THREE VITAL TIPS TO HELP YOU FIGHT SCREEN ADDICTION DURING THE PANDEMIC

A quick question – how are you reading this feature? Are you on a computer or a mobile phone? It probably depends on whether you’re reading this for work or interest, and if it’s for interest you are almost certainly on your phone. What might you do after? Check Facebook or Instagram? Skim read a few of your preferred sites? Play an online game?

Here’s another question: are your children with you, and if so what are they doing? Are they on their phones or perhaps an iPad?

The internet has changed society forever. It has brought us so much good: we can connect with anyone, anywhere, quickly, simply and easily, bringing the world to our door - at a time of social-distancing and lockdown measures, this feature has become almost vital to our daily lives and staying in contact with our loved ones. It also offers the entire sum of human knowledge and is a brilliant aid to learning. It provides extraordinary opportunities for work, and of course it is fantastically fun. But it has a dark side. There are major privacy issues as both scammers and legitimate companies try and grab our data for their own use. The safety issues are huge for young people, as are problems with inappropriate content, both looking at it and sharing it. Peer pressure, aggressive behaviour and cyber-bullying are rife. It’s an incredible time-suck, eating into study and family time, and causing sleep deprivation and health issues. It can be overwhelming, all this information and likes and texts flooding into our lives all the times, so we have no moment to just…stop. Lastly, it is hugely disconnective: if you’re existing online, you aren’t here in the present moment with the real people around you who care for you. Connecting with your loved ones in the real world is particularly important at this time, when many of us are feeling especially isolated from each other.

According to The New York Times, kids from ages eight to 18 spend more than seven and a half hours a day on electronic devices. Research shows that children can show symptoms similar to drug withdrawal when removed from their online connections. Furthermore, the urge to record and share everything we experience has an impact on our brain activity. Our brains enter into a state of relaxation when we become absorbed in an activity (often called ‘flow’). Our brains shift to alpha waves and this state has been linked to learning and talent development. In addition, stopping to take photos, make posts and message not only disrupts flow, but cuts us off from the actual experience at hand.

Research shows that screen time increases two specific chemicals in the brain, dopamine, which controls the brain’s pleasure and reward centre, and endorphins which trigger feelings of positivity. According to one study, video gaming upped dopamine in the body as much as intimacy – about 100%. And every time someone responds to your message or post, it is likely that endorphins are rushing through your brain and body. The two act together: dopamine hooks you in and causes you to seek out rewards (likes, winning), endorphins give you a kick or a buzz which stimulates your nervous system. However, constant overstimulation can shift your nervous system into fight-or-flight mode, which can in turn disturb/exhaust your biological and hormonal systems. Although the data is still very new, heavy use of tech shows heightened risks for anti-social behaviours, depression, anxiety and other mental health issues.

Companies want us to look at our screens as much as possible so that they can a) sell products to us and b) sell our data for other people to use. They have top psychologists helping them with this – and a key way of doing this is to use alerts and notifications. Think about it – if your phone pings, is it possible NOT to just quickly check what the alert is for?

The problem is, the level of interconnectedness we have now is so new that the jury’s still out on how big a problem screen addiction is, or indeed what problematic behaviour looks like. Psychotherapist David Kadaras creates a doom-laden scenario, comparing screen use with heroin in terms of addictiveness and correlates use with a host of mental health issues. Psychologist Christopher J Ferguson claims that it’s a minor problem, saying that less than 3% of young people become addicted and it’s more likely that mental health issues are causing screen addiction rather than the other way round. Meanwhile Dr David Greenfield, Founder of The Center for Internet and Technology Addiction, is more measured but still states, “Smartphones keep us on automatic pilot and inhibit us from making healthy choices, thus we are responding to life on an automated and unconscious neurobiological basis. We socially isolate, become intolerant of boredom, and are always connected somewhere other than where we are at the moment.” As the novel coronavirus takes its toll on our ability to connect with our friends and family, it is more important than ever to be grounded in the here-and-now and to reach out to those with whom we connect.

While we leave the experts to argue, one thing is true (even and in fact especially now, in the middle of a pandemic) and always has been: a balanced life is a healthy life. Simply put, if screen time is eating into the important stuff: cutting into sleep to the point of exhaustion, not being present with the people who care, ignoring previous much-loved hobbies and games or neglecting schoolwork, hygiene and socialising in favour of tech, then your child’s life is out of balance. And the effects might well be cumulative.

There are no simple tools for screen addiction but there are three things which help enormously: Boundaries, Modelling and Communication.

Boundaries
At the moment the guidelines for tech are very loose but NICE recommends no more than two hours a day on all screens – including TV – and no time whatsoever for the under twos. Dr Larry Rosen, psychology professor at California State University says that it's more important to limit the stretches of time children spend in front of screens rather than worry about the total amount each day: frequent breaks stop brains from becoming over stimulated and addicted. Rosen suggests a limit of 40 minutes then an hour's break for under 10s, an hour on and then off for pre-teens, and an hour and half then an hour off for teenagers. Give your child a five-minute warning before their time is up, and take away future screen time if they don't switch off.

Communication
I have found in my practice that children relish – and in fact crave – boundaries. However they cannot be applied unilaterally. To avoid setting up a situation where you are at loggerheads, it is vital to talk through what you are planning to do. Sit down with your children and discuss the pros and cons of tech – yes, you must discuss the pros as well! – but let them take the lead in giving examples and simply add in if they miss something (the third paragraph above can help). Talk to them about dopamine, reward-seeking behaviour and balance, and get ‘buy in’ to your screen boundaries. And, importantly, keep on talking about it. Dr Delaney Ruston of Screenagers recommends a ‘Tech Tuesday’, one day a week where everyone can bring tech issues to the table.

Modelling
Screen addiction isn’t just about children, it’s about you. Most adults – like children in fact – are in denial about how much they use their technology, and for how long. For a sobering reminder of just how much this is a universal rather than child-centred issue, have a go at this test: https://virtual-addiction.com/smartphone-compulsion-test/. Children learn at a profound level by copying the actions of the adults around them. So if you ask your child to put the iPad down, you have to put your phone down. If your child can’t miss Tech Tuesday, you can’t either. That email/message can wait.

The Other Subject wants all children to be happier, healthier and more productive. We may not know what effect smartphones will have on brain development in the long run, but we do know that a balanced life is a healthy life.

 

Written by Rachela Leonello and Hermione Crawford. Edited by Ella Dane-Liebesny.

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