Mind on Health: Help for your screen-time junkie

It’s summertime and the livin’ is easy — and full of free time for your child to spend scrolling through social media or playing online games. It’s also a great time for you to think about how much time is appropriate for your child to spend on this pastime and set some limits. Why?

For starters, some research suggests that social media is more addictive than cigarettes and alcohol. Studies also show that social media is linked to higher rates of anxiety and depression in young people. It’s also the gateway to online bullying, a harmful habit that can result in tragic consequences.

Social media isn’t all bad. It’s a good way for your children to connect to other kids and share advice and support. It can be a way for shy kids to make friends — although that can be a double-edged sword because they aren’t gaining the social skills to make friends face to face.

The online world — from gaming to social media sites — is captivating because it’s there 24/7. Today, nearly every aspect of society in general is connected to social media in one way or another. It also delivers instant gratification. You post a picture and someone “likes” it 30 seconds later; that’s very gratifying and makes you want to do it again and again.

Since many children now have their own phones and instant access to the online world, the days of locating the family computer in an open area where parents can monitor use are mostly over. However, parent’s involvement to oversee what and how much their kids do online is still critical.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has recommendations for media use, available at HealthyChildren.org/MediaUsePlan. Children age 18 to 24 months should avoid the use of screen media other than high-quality programming like PBS. Children ages 2 to 5 should have no more than one hour of screen time a day and parents should interact with them while doing so. For children ages 6 and up, parents should continue to set limits and ensure a healthy balance between screen time and other activities. Parents also need to monitor their own use of social media, as that sets an example for the young people in their home.

Digital addiction

In my practice, I see addiction, especially to gaming, quite frequently. Some children are playing three to four hours daily — and think they need more. If parents try to take it from them, their level of irritability increases, often leading to a high level of verbal defiance and disrespect. In my experience, more than 90 percent of kids have no inkling that the amount of time they play is excessive and they consider their negative reaction to limits as normal. These children often have no coping skills to fall back on — and they may have no real friends or extracurricular activities because they are essentially living in a fantasy world.

Are Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat as potentially harmful as gaming? It depends on the individual and their predispositions. For a child or teen who has a genetic predisposition to depression or anxiety, social media might be the trigger than makes it fully manifest. Kids often don’t realize that other people’s social media posts are full of things that show a “good life.” Being bombarded with this sets children up to potentially become maladjusted.

Rejections and bullying have always been part of growing up, but social media is a different platform and it’s more dangerous because it’s always available. The opportunity for cyber bullying can occur at any hour or on any platform — and that’s worrisome.

As for spotting potential signs of addiction, observe what happens when you interrupt your children’s screen time. Do you see very strong reactions when you call them to the dinner table, when it’s time to go to a family function or transition to something else? Are they not engaging with their peers outside of screen time? When you set limits, do you see irritability, more refusal behavior, outward signs of anger, even violence? Do you see them isolating away from their device and you when the access to their device is taken away? These are all red flags.

Intervention (and reconnection to the real world)

Your pediatrician might be your first line of intervention. This is especially true as unfortunately there is still much stigma associated with seeking out a mental health professional. Your pediatrician can make that referral for you. The sooner you intervene, the less adverse the outcome will be.

The key is to help kids see how too much screen time impacts themselves and those around them. I teach them how to recognize the cognitive and emotional response to being on these games and devices, and how it affects their behavior and interactions with others. We focus on developing alternative coping skills, including limit setting and self-monitoring. It’s amazing how well these kids can do, especially with early intervention. After treatment, they tend to report better self-image, better self-esteem and better relationships with parents and peers.

Timothy Zeiger, Psy.D., is a pediatric psychologist and assistant professor of Psychiatry at Penn State Children’s Hospital. Mind on Health is a monthly column contributed by various healthcare providers from Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center.



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