Can’t Pry Your Kids Away from Electronics? Psychological and Physiological Power of Validation

Can’t Pry Your Kids Away from Electronics?

Seeing young people spending excessive amounts of time on their electronics has been a growing concern for many in recent years—but my latest trip to the post office made me realize how much these devices have in some ways imprisoned our kids.

It didn’t take but a minute before everyone in the post office was silently captivated by the interaction that unfolded between me and a 7-year old boy who was with his parents. We had a delightful exchange, which started with him asking my name and progressed to an invitation for me to go to his home. The interaction ended with the room of spectators bursting into laughter when he left his parents’ side and tried to follow me out of the building.

But despite his obvious interest in talking with me, he continued to play a game on his parent’s phone. At one point, with desperation in his eyes, he apologetically said to me, “I can’t stop playing. I think I am going to be playing this until I am 20.”

Evidence that kids are drowning in electronics seems to hit us in the face at every corner store, restaurant, and empty playground across the country. Perhaps even more alarming are my recent conversations with the director of a local crisis center, who reports seeing an increasing number of youths in crisis in response to an adult removing their access to electronics. Despite these troubling trends, or perhaps because the problem seems too big to tackle, we have been slow to recognize the link between what one could argue is a generation, or two, of kids consumed by electronics and our current national youth mental health crisis.

The Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma” argued that electronics and all that accompany them are addictive by design. Smartphones, tablets, computers, and gaming consoles, as well as video games and social media platforms, flooded our homes with no labels warning users of their potential for overuse or problematic use.

Colorado and Vermont have already introduced legislation to make 13 the legal age to own a smartphone—yet given the pervasive challenges associated with electronics, it may not be prudent to wait for legislative change to address the issue. Instead, I argue that it’s time to take matters into our own hands and teach our kids, and ourselves, about harm reduction strategies that can help keep problematic usage from hijacking their lives.

Patterns of overuse may not necessarily begin with the substances that parents tend to fear most, such as nicotine, alcohol, or drugs. Instead, these patterns may instead develop with things like sugar, caffeine, video games, social media, and online pornography, all of which most kids can easily access. For example, research finds that on average, boys access online pornography by age 11. Since the young brain is most vulnerable to overconsumption between the ages of 12 and 25, teaching your child healthy consumption habits before this critical age may help improve their outcomes.

Substances and activities like those mentioned above reward us in the form of a “feel good” chemical in the brain called dopamine. Dopamine creates a “let’s do it again” feeling in the body. It’s natural and healthy to seek out activities that boost dopamine. Healthy levels are important for motivation, attention, and body movements.

That said, when the brain gets too overstimulated by dopamine, it usually responds by making dopamine less available. Once this brain change occurs, the person may need to do more of the activity or substance each time to get the same “feel good” experience. If they can’t, they may experience symptoms that seem akin to withdrawal, such as irritability, insomnia, depression, or anxiety. They may lose interest in other activities and seek out the activity or substance just to feel normal.

How can parents teach children to manage their own electronic use, or the use of any other “feel-good” substance or activity that can lead to problematic overuse? These harm reduction strategies are a good place to start:

Getting kids off electronics and back outside may seem like a Herculean task, but I argue that doing so will be a critical step in restoring youth mental health. In the future, introducing laws regulating tech companies’ algorithms may be an option. But in the meantime, our kids need immediate support. Teaching kids basic harm reduction strategies will not only help them manage their technology use now but will also teach them the skills needed to prevent many forms of problematic behavior for years to come.







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