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Not too many years ago parents who came to our workshops asked if screen time could make their kids stressed, anxious and depressed. Intuitively, parents knew that screen time used for entertainment, not just screen overuse, had the power to hurt their kids. Today we have the studies to prove that the content on popular digital platforms can make our kids more stressed and anxious. These parents were ahead of their time; they were right.
Negativity is running wild on your children’s screens. Our kids are exposed to more negativity than any other generation. From video games to social media, negativity is dispensed in doses far too great for a child or teen to handle. Video games are violent—much more violent than they were 10-20 years ago. Your kids are not eating their way through a maze or collecting tokens; they are being shot in the head. Stress is mounting as your son is running for his life in Fortnite; his fight-flight center is activated and the adrenaline is pumping. Your daughter visits the “city dump” every day as she scrolls through social media. Her peers are there to point out every possible flaw about her: her clothes, her hair, her skin, all in the name of socializing. If she doesn’t think it is funny, they ridicule her more. The negativity piles on. Nothing about this is positive, healthy or necessary.
The Science of Negativity
Not only are negative influences outweighing the positive ones but they are more powerful.
Bad is more potent than good in the world of emotional health. One single traumatic event in childhood can have lasting effects, even for a lifetime. However, one single positive event does not necessarily carry that same weight. Seeing a graphic, negative image also stimulates more activity in the brain then a positive image, having the ability to be permanently stored in your child’s brain. The pain of gossip or rejection for a teen is much stronger than the pleasure of being praised for a positive trait. No wonder our kids are emotionally sick.
The science of negative screens
In order to keep us safe, the human brain is programmed to constantly evaluate our environments for negative stimuli. In your child’s environment, threats come in the form of being killed in a video game, losing a Fortnite round, being bullied in a text, or receiving negative feedback on a social media post (or not receiving feedback at all), just to name a few. While none of us can live this life free from potential harm, these incessant damaging threats are avoidable. To an adult, these things may be easily dismissed, but they appear far more serious to your child. Negative, anxious responses to these threats accumulate over time and wreak havoc on your child ‘s health.
The primal desire to seek out bad content is stronger than the desire to seek out positive content. Juicy gossip and gross YouTube videos naturally log more views than good content. I say “naturally” because it is instinctive for our brains to constantly scan the environment for threats. Our survival depends on it. For a young, developing mind, the temptation to look at something gross is stronger than the desire to gaze at a photo of a beautiful flower.
They can’t resist or look away. While you may argue that there is some good found on our kid’s screens, scanning youtube and social media daily is making our kids sicker, not stronger, and certainly not more prepared for their future in the real world. Appreciating beauty does not come as readily and therefore must be proactively cultivated.
Good doesn’t necessarily reverse the bad
The good stuff on social media doesn’t outweigh the bad stuff. If the events, comments or experiences are relatively equal, it will take four or five good things to overcome the damage of one bad thing (PubMed.gov, Psychology Today). But if the bad thing was much more intense than the good thing (i.e. someone made fun of you in a group text versus mom gave you a compliment) it will take more. You were once a teen, you know that bad experiences cut deeper than good experiences can heal. You remember negative statements said to you and can still feel the pain to this day. If your teen experiences one bad thing on social media, it may take much more than five good things to help her get over it. And there is a chance that she will never get over it.
So parents feel that they are charged with the task of counteracting all the bad found in their kid’s virtual world, but in most families it is impossible to manufacture enough good influences to outweigh the bad found on their screens. This is why child therapist’s offices are so busy across our country; unfortunately, it seems that many kids have heavy hearts these days. As a parent, you love your child but you can’t possibly counteract all the negativity on their screens.
Want more positive ScreenStrong kids for the new year?
The solution is avoiding bad influences rather than trying to add enough significant good influences. You have two options. You either try to load their life with enough positive experiences to counteract the bad ones, or you simply reduce the amount of bad that they are exposed to. The latter is much easier, and in my opinion based on the research, is much more effective and healthy. The myth says that “the virtual world is our future; our kids must get used to it.” But the truth is that the best way to raise strong, resilient kids is to give them a healthy childhood, not one that is heavy with negativity and forces them into adulthood before they are ready.
As you build a more positive environment for your family in this new year, we suggest the following ScreenStrong goals:
- Consider creating a video-game free home. Yes, you read this right. This one step can single-handedly transform your home and allow your child to immediately begin to replace violent, negative content with more positive hobbies. And, he will have many more real friends when you remove the obstacle that is keeping him glued to a screen.
- Consider creating a porn-free home. The goal is to eliminate this negative influence from your child’s life. If this sounds like a no-brainer, think again. There are some who believe that kids should experience their first time porn viewing under their own roof. I disagree. In order for you to coach your kids through this temptation you have to set high goals and be vigilant. You must also realize that the younger your child is when they are exposed to porn the more damage will be done. The combination of 24/7 access to the internet coupled with a curious mind is setting our kids up for failure, not to mention life-long addiction. Positive steps include giving them a phone with no internet, not allowing social media, not allowing laptops in private places, not allowing screens in the bedroom, and setting up content accountability.
- Consider removing social media from the day to day flow of your child’s life. No child needs a personal social media account. Social media (including YouTube) and mindless apps are not a necessary part of childhood; they are not preparing your child for anything. Taking this step has the potential to transform your child in countless ways. They will be less stressed, less depressed, and happier. When the constant stream of social media is cut off, your child will immediately be free from not only the constant barrage of negativity but also unrealistic expectations placed on them by their peers. Enjoying the benefits of social media can be accomplished by having a family social media account on a laptop to view a few times a week, only if you feel that is necessary. Consider removing social media accounts from your phone altogether. We know how many times our kids grab our phones and if they see you on your phone all the time, your kids will get the wrong message.
- Increase the amount of non-screen time in your home. Help your kids build a solid foundation on positive experiences and memories of family connection, traditions and fun. Open the door wide for more (scheduled if necessary) positive family time, time free from negativity, gossip, judgement, and being plugged in. Remember even the best family time will not counterbalance the negativity your child experiences on his screen, so reducing the time on screens is necessary. Finally, check your child’s attachments. Their family should be more important than their peers or their screens. If they don’t choose family over screens, then this is the year to work towards that shift in their priorities. They need your help to make the change.
While we know that we can’t shelter our kids from all the bad things in this world, and our goal is not to do that, we can certainly be intentional about the amount of negativity coming from their screens. We are essentially gatekeepers of negativity as well as conduits of positivity. Being proactive about what is allowed to influence our children’s minds is a battle worth fighting. So rather than just making one big, vague new year’s resolution that will soon be shelved, head in a new direction, one small choice at a time: out with the negative and in with the positive.