By DR. CHRISTINA WILLIAMS, PH.D.
Your brain on screens
Excessive technology use in kids
With fall comes a return to school and the associated excitement and worries of academic, extracurricular and social activities. Kids are encouraged to focus on their schoolwork but also balance the daily needs of navigating schedules, friends, clubs or teams, and all of the emotions that this juggle can bring.
One common factor across all of these demands is the involvement of technology. Teaching, learning and schoolwork increasingly involve technology and, of course, so does the social aspect of social media and smartphone usage.
Finding that balance of healthy versus unhealthy screen time can be difficult. Parents often struggle in teaching the necessary skills to develop a healthy relationship with technology that is in balance with each person’s life and relationship goals. Current research shows that excessive technology use can negatively impact your child’s grades, mood, social development and even their physical health.
In fact, studies show that the symptoms of excessive technology use look extremely similar to symptoms of substance addiction if not addressed early on.
Some might call any excessive behavior a “habit,” an obsession or even an addiction. The label is not necessarily as important as learning to recognize some of the signs that a problem exists and needs to be addressed.
Some questions parents can ask themselves include:
• Is your child spending an increasing amount of time in front of the screen, does it interfere with family events and is it impacting schoolwork?
• Does your child become defensive or angry when you attempt to reduce their screen time, and are attempts at cutting down temporary or unsuccessful?
• Does your child continue their behavior despite being made aware of the negative consequences?
• Does your child lie about their use of devices?
If you find yourself answering yes to a majority of these questions, it is time to find a way to limit your child’s technology use and even perhaps get support from a professional.
Setting limits on children’s technology use is difficult because oftentimes kids will say it decreases stress, feels relaxing or is a venue for social connection to peers. Conversely, stopping these behaviors feels uncomfortable or distressing. Also, cutting out technology altogether isn’t a great option because kids need these skills in school and in their future vocations.
The key is working with your child to create a healthy balance of life outside technology, combined with meaningful and limited use of technology at the same time. Structure and limits can help, but sometimes it becomes necessary to ask for professional guidance when parents aren’t able to regain control of their kids’ excessive use.
Enlisting the help of a treatment professional that implements a plan combining cognitive and behavioral techniques, along with parental support, will enable a child to view their choices with technology as controllable events, instead of “knee-jerk” or mindless responses to their environment and emotions.
Teaching a child to have a broad repertoire of healthy leisure behaviors can be reinforcing and produce the same positive feelings as technology, only without the negative consequences of excessive technology use. Professional clinicians can also provide the necessary support and teach skills to help decrease the risk of regression into excessive use again.
If you know of an adolescent who might be leaning toward unhealthy technology use, Pine Grove now offers a weekly Technology Addiction Group for adolescents ages 13-17 whose excessive use of technology, including video games, computers and smartphones, is negatively impacting their lives and relationships.
A clinical child psychologist, Dr. Christina Williams, Ph.D., in collaboration with a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner, Patricia Calabrese, PMHNP-BC, facilitates this service. The goal is to teach group members and their parents the necessary skills to develop a healthy relationship with technology that is in balance with each person’s life and relationship goals.
Dr. Christina Williams is a licensed psychologist providing outpatient services for children, adolescents and adults at Pine Grove Outpatient Services.