Thirteen-year-old Sophie sits alone in her room staring at the screen she has looked at for the past two hours. She snaps at anyone who tries to enter her room or engage her in conversation. She won’t eat dinner with the family but, at some point, may slink into the kitchen for a quick snack she can have in her room – chips, biscuits, lollies.
For some time, her school grades have deteriorated and her interest in hobbies, or anything but screen time, has disappeared.
Sophie (not her real name) suffers from depression and her physical health is taking a hit now too.
Her parents can’t remember when exactly their bright and happy girl became the sullen and angry teenager they now know.
However, they are in no doubt about what caused the transformation and would give just about anything to have known the no 1 tip to help stop device addiction in time to save her.
DEVICE ADDICTION IN KIDS
Sophie and her family are not alone. Parents all over the planet and grappling with the tantalising lure of devices and the consequent nasty side effects on their once adorable children.
The science doesn’t lie – device addiction can lead to short-sightedness, sleeplessness, neck and back strain, and weight gain. It can lead to behavioral problems, and learning issues and negatively impact communication skills. It can even lead to depression.
While some screen time (check here for the recommended guidelines for children in Australia) can be a positive thing, too much can lead to brain fog, stress, and anxiety.
According to chiropractor, registered nurse, and functional medicine practitioner Dr. Alexander Jimenez, those with a device addiction have shown significant brain loss when evaluated using brain MRI research studies. The parts of the brain most impacted are those in charge of essential cognitive functions such as planning, prioritizing, and impulse control. These brain regions are also involved in the development of empathy and compassion.
Dr Jimenez said excessive use of smartphones has been associated with stress, anxiety, and depression.
“Neuroscientists have referred to this health issue as “digital dementia,” which ultimately affects important right-brain functions, such as short-term memory, attention, and concentration, in ways that may or may not be reversible if they are not treated properly,” she said.
Child psychiatrist Victoria L. Dunckley takes us on a horrifying journey inside a child’s brain in this description of what happens when a child is playing video games.
She says playing video games mimics the kinds of sensory assaults humans are programmed to associate with danger. In response, the body reacts with increased heart rate and blood pressure.
“The intense visual stimulation and activity flood his brain, which adapts to the heightened level of stimulation by shutting off other parts it considers nonessential,” she says.
“The visual-motor areas of his brain light up. Blood flows away from his gut, kidneys, liver, and bladder and toward his limbs and heart — he’s ready to fight or escape!”.
With all that going on, it’s easy to see how kids can become addicted.
PREVENT DEVICE ADDICTION IN KIDS
So how are we to save our children and our families and prevent device addiction in kids? The answer doesn’t lie in banning device use or imposing harsh penalties. This isn’t practical in a world where our lives are virtually run by devices.
The answer is much simpler.
While restricting the amount of time a child spends on devices is crucial, the no 1 tip to prevent device addiction in kids is more about where they use their devices, than when.
According to a NSW paediatric cardiologist, getting kids to use their devices in family spaces, rather than tucked away in their rooms, is the key to preventing device addiction.
This doctor, who claims he has lost a teenager to device addiction, is seeing the benefits of this simple change with his younger son.
While he has some time restraints on the amount of screen time his son has, the biggest rule is that the screen time is not spent in isolation and especially not behind a closed door.
He claims it’s that isolation that leads to addiction.
There’s a catch – this rule must be imposed before the child is used to spending screen time alone in their room. After that, he says, it’s too late.
A friend of mine tested this theory on their 10-year-old and was shocked at the instant results.
She said before she knew about the no 1 tip to help prevent device addiction in kids, she and her husband were happy to let their son use the device in his room as it was less noisy.
It wasn’t until she encouraged him to do screentime in the family space that she realised bit by bit her son had been starting to withdraw and become less interested in spending time with the family. Including not wanting to eat with them.
This mother feels lucky to have been able to make the necessary change to prevent device addiction before it was too late.
Her son was once again happy to engage in family activities and a bonus is that the family space offers distractions which means little breaks from screentime.
“Now, if the dog walks by, he’ll stop and play with it for a while”, she said.
“Before there was nothing to distract him or take his focus away from the screen and I think he actually felt isolated, which pulled him towards the device use even more”.
The Sydney Children’s Hospitals Network also recommends keeping the use of devices in shared family spaces.
“Monitor what they are accessing and use the opportunity to start conversations and learning, making sure that screens are used in family/shared areas, and not in bedrooms,” it advises on its Screen Time and Children Fact Sheet.
It also recommends leading by example and involving older children in the decision-making process.
By having kids use their devices in shared family spaces, parents can monitor what their children are looking at and sometimes even become involved and share the fun.
Wishing you a gleeful week, Tamuria.