The “Frenemy” Relationship with Screens (Part 1) What’s the Mental Health Impact upon my kids? By: Anastasia S. Ristau, PhD, LP

Parenting in the age of screens is front and center for many families like never before. While I’m the first to recognize that technology has value, more often than not, as a parent and even moreso as a clinical psychologist working with kids and families, I see the many downsides technology adds to our lives.  It’s like that ‘frenemy’ of daily life that amps up the already plentiful challenges of parenting. Like it or not, this has developed into a core parenting battleground with critical impact felt by many.  Ultimately, in the age of information overload, most are so busy that they just want to quickly understand the what and the howwhat are screens doing to our kids’ emotional and behavioral functioning, and, perhaps more importantly, for my family, how do I put into motion a collaborative, protective mental health barrier against the negative impacts of screens.

This first of a multi-part blog series highlights THE WHAT.  Stay tuned for the next blog which will highlight THE HOW.

What kind of impact are screen-based technological devices having upon the emotional and behavioral functioning of our youth?

There are both positives and negatives to screen time in terms of impact upon today’s kids.

Here are a few of the positive impact possibilities of screens:

  • Interactions online may provide a more comfortable space for normally anxious, shy, or socially uncomfortable kids to try out a new way of interacting with others in a way that feels more safe, allows more practice and rehearsal, and immediate feedback that can be rewarding.
  • Great for practicing conversation skills, building friendships, exploring personal values, morals, identity, and building confidence in one’s self-worth.
  • Kids may experience more awareness and understanding of the emotions of others as well as for themselves through online observations or interactions.
  • Some screen activities actually may help strengthen certain skills such as memory, organization, attention and focus, time management, planning, hand-eye coordination, etc., all example of a critical set of skills and abilities called “executive functioning”.
  • Sometimes, screen activities may improve our sense of happiness, satisfaction, belonging, and wellbeing, at least for a moment or two.
  • By design, electronic devices involve what is called intermittent reinforcement for our brains – these devices literally give us little ‘reward bumps’ for our brains that result in a boost of dopamine and other neurological processes. The upside of this is that we feel a sense of success, of satisfaction, excitement, and happiness at least for the time that we are engaged in that device.

Here are a few of the many downsides to screen times activities that must stay on our radar from a parenting standpoint.  For example,

  • Have I mentioned intermittent reinforcement intentionally designed within these screen-based devices? Yes. These devices and the games within, social media mediums, all of it – can be highly addicting. This is a slippery slope to which none of us are immune. Take a game on a smartphone for example. As soon as play begins, little nuggets of reward are strategically provided that hook the brain to want more. It’s natural, it’s powerful, and it happens very quickly exactly as it is designed to do. Not only that, unlike many other areas of life, these games provide an immediate sense of control, power, and success filled with highs and lows that pull a person right back in towards seeking that next nugget. Instant gratification at it’s best.
    • Kids and teenagers, especially, are vulnerable. Simply put: self-control and self-awareness are not exactly their neurological, biological strength!
    • Have you ever noticed how for some kids and teens, their entire personality seems to change for a little while after they have been on their electronic device? Think about this: what happens when someone is withdrawing from something they are ‘hooked’ on? Their mood suffers, their mind struggles, the body suffers, and this impacts everyone around them, too.
  • Feedback given via online mediums (e.g., social media), from both strangers and those familiar, can be overly harsh or negative. People often become really brave and brazen when not interacting in person. While negative feedback can be important in and of itself, at times, in terms of shaping and developing healthy emotional, coping, and social skills, delivery and timing is critical. Online comments may shift towards having a detrimental impact when taken to an extreme, when delivered in an overly harsh manner, or when negative feedback is given without merit (e.g., online social media trolling).
  • Even one negative comment among a sea of positive praise can linger and instantly become a toxic force within a person.
  • Contrary to common sense, social media can provide a false sense of being connected to others but can actually result in youth feeling more distant, less connected, and as if they are missing out. The often false reality of social media is like looking at everyone else’s highlight reel and can feel very rejecting and exclusionary.  Social isolation, when not one’s preference, is a lonely place to be.
  • Online interactions produce ripe stomping grounds for either passive or direct social media bullying. Again, just one negative or personally directed insensitive comment from even a stranger can resonate and fester internally with many negative consequences if not recognized and dealt with in a healthy manner.
  • Risk for becoming dependent upon electronics at the expense of real-life, face to face communications. This leads to decreased comfort with, willingness to engage in, and familiarity with all that comes with human interaction including building relationships and having healthy conversations. Relationships are hard with many normal ups and downs! If we don’t learn to navigate this as children and adolescents, this becomes much more difficult.
  • Kids may be exposed to intense images and information much earlier in age than they are prepared for from a brain development standpoint. For example, through screens, kids are seeing, hearing, and learning about very intense, serious, dark, scary information that may escalate feelings of hopelessness, loss of control, fears about life, and so on. No fault of their own, kids are not neurologically, emotionally, or socially designed to fully process and rationally understand or make sense of that information on their own. Exposure without the opportunity of adult supervision and follow-up discussion can have detrimental impact in some cases.
  • Risk for desensitization to violence, aggression. Even if in cartoon form, screens present great risk for a gradual numbing effect upon our brains and bodies especially with repeated exposure. And let’s be real – we are all bombarded with some pretty intense images all day long, from every which way we turn, in today’s high tech society. Children are particularly vulnerable in this regard.
  • Risk for developing a skewed sense of what is “normal” behavior and especially for what people are “supposed” to be like in relationships, in families, and other important domains of life.
  • Chronic hyper-stimulation and loss of a sense of time while sucked into the bottomless vortex of screen devices. Many hold a false sense of ability to “multitask” and thus risk developing poor habits with school work or even balancing out activities of daily living. When do our brains and bodies get a break if we are constantly in high stimulation intake mode? Not to mention the loss of time at the expense of sleep, exercise, proper nutrition, or social opportunities.
  • Learning — kids, especially younger kids, learn best from multisensory experiences and particularly through active, real-life play. In other words, kids learn the most when they can hear it, see it, feel it, and do it – these involve many senses.  Electronics are generally less multi-sensory but still offer high brain stimulation with the senses that they do involve.
    • Kids’ brains, today, quickly adjust and become accustomed to this level of input. It seems likely, then, that this may impact their ability to tolerate or manage less stimulating situations and experiences… like being calm, quiet, or even <gasp> bored.

Interestingly – the way in which we engage in the use of things like social media has an impact upon our mental health. For example, kids who passively use social media or other avenues of screen activities — such as swiping through passively looking at others’ postings but not actively engaging in any type of interaction — are at increased risk for heightened anxiety, depression, of feeling socially isolated and of becoming more isolated in their social reality as well.  So there appears to be a relationship, for example, between mental health resiliency and the simple act of an adolescent making the effort to engage with their friends on social media with an emoji, a GIF, or a comment.  Perhaps this produces a sense of active connection to others and helps one to feel included as opposed to watching and observing from a distance, feeling excluded and on the outside, as if standing in the corner of a party watching everyone else having fun except for yourself.

Stay tuned for the next installment of this blog for the very important next steps — How, as a parent, can I implement healthy boundaries to buffer from the negative impacts of devices and instead promote the mental health wellbeing for my family when it comes to our “Frenemy” of Screen Devices?

The struggle is real, people.  Very real.  But together, we can make progress.

Breathing with you,

Dr. A

Dr. Ristau is a clinical psychologist and clinical supervisor for the PrairieCare After School Intensive Outpatient Programs.  Click here to learn more about the Behavior Development Program for childrenClick here to learn more about the Healthy Emotions Program for adolescents.

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