As a child mental health specialist, I often see parents struggling to balance their child's access to technology. Technology can be an excellent tool for learning, creativity, and connection. On the other hand, too much screen time can negatively affect a child’s mental health.
Our world has become technological; thus, our children are tech experts from a very young age. Most Elementary school kids have computers, and many have been using their computers and tablets at home well before they started school. As kids are learning from a very young age about technology, which is helpful for their future lives and careers. They also need guidance and knowledge from grown-ups about balancing real life and online life. They need to learn to be curious consumers and cautious contributors to the online domain they are growing up in.
Technology is a part of our everyday lives and is no different for children. With the constant aspects of technology everywhere, there are reasonable concerns about how this impacts their development. We don’t have the data or science to show the long terms effects of technology on humans. We can see, however, that technology is not going away; we have to learn to function with it in our lives in healthy ways.
Research shows that the average 8- to 10-year-old spends almost 8 hours a day with various media, and teenagers spend around 11-16 hours daily with media. All of this time adds up to more time on tech than in school or with family. If they have access, children and teens report a constant, desperate need to be in touch with others to not miss out on anything. This means using phones at night, and watching and playing videos through the night, leading to high levels of distraction, moodiness, tiredness, depression, and anxiety. Unlike the grown-ups in their lives, they are not developmentally programmed or wired to learn impulse control and balance, which must be taught and witnessed by those around them.
Let's learn about the risks and benefits of technology for children's mental health and how to balance the two:
Risks of Technology
Addiction: Excessive screen time can lead to addiction, which can have a range of negative consequences for children's mental health, including anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem. Constantly bombarded with technology's multi-sensory aspects leaves our brains desperate for more to keep that dopamine going.
Social isolation: Too much time spent online can lead to isolation and loneliness and feeling of inadequacy, as children spend less time interacting with real-world friends and family. This can make them feel lonely and disconnected. It also increases anxiety when having to socialize face-to-face. They are often on their phones and not engaging one another when together. This is a form of “parallel play,” normally only in the first few years of life.
Cyberbullying: This is a serious problem that can have a devastating impact on children's mental health. Cyberbullying is often worse than face-to-face, as it never ends. It can lead to anxiety, depression, and even suicide.
Sleep problems: Too much screen time can disrupt sleep, which can lead to fatigue, irritability, difficulty concentrating, poor grades, and mood dysregulation. Sleep is the number one need for children to maintain and improve their mental health.
Lower attention span: The instant feedback loops from technology makes waiting harder for children. They never are allowed to get bored; a slight feeling of boredom and the swipe to what is next. This instant gratification is dangerous for all humans, especially for those with developing brains.
Increased risk and lack of privacy: The concept of privacy is foreign to most children and teens; they don’t have the foresight to know the long-term impacts. Cybersecurity is a huge aspect of tech today, and the target is constantly moving. Hackers and criminals utilize technology to steal identities and harass children. Parents need guidance, and youth need knowledge about these true risks.
Risk of depression and anxiety: Teenagers and children who report more time using media are more likely also to report mental health issues. Depression and anxiety are known outcomes of too much technology and media consumption. Including higher risks of suicide. This has resulted in more youth needing mental health services, stressing out this system of care.
Obesity: Children who spend more time on technology are sedentary. Youth require movement for brain development; they need to be outside. Without a change, this can lead to increased obesity rates in children and young adults.
Falling grades: Increasing technology usage means less time spent on homework, and the kind of developmental changes technology can bring can make students struggle with homework like reading and writing. The basics of learning are being missed by our children and teens, who would instead only learn from youtube. They also use them during school if they have them(they can't not, the craving is real). Check out their usage time on the phones themselves, and it tracks the time and amount of data used.
Benefits of Technology
Learning: Technology can be an excellent tool for learning, as it provides access to a wealth of information and educational resources. Children can start getting technological skills early that they’ll need in the future. And they will need it, as most of our lives have moved to online platforms. Not letting them have it will result in a social and educational deficit.
Creativity: Technology is a fantastic outlet for creativity, as it allows children to express themselves in new and innovative ways. Self-expression is needed in childhood and especially for teens who are looking to find themselves.
Connection: Technology can help children connect with friends and family who live far away. It can also help them connect with new people who share their common interests and hobbies.
Improved multitasking: Studies show that technology helps young children learn to multitask more effectively. While multitasking never allows you to fully focus on one area, students can learn how to listen and type to take notes or other multitasking activities that can help them succeed in the future.
Improved visual-spatial development: Spatial development can be greatly improved when technology like video games. Visual-spatial skills are needed in a variety of things, like map reading, puzzles, and more.
Improved problem-solving and decision-making: Technology often presents children with problems and helps them learn how to make decisions and solve those problems. Problem-solving, no matter what it is, still is a life skill. This is also promoting resilience and grit in learning to push through obstacles.
Tips for Balancing Technology and Getting Back To Nature
Set limits on screen time. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children under the age of 2 have no screen time at all and that children ages 2-5 have no more than 1 hour of screen time per day. Parents should also work to set appropriate boundaries, including time limits, and model good smartphone use. Cybersecurity software and systems can help ensure that kids stay safe while using technology.
Talk to your child about the risks and benefits of technology. Help them to understand how to use technology safely and responsibly. There are some great children's books about technology use for children. The more they know, the more they understand the rules you set because they know the why.
Set clear rules about technology use. Ensure your child knows what is expected of them and the consequences if they break the rules. Remember, they are learning. Shorter quick consequences work better than long-lasting ones.
Be aware of the content your children are exposed to online; once they see it with their eyes, they can’t remove the image. Children think in imagery; they also search Google by images, not words- the risk is high that they will see something distressing.
Encourage outdoor play. Children need at least 60 minutes of physical activity every day. Outdoor play is the BEST way to get exercise, as well as to connect with nature. Nature is calming for humans, even lying in the grass and looking at the clouds! Playing in nature has many benefits for mental health, including reducing stress, anxiety, and depression.
Playing in nature can help children boost their creativity and visual-spatial skills and increase their curiosity and wonder. This improves their social skill development, especially when with friends.
Explore and learn. Children who play in nature are likelier to explore their surroundings and learn about the natural world. They learn who they are and what the natural world means to them.
Relax and de-stress. Playing, in general, can help children to relax and de-stress, which is essential for their mental health. Bring on the LEGO!
Find age-appropriate activities. There are many great ways for children to use technology healthily. For example, they can use it to learn, to create art, or to connect with friends and family.
Model healthy behavior. Children learn by watching the adults in their lives. If you want your child to use technology in a healthy way, it's important to model that behavior yourself. Put your phone down.
Balancing technology, nature, and play is essential for children's mental health. By setting limits on screen time, encouraging outdoor play, and finding age-appropriate activities, you can help your child reap the benefits of both technology and nature. Developing healthy habits that will last a lifetime.
If you have a question or a comment, post it below.