Screen Time. Kids and Mental Health

We all desire to have healthy kids! We may think that screen time leads to issues and takes our kids away from us. This fear has some basis given that screen time for kids has doubled in the last 10 years.

A great deal has been written about the damaging effects of technology use on kids, but how damaging is it really?

A recent study of over 300,000 kids in the US and UK calls what we may believe into question. The study found that screen time had little to no effect on mental health.

In fact the study says this:

“The evidence simultaneously suggests that the effects of technology might be statistically significant but so minimal that they hold little practical value.”

I am inclined to agree with their findings

I am inclined to agree with the conclusion that screen time has little impact upon our kids’ mental health. The study concluded that screen time was about as damaging to mental health as eating potatoes, but offered some valuable clarification that I think we must consider as parents.

Amy Orber and Andrew Przybylski, researchers from the University of Oxford, write:

“In all three datasets, the effects of smoking marijuana and bullying have much larger negative associations on adolescent well-being than does technology use. Positive antecedents of well-being were equally illustrative. Simple actions such as getting enough sleep and regularly eating breakfast had much more positive associations with well-being than the average impact of technology use.”

In short the study found that screen time was basically neutral to mental health.

“The study stated that only 0.4% contribution of screen use on young people’s mental health, needs to be put in context for parents and policymakers. Within the same dataset, we were able to demonstrate that including potatoes in your diet showed a similar association with adolescent wellbeing. Wearing corrective lenses had an even worse association.”

This all makes sense given my work with adolescents and their families. In short the study indicated that other things going on in our kids’ lives lead to more issues than screen time. Screen time is not the source of problems with our kids.

Screen time is not the source of problems

The researches admitted this given their large data set.

“We know very little about whether increased technology use might cause lower well-being or whether lower well-being might result in increased technology use or whether a third confounding factor underlies both.”

I have found that “lower well-being” often results in increased technology use as kids seek to escape a sense of failure, loss of confidence or not being liked in things that allow them to seem successful online.

One Cautionary Note

While increased screen time may not adversely affect adolescents’ mental well being, it can exacerbate the underlying issues like loneliness and depression. Further, if screen time includes pornography, very clear research indicates adverse effects.

What does this mean for parents and their kids’ sense of well-being?

If well-being is not heavily impacted by screen time, we should be encouraged; we have more ability to shape our kids than we may have believed. If we help our kids have confidence and believe in themselves, we can develop kids who are not adversely impacted by glasses, bullying and friends headed down the wrong road.

Here are five things that lead to this outcome.

1) Do not make screen time a battleground.

If it is not a big predictor of well-being, relax. Over the years I have seen many dads and moms severely damage their relationship with their child over screen time. Parents battled over screen because they believed it was the source of the issues they were seeing in their kids’ lives. In talking with these kids it was clear that social media, sexting. pornography or gaming was an escape from an underlying cause. These outlets allowed them to feel better temporarily and increased the likelihood of their dependence on them.

2) Build kids that are positive and confident.

Kids who are positive and confident are less likely to depend on screen time.

As parents we must admit that some kids are genetically luckier than others. Two of my four kids are dyslexic. As a result, I had to work harder to help them see their gifts and talents because they tended to compare themselves to their siblings who did not struggle with schoolwork. When our kids face difficulties like wearing glasses, dyslexia or face other challenges, we have to be creative and work harder to build into them a positive set of internal beliefs.

Why is this so important? All the kids I worked with who were addicted to screen time or other escapes had lost self-confidence or were fundamentally negative about themselves.

Building positive confident kids is not accomplished through false praise or awards for everything they do.

Kids tell me that they know when praise is not based on reality. False awards actually make them feel worse about themselves. To kids it indicates that they are not good enough to get genuine praise or real awards.

Building positive confident kids requires viewing our role differently as parents. We need to help our kids:

  • Understand themselves, their strengths and weaknesses.

It is essential to help them understand their true strengths and how to grow in their areas of weakness rather than being negative with them for their weaknesses or failures.

  • Focus on progress and improvement.

Help your kids recognize their progress and improvement. I find that given the emotional nature of adolescents they often do not recognize progress and must be helped to recognize it when it occurs. This gives them hope and motivation to change and make better decisions.

3) Help kids believe they can overcome issues.

The power of belief is amazing. Kids rise to our belief in them and struggle when they feel they are doubted and mistrusted. Letting them know you believe they are trying and encouraging them for even the smallest of things they do that show progress fuels their belief in themselves and draws them closer to you.

4) Empower responsibility.

In a society that treats kids like children until their early twenties it is easy to give into the sense that they cannot handle real responsibility and believe if they are given it, they will not handle it appropriately. I have found the opposite to be true. When extended real responsibility like handling a chainsaw or ax at age 10 or running their youth group including the teaching time, they relish it. Too often we are judging their ability to handle responsibility by giving them menial duties that they do not see as important or valuable. Empowering our kids with real responsibility helps them build belief and confidence in themselves in the real rather than technological world. In the tech world our kids regularly get intentionally designed intrinsic rewards to keep them coming back. True responsibility where they feel a true sense of accomplishment is far more alluring.

5) Provide opportunities for real decision making.

Part of what I see hamstringing the kids that I see is their inability to make decisions. Many high school and college students I work with still look for their parents’ approval in small decisions. While this may feel good to us as parents, what does it say about their self belief and confidence? Is it what is best for them, their development, future relationships and success?

I find that these kids’ lack of self-understanding and confidence causes them to doubt themselves which makes them more influenced by whoever is around them. As a result they have a hard time making what I would label menial decisions. This is one of the main reasons so many young people are moved in the moment by their feelings without thinking things through.

Giving our kids real decisions at young ages is vital. Instead of making the choice for them, “you are going to practice rather than go to your friend’s house.” Ask them questions about the success they desire to have and what they believe would be the best choice and cause them to feel good about themselves. If they make the wrong decision, it will not hurt them so we can allow it. The key is to follow up and see what they think in retrospect by asking more questions that help them evaluate the decision they made. I have found these conversations help our kids learn to evaluate and lead to better decisions the next time. This is a vital skill they need to have before they reach middle school, high school and especially college.

In my experience kids who understand, believe and have confidence in themselves have a much higher sense of well-being and thus they SUCCEED! These kids can and will withstand a lot of negative stuff because they are guided, encouraged and empowered rather than discouraged about themselves at home.

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