that forces kids to work together and develop their social skills without their digital devices.
Technology is not a bad thing, but too much technology definitely is. Video game or Internet addictions are becoming more common in the kids and teens that I work with as a clinical therapist. When parents try to limit the use of the devices that have become so very important to their child, some parents report that their kids respond with violence (hitting, putting fists through walls, slamming doors) or threaten self-harm. Parents may then call the police or take them to the E.R. because they pose a risk to themselves or others. In other cases, parents decide to make peace, allowing kids to use all the tech they demand, even if it’s at the expense of the child’s development.
It’s important to know that video games, especially those played online, and social networks are what kids are getting addicted to, not learning technologies. Teen boys, as well as kids with ADHD and those on the autistic spectrum, seem to be the most at risk. Advances in brain scan technologies have revealed that substance and behavioral addictions (gambling, gaming, internet pornography, and internet) have a similar effect on the brain. When one engages, this triggers a release of the reward-based neurotransmitter dopamine at levels similar to an injection of amphetamine. Key elements of the brain’s reward center become hijacked: the cingulated gyrus (an area involved in motivation) and the prefrontal cortex (The brain’s judgment center). This explains why kids become fixated or seem like they are in a trance while on their digital devices. They cease to care about the things that once mattered to them most, yet have no regard or insight of their problem.
Let’s be clear that adults can become addicted to their devices and social media too. Often times, parents don’t confront the issue of too much technology use because we are guilty ourselves (myself included). The importance lies in the fact that we need to lean into this uncomfortable discussion and address the facts. We need to talk about it. How many times have you walked into a restaurant and seen a family waiting on their food and everyone is on their digital devices instead of engaging in face-to-face conversation? What a missed opportunity!
What seems clear is that there needs to be boundaries. Teens struggle with self control, just like adults, and they know that playing Star Wars Battlefront II or Call of Duty, or watching episode after episode on Netflix for eight hours straight is not a productive use of their time. According to Common Sense Media, only three percent of teens’ screen time involves creating stuff. The rest is devoted to consuming video and music content, playing games, and using social media. We’re often putting too much of a burden on kids to self-regulate, and that isn’t doing them any favors.
Snatching up their phones and tablets isn’t the right strategy either. One of the best strategies seems to be talking to your kids about why they should use their devices less. Part of developing self-control and self-regulation is learning about it, understanding it, and believing in the goal. Once they believe and have a say in the goal of limiting screen time, creating boundaries — with their input — becomes important, so the rules don’t seem unfair and arbitrary. Draw up a contract or write down the expectations so the kids know and remember what they have agreed too. The discussion then changes to one in which, “We are all in this together.”
We need to be aware of the negative effects of too much screen time with digital devices and confront it earlier and earlier in our kids' lives. We need to do everything we can to develop and nurture our children’s connection with the two most important activities in their lives: family and school. Such connections are best made away from the temptations of digital devices and screens.
For more information or to schedule a consultation, please contact Agape Counseling at 309-663-2229. They are a group of Christian counselors, social workers, psychologists, and support staff committed to a therapeutic process which ministers to the whole person. Their Bloomington office is located at 211 N. Veterans Parkway, (next to Krispy Kreme). They also have offices in Peoria and Morton. Visit them online at www.agapecounselors.net.
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