By Melanie Hempe, Founder of ScreenStrong – January 15, 2019
PHOTO CREDIT: iStock
Parents no longer need to rely solely on their intuition when it comes to the best solutions for balancing their kids’ screen usage. Last year brought more concrete evidence and more science to back up the reasons kids are better off when parents delay the use of social media and video games.
Now you can start the year with new confidence to take action and reduce the use of unnecessary screens and delay entertainment devices for your kids.
We have put together a list of 10 myths that science says you no longer need to believe about screens and kids:
1. MYTH: Screens are harmless for kids. We watched TV and played video games growing up and we are fine. “They” (the culture, and the video game and phone companies) would never allow something to be on the market that would actually hurt my kids’ brains.
FACT: Preliminary MRI results from the new 10-year NIH study of 11,000 kids 1 tells us that screen use is physically changing our kids brains. Kids who spend 7 hours in front of a screen show a premature thinning of the outer layer of the cortex in the brain. It’s a fact; the volume of time that kids are spending on devices is hurting their brain development.
Games of the past did not have the same persuasive addictive design elements that our kids face today. Gone are the days of running out of quarters at the local arcade. While they may have been a waste of time, TV shows from your childhood did not make kids anxious, depressed and suicidal. Most were over within 30 minutes which left most of the day dedicated to playing outside. No binging on Netflix back then.
Today, kids cannot stay off screens because screens are programmed to draw them in and too much is hurting them.
Solution: Keep the family movie night, but delay smartphone use and video games in your child’s life. Get a basic phone when totally necessary and forget the video game console for now.
2. MYTH: Social media is just a new way for kids to communicate. It’s no different from when we spent hours talking on the phone in our bedrooms when we were growing up.
FACT: Social media hurts our kids. In 2018, Jean Twenge’s book “iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood—and What That Means for the Rest of Us” 2 revealed that smartphone use in teens coincides with a downward shift in their emotional health. When teens constantly use photos to compare their lives to others on social media, there is a spike in anxiety, depression and suicide.
“The arrival of the smartphone has radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives, from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health,” Twenge wrote in the article “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation” that appeared in The Atlantic. “These changes have affected young people in every corner of the nation and in every type of household. The trends appear among teens poor and rich; of every ethnic background; in cities, suburbs, and small towns. Where there are cell towers, there are teens living their lives on their smartphone.”3
In addition, throughout 2018 big tech was in the news over and over regarding privacy breaches from Facebook and other popular social media sites. Is it wise for kids to be sharing volumes of personal information on social media platforms? They do not have the foresight or impulse control to help themselves and no amount of digital citizenship training can make your child more mature. Only time and real life experience will do that.
Solution: See how long your teen can go without a phone, then get them a basic phone only to use when needed. This will reduce the temptation to isolate. They don’t want a basic phone? Then a portable phone still works perfectly (the one in our home is tied to a cell line so they can carry it to their friend’s house if needed). Your goal: healthy kids, real communication skills and family privacy.
3. MYTH: It is important for my kids to use screens in school so they will not get behind. We live in a digital world and they must be prepared for their future jobs.
FACT: The book “Screen Schooled” by Joe Clement and Matt Miles was released in 2018. It uncovered more research on the harm of screen overuse during the school day.4 The promise of using technology to solve education problems is failing. Students are getting more distracted, are less focused, and are getting lower grades when they have a laptop on their desk. It’s a fact.
Solution: Do not let your child/teen take a smartphone to school. Use a basic phone for you to text them if necessary or better yet, use the phone in the office. They will also exercise their communication skills when they ask permission from the adult at the deak. Request real books and real note taking for your student. Talk with your school administrators about the current screen research and remove personal screens as much as possible.
4. MYTH: If you don’t let your kids use entertainment screens as their go-to activity (video games and social media) they will binge and crave it later, and they will hate you.
FACT: Your teen’s brain is molded by the activities it is exposed to. The younger a person is when exposed to addiction, the greater the chances of being addicted in adulthood. In fact, 90% of all adult addiction begins in the teen years.5 Like drugs and alcohol, when used obsessively, social media and video games are highly addictive and are not healthy for kids. Furthermore, using an addictive substance or participating in an addictive behavior doesn’t help you learn how to control it better. Teens need parents to talk about drugs, alcohol and screen addiction openly, not as a forbidden fruit, but as an adult activity (or danger) that they are not ready for yet.
Research says that the permissive parenting style does not work well.6 This parenting style says, “Sure, go ahead have fun, just be careful.” Your teen craves boundaries and limits. They need you to care enough to go against the culture if necessary and say “no” because the better judgment area of their brain is not mature yet. If they grow up learning how to use screens as tools and have boundaries around entertainment screens, chances are slim that they will binge later.7 But if they grow up overusing screens, chances are they will keep overusing. Little gamers grow up to be big gamers just as little drinkers grow up to be big drinkers.
For centuries, teens have been trying to grow up faster than they should. Remember, social media is not for kids. Adolescence is the worse time for social media as it is the season of identity development. Parental input is more necessary than 24/7 access to the swamp of every platform in the world.
Solution: Be a good parent/coach. Use your solid judgment and your fully developed frontal cortex to guide your teen. Just say “no” to alcohol, drugs and addictive screen entertainment.
5. MYTH: Boys will be boys. A little bit of porn is okay, after all the Playboy magazine we had in our backyard fort didn’t hurt us.
FACT: All porn is harmful for child and brain development,8 but the demeaning, violent and graphic sexual images and videos are not like the Playboy magazine in the fort in the backyard from years ago. Porn viewing activates the reward center in the brain and triggers the release of brain chemicals that create long-term cravings, making it difficult to break the porn habit.
Not every teen who is on a screen will search out porn, but the porn industry is targeting gamers for their up-and-coming customers.9 And if you have ever tried to lock down a teen smartphone, you know how difficult it is. Because of highly accessible digital platforms, porn is now used by kids as young as 10.10
Solution: Protect our children and teens from pornography and raise the bar in your home. Openly discuss the dangers and temptations of porn and keep all screens in plain view. Increase accountability through using parental controls on all devices, but know that a caring parent and limited time on devices is the best parental control. Protect your teens, keep conversations open, frequent and meaningful, and support and encourage a porn-free home.
6. MYTH: Eighth grade is the best age for a smartphone.Teens need social media because that is where all of their friends are and they will be social outcasts if they don’t have it.
FACT: In 2018 at the Digital Media and Developing Minds Congress, research was discussed regarding social media use in eighth graders. Studies show that mid-adolescence, specifically eighth grade, is a time of heightened vulnerability to risky and reckless behaviour.11 Part of the reason for this is the increase in reward-seeking behavior fueled by the remodeling of the brain during this stage of brain development.
For example, in sixth grade, top Internet searches centered around the subject of animals, but in 8th grade, top searches were depression and relationships. When asked if they had ever made rude or mean comments in texts, 36% of 6th graders said they had. That increased to 45% in 7th graders and even more in 8th graders with 54% (more than half) saying they had sent mean texts. When asked if they had ever uploaded embarrassing photos of a friend, 6th graders came in at 7% while 8th graders were a staggering 35%.12
The more time a teen spends on social media and games, the more time they are spending with their peers. With 24/7 online access your teen never really “comes home.” Studies confirm that peer-oriented kids do worse in all areas of life than parent-oriented kids.13 Like the blind leading the blind, teens are not equipped to lead teens. Teens need parents as their guide. When family attachment is stronger than peer attachment, teens have a healthier social life.
Social media doesn’t make stronger friendships. Tethered to their smartphones 24/7, teens admit to loving their phones more than their friends. Teens now perfer to go to their rooms so they can hang out on their phones in privacy. But are they really socializing or are they just becoming more lonely and depressed? Research says the latter. 14, A 13-year-old girl explains to Twenge, “We didn’t have a choice to know any life without iPads or iPhones. I think we like our phones more than we like actual people.” 15
Solution: More is not better when it comes to friends. Encourage your teen to build a few solid friendships rather than 400 shallow friends. Have their friends over to spend in-person, non-tech time with them. Get to know their friends and their friends’ parents. Teach your teen how to have a relationship by spending non-tech time with friends. Create family rituals, traditions and plenty of family time to enrich family connections and healthy friendships will follow.
7. MYTH: Parents who don’t allow smartphones or video games are over controlling and overprotective. They are helicopter parents. These parents are sheltering their kids.
FACT: Phones can easily “overprotect” our kids and make them more fragile, more anxious, bored and impatient. Phones train our teens to be less prepared, less creative and less independent than the generations before them who fought for their independence. Teens today fight for a spot on the sofa to cuddle up with their screen. They prefer the sheltered, safe, comfy, low-effort, high-reward cocoon behind their screen. But the less time they spend in the real world, facing real people, the less independent they want to become. Smartphones baby our kids.
This works out well for parents with “coddeling” tendencies as screen devices can provide cheap fuel for helicopter parents, helping them hover over their kids. It is hard not to hover when your teen has a phone. Parents use the phone to track their kids every move and read their texts in the name of safety. Parents text their offspring throughout the school day.
Keeping them “safe” up in their room hooked to their phone or game is also a temptation. Kids use the phone to check in with mom when anything uncomfortable comes up during the day instead of problem solving without her help. No need to pause and think, simply ask Siri for an answer or text mom to bring your lunch that you forgot. No thinking ahead required because the phone will always bail you out. This promotes anxiety and dependency in kids.
But phone-less kids grow in independence as they must exercise their planning ahead skills, complete with consequences. They are also less stressed. They do not depend on their phone to plan their day. Out of necessity, they must figure things out on their own, be resourceful and exercise good judgment (or experience the consequences of not doing that). Little stresses like scheduling issues and other life emergencies (i.e. mom is 10 minutes late for school pick up) get resolved without the phone crutch. Taking care of these little life emergencies on their own and not using their phone as a panic button, helps their self confidence that they will need to become future leaders.
Solution: Resist the urge to get your child a smartphone simply because you want the convenience of staying in touch with them. If you do get them one, know you will have the responsibility (and new full-time job) of monitoring it. Track the number of times a week you contact them unnecessarily and chances are you need to cut back. Living and working through everyday life situations grows independent thinkers. Running wild on the Internet does not make them more independent. A basic phone will meet your scheduling needs. No social media or smartphone is required for that.
8. MYTH: Esports can help my son become rich and famous, or pay for his college.
FACT: The chances of your son being successful at esports is very low, but the cost of trying is very high: the price is childhood.16 If your child’s video game were an investment (which it is), it is a bad investment. The amount of time he will need to spend on his screen is over eight hours every day to become proficient for the pro-level or to even consider being a YouTube success. At that level of play, your son is replacing healthy activities like chores, homework, and quality time with friends and family face-to-face.
It is very common for pro-players to drop-out of college 17 Esports also raises long term physical and mental health concerns. The physically inactive environment is especially detrimental to teens during the adolescent years and can lead to depression. Other sports lead to success without the dangers of social isolation, physical inactivity and the replacement of other activities.
Solution: Parents, do the research. There are 200 million registered players on Fortnite. Your child has a better chance of winning the lottery than building a Fortnite following. Many students dropout of college to pursue a gaming career that never comes to fruition. Make sure your son is balanced with other hobbies and interests in order to build a well-rounded future. Resist the urge to follow his drive to be a celebrity gamer. As the adult, you must use your head and guide your teen.
9. MYTH: Social media and video games like Fortnite make our kids happy.
FACT: According to the CDC, the suicide rate among young teen girls is now nearly triple what it was in 2000. According to the US Department of Health and Human services, “direct and indirect exposure to suicidal behavior has been shown to precede an increase in suicidal behavior in persons at risk for suicide, especially in adolescents and young adults.”18
This phenomenon called suicide contagion has parents concerned. Kids who spend the majority of their day isolated on a game or social media are becoming more anxious and depressed and lonely. They are not being productive, getting exercise or building deep friendships. They are being prematurely exposed to an adult world; a world where parents have little influence over what will most assuredly change their preferences, their dreams, their personalities and their lives.
“When we hand over phones and tablets to children, we are likely to be changing not only the information they can access but also their habits, their personalities, and their tastes. And while they may see their online life as a privilege—if not a right—we should also be honest enough to understand it as a burden. For the sake of our own convenience and their entertainment, we are giving up their freedom and perhaps even some of their happiness.”19
Solution: Help your teens learn how to find happiness in real life and move the screens out of the way. Structure real, in-person social gatherings for them on a regular basis until they can do this on their own. Do not allow your teen to disappear for hours in their room with their screens as this causes them to be lonely, depressed and miserable. If they are getting anxious and moody, take the device away. You only have one shot to have a good childhood, let’s not experiment with it.
10. MYTH: It is impossible to remove video games and social media from our kids’ lives.
FACT: It is not impossible for a child to thrive without video games, smartphones or personal tablets. With the current research and mounting evidence from families who have a lack of screen balance in their home, it is becoming more common for parents to pull the plug on personal and entertainment screens. There is a movement taking shape as parents are realizing that too many screens are a burden for kids, making them narcissistic, lonely and lost. Have we traded their childhood for our convenience and social conformity?
Eliminating video games and social media during your child’s adolescence will likely produce less stressed teens. Plus, the long-term benefits of family connectedness makes this a popular choice. Many seasoned families agree that delaying the use of entertainment screens was the best parenting decision they ever made.
Solution: Use screens for tools not toys. Delay video games and smartphones. Don’t make entertainment screens the main go-to activity in your child’s life. Let them borrow your phone when they need to call a friend. Have a family social media account if needed. Let them play a game every now and then (if you choose) when they are out, but do not allow games become their primary hobby. Don’t keep a game console in your home or personal screens in your den or in their bedroom.
You, the parents are the “coach” of your favorite team: your kids. Be bold this year and change your game plan if things aren’t working. Don’t buy into the myths that are hurting a generation. Be smart and rethink the screens in your kids lives. Reclaim them from time lost. Get to know your kids again and reconnect fragmented family relationships this new year.
Wondering if gaming has already gone too far in your home? We can help! Take a look at our book “Will Your Gamer Survive College?” that’s available on Amazon right now.
- Twenge, Jean M. IGen: Why Today’s Super-connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy– and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood (and What This Means for the Rest of Us). First Atria books hardcover edition. New York, NY: Atria Books, 2017.
- Clement, Joe, and Matt Miles. Screen Schooled: Two Veteran Teachers Expose How Technology Overuse Is Making Our Kids Dumber. Chicago Review Press Incorporated, 2018.
- The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. (2011, June). Adolescent Substance Use: America’s #1 Public Health Problem. Retrieved from https://www.centeronaddiction.org/addiction-research/reports/adolescent-substance-use-america%E2%80%99s-1-public-health-problem.
- Leonard Sax, MD, PhD, The Collapse of Parenting. How We Hurt Our Kids When We Treat Them Like Grown-Ups. (New York:Basic Books, 2016.)
- https://meetings.cshl.edu/meetings.aspx?meet=DMDMII&year=18 Digital Media and Developing Minds Second Congress, 2018, Linda Chararaman,PhD, Early Adolescent Wellbeing and Expressions of Peer Emotional Support on Social Media, report on study of 700 middle school students, ages 11-16 in the Northeast.
- Gordon Neufeld, PhD, and Gabor Maté, MD. Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Matter More than Peers. (New York: Ballantine Books, 2014)
- Jean M. Twenge, Thomas E. Joiner, Megan L. Rogers, and Gabrielle N. Martin, “Increases in Depressive Symptoms, Suicide-Related Outcomes,and Suicide Rates Among U.S. Adolescents After 2010 and Links to Increased New Media Screen Time.” htbp://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2167702617723376, (Nov. 14, 2017).
- Researchers are studying how addictive video games are E-Sports have exploded in popularity on college campuses across the nation, raising long-term physical and mental health concerns https://www.wtsp.com/article/news/researchers-are-studying-how-addictive-video-games-are/67-600547338
- https://ifstudies.org/blog/a-smartphone-will-change-your-child-in-ways-you-might-not-expect-or-want Naomi Schaefer Riley’s new book, Be the Parent, Please: Stop Banning Seesaws and Start Banning Snapchat.