Kids & Screens: Help for Parents

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Words by
Meg Meeker, MD

Published on

06.28.2021

According to the latest research on kids and screens, the average 13-year-old spends 8 hours a day, 7 days a week glued to a screen. This is a problem, but to every problem there is a solution.

My name is Dr. Meg Meeker and I am one of the country’s leading authorities on parenting, teens, and children’s health.

I’ve teamed up with Dr. Tom Kersting—psychotherapist, school counselor, and author of the book Disconnected: How to Reconnect Our Digitally Distracted Kids—to talk about the device-dependent world that our children live in, and how it’s affecting their mental and emotional well-being.

The Effects of Social Media and Video Games on the Brain

About 10 years ago, Dr. Tom Kersting started to see an uptick in the number of high school kids being diagnosed with attention deficit disorder and, in more recent years, anxiety and depression so he began aggressively researching to see if he could figure out why.

What he learned is that the time spent on social media and video games is actually changing the way that kids’ brains are operating, negatively affecting their emotions and interpersonal skills, and creating the “perfect storm” for the epidemic of mental health issues that we are seeing today. Here’s how:

Neuroplasticity

Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to form and reorganize synaptic connections and is actually the greatest breakthrough of modern-day psychology. If you’ve ever seen an image of the human brain, the tree-branch-looking-things on the outside are called neural pathways. Every neural pathway is critical to some form of human functionality; each neural pathway plays a critical role.

And here is how neural pathways work: Any brain that is involved in anything that is considered highly stimulating for 3 hours or more per day will grow a neural pathway to adapt to that environment.

That’s what neuroplasticity is. 

Your brain will adapt to whatever environment that it spends the most time in.

Now, we know that the average kid isn’t spending 3 hours a day; they are spending 8 hours a day in the most highly stimulating world of technology.
And although neuroplasticity in and of itself may sound a little frightening, there is something even more frightening called neural pruning.

Neural Pruning

Neural pruning happens when any neural pathway is underutilized.

The brain will literally prune away that neural pathway the same way that an arborist prunes away branches on a tree, getting rid of that neural pathway.

This neural pruning is part of the whole concoction of the social, emotional, and psychological issues that we are seeing with kids (and adults, for that matter).

Girls and Social Media

I have seen a difference between girls activities on screens and boys activities on screens.

Girls are more interested in social media.

And now we have some really good studies talking about the link between depression in girls and social media.

So why are girls showing all these signs of depression and anxiety, why is the suicide rate through the roof, and what does social media have to do with it?

Cyber Self-Esteem

When Dr. Tom Kersting and I were growing up, we didn’t know what every single one of our peers was doing every second of their lives.

But nowadays, teenagers who are already vulnerable and who are trying to figure out where they stand in the social pecking order (which is a normal part of the development process during adolescence) have first-hand access to the modern-day weapon of mass distraction—the smartphone—which allows them to see every single self-glorified, wonderful thing that their peers have done: every single event that their friends have been invited to that they haven’t been invited to; every goal that their friend scored in the soccer game; etc.

And what this creates is a never-ending cycle of comparing oneself to everyone else to the point that the self-talk that they are having with themselves becomes, “Everyone else’s life is so much better than mine.”

And this is not a one-time, off-shot thing.

This is happening for hours and hours and hours every single day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.

So it’s this constant, constant barrage of everybody else’s wonderful life.

This is part of the problem, but the other part of the problem is screen time.

Screen Time

It is very hard for girls to get off of social media because it is very addicting.

All of the time that girls are spending on social media is stripping them away from their responsibilities.

The worst of which is their sleep, which affects their schoolwork, exacerbating their anxiety, and leading to arguments and fighting with their parents at home.

This, like we talked about earlier, is what is contributing to the “perfect storm” that we are seeing right now in the mental health industry.

The Tech Industry is Partly to Blame

We’ve got to remember that the tech industry designs these social media apps and video games with alerts because the more that they can garner our attention and have us fixated on these devices and on our screens, the more money they are making.

So they have designed these things so that every little beep or buzz that you get while your phone is in your pocket acts as a little dopamine drip—a little rush or a little excitement like, “Wow! I am being noticed right now!”

But if you think about the word self-esteem, it starts with the word self.

It doesn’t start with the word others

So what others think of us has nothing to do with how we feel about ourselves.

How we feel about ourselves is an inner dialogue that requires work. It’s an inside-out thing, not an outside-in thing.

Boys and Video Games

When Dr. Tom Kersting is out lecturing, he often asks the question to parents of middle school aged kids, “How many of you think that M-rated violent video games are good for your kids?” and, after all of the years that he’s been lecturing, he’s never seen a single parent raise their hand even once.

So we all agree that it’s a terrible idea for boys 17 and under to be playing violent video games, yet 70% of middle school aged kids have these games and their parents are the ones who have purchased the games for them.

This is what Dr. Tom Kersting calls social conformity and it happens because every single one of that 8-year-old’s friends’ parents have allowed their children to play those games so now that 8-year-old’s parents relinquish their parental responsibilities because of what every other parent around them is doing.
That’s why we have this issue with younger kids playing video games like Fortnite (which is not appropriate for kids under the age of 12 or 13, but you see kids who are 8 or 9 who are playing it).

Negative Peer Pressure

As parents, we are often trying to teach our kids to not buckle to peer pressure, but we often don’t think about how we ourselves are buckling to peer pressure, and video games and teens is an enormous way that we are buckling.

Just because all of our kid’s friends have video games and smartphones doesn’t mean that we have to buy them for our kids too.

Otherwise, what are we modeling for our kids?

If we want our 3rd or 4th or 5th-grade sons to become leaders, what better way to teach them to lead than for them to be the only ones in their classes without a cell phone and who can’t play video games?

Positive Peer Pressure

Dr. Tom Kersting and I are convinced that if a handful of parents (say 6 parents in a class full of 25-30 kids) said, “We’re not going to allow cell phones and we’re not going to allow video games” that we could reverse the negative peer pressure because there would now be a substantial amount of positive peer pressure on other kids.

If we could get enough parents to agree to wait for cell phones and video games, we could create a new social norm.

Waiting for tech would become the cool thing to do.

That’s human nature.

We are like a flock of birds: when every bird turns left at the same time, we turn left too. We tend to do the same thing as everyone around us.

How Video Games Affect Boys

The response that I often get from young adult males and parents of teenagers is, “Well, come on.. Violence in video games isn’t real (and my kids know that) so are you trying to tell me, Meg, that if my 17-year-old plays violent video games that they are going to go out and be a murderer?”

To which I say, “No, they are probably not, but I can guarantee you that it’s having an effect on them in many other ways.”

Conduct Disorder and Oppositional Defiant Disorder

It’s a fact that conduct disorder and oppositional defiant disorder are at epidemic proportions right now.

We have a society of young boys where anger, violence, and oppositional behavior is through the roof. It’s not the norm by any means, but it is more so than it ever has been. 

So how do we create the parallel that this has anything to do with video games?

The brain is a supercomputer.

It’s very easily persuaded and guided based on whatever stimuli it’s receiving.

For example, in World War I (WWI) only 10% of combat soldiers were capable of pulling the trigger at point-blank range during battle. By the Vietnam War (37 years later) 80% of combat soldiers were capable of pulling the trigger at point-blank range.

What was the difference?

In WWI the types of targets that they used for training were typical paper bullseye targets, but in Vietnam they were human silhouette-like targets.

This little change is what elevated the number of combat soldiers who were willing to pull the trigger at point-blank range from 10% to 80%.

So nowadays when we have first-person shooter video games that are very lifelike, it’s definitely having a desensitization effect in the minds of kids and it’s absolutely a component to the oppositional defiant behavior and conduct disorder that we’re witnessing. 

There are no questions about it and anybody who wants to deny that, Dr. Tom Kersting and I don’t know what to tell you. Don’t listen to us?

What Can Parents Do?

“What can I do?” is always the big question that parents ask themselves.

Let’s say that you’re 30 pounds overweight and I say, “What can you do about that?” The answer immediately pops into everyone’s head: I can start going to the gym; I can start eating less; etc.
So when parents ask the question, “What can I do?” the reality is that we already know what we can do, but it’s a matter of what Dr. Tom Kersting likes to call parenting up.

Parenting Up

Parenting up not only sounds difficult, it is difficult. 

It is not going to be easy.

The reason why parents usually ask for advice with tech is because they have teenagers at home who are spending 8-9 hours a day on a screen (which is pretty much every waking hour) and they know what they are up against.

As soon as they say, “Alright, that’s it.. I’m taking the phone away for a week.. I’m turning off the wi-fi..” they know that they are going to have a monster on their hands. They know that their son or daughter is going to go berserk and their lives 

But there is hope.

If you don’t believe us, just ask 12-year-old Abby Jones whose phone was taken away for 1 month by her mom.

During the first week, she hated her mom. By the second week, she felt a little better. And by the fourth week she was thanking her mom because she felt freedom!

So we really have to be patient.

Have Patience

During the summer time my husband and I had a rule that our kids were not allowed to watch television or movies.

We didn’t have cell phones back then, but we had laptops so the rule was no screens.

The first two weeks of summer were horrible.

I mean horrible—our kids fought and got mad at me and my husband. We had 4 kids throwing major temper tantrums!

But after those 2 weeks were over, we noticed a calmness come over them. 

They started to interact with each other by making things and spending time outside.

And, by the end of the summer, they didn’t even think about television.

So sometimes you really have to go to battle with your kids.

Battling over screens is a battle that needs to happen because it will have such a dramatic effect on kids and your relationship with them.

You just have to be patient and be willing to endure their terrible temper tantrums.

Say No

Dr. Tom Kersting has a rule with his 15-year-old son that there are no video games during the week. Period. On the weekend he can play in moderation, but when Dr. Kersting tells him to turn it off, he has to turn it off.

His 12-year-old daughter is in 6th grade and she’s the only kid in her grade without a phone. She has an iPod, but she doesn’t have a phone even though she was begging for one for Christmas.

The number one word in the parental vocabulary should be the word no.

That’s an uncomfortable word for many parents because they believe that if they say no that they are going to be in conflict with their child, and they don’t want conflict because they believe that will lead their child to be unhappy.

The truth is that saying no does lead kids to be happy.

Do These 5 Things

#1: Never ever allow your child to have any kind of a device in his or her bedroom. Ever. Period.

#2: During the week, gaming is not allowed. Kids are students and their job is to do well at school to pave a way for a successful future. Games are just going to get in the way.

#3: Model the behavior that you expect from your children. Be aware of your own technology use. If you come home from work at 6:00pm or 7:00pm in the evening and you’re glued to the television the whole time, then you’re not interacting with your child.

#4: Try to have family dinner together throughout the week more times than not without any interruptions.

#5: Make an effort to have meaningful, deep conversations with your children.

If you do these 5 things, then you’re going to start to establish a household that is cohesive.

Your family relationships will be stronger and everyone will be closer, resembling that of a real family.

Your home will become calm.

Anxiety will go down, depression will go down, and there won’t be a sense of freneticism where everybody is constantly on their phones.

It’s Never Too Late to Start

We know that there are mothers and fathers out there who feel like they’ve blown it because they’ve allowed their kids to have screens since they were 8, use laptops and TV in their bedroom, etc.

Our advice to you: never give up on your child.

If you’ve raised your kids with screens and now they are 15 years old, take on the challenge and start establishing new rules.

You can change their tech habits in as little as 30 days.

Stay with it. Be strong!

You can do it because your kids need it!

Never give up on your child.

For more pediatrician-tested, mother-approved parenting tips for healthy kids and a happy home, visit meekerparenting.com

Meg Meeker, MD

Pediatrician and Founder at MeekerParenting

Meg Meeker, MD has spent more than thirty years writing, teaching, speaking and working as a practicing pediatrician. Her life’s work has been about equipping parents and children with the tools necessary for health and happiness. After writing six books and speaking to thousands of families of all shapes and sizes, her goal has never changed—to help strong parents build strong children for a brighter future.

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