I recently had an opportunity to view the documentary Screenagers at my children’s middle school. Our principal encouraged parental attendance and inviting our friends to come. I watched the trailer on Facebook and was intrigued to see more. Mother and Pediatrician Delaney Ruston narrates her journey with her teens, particularly her 12-year-old daughter, Tessa. It all started with the desire for a smart phone. Haven’t we all been there? She wondered what the implications were to the developing brain. She takes us along on her journey with several experts including psychologists, authors and researchers.
One takeaway is that self-control is a very important characteristic to develop, and the use of technology may interfere with this development. Research shows that the average teen is on some sort of screen for 6.5 hours per day, which does not include screen time at school or for homework. So how much is too much? And how can we encourage a balance of technology use in our daily lives?
The gaming industry has designed universes that entice you in and make you not want to leave. The average boy plays 11.3 hours per week of computer games. With increasing screen time, learning the important skill of making eye contact while speaking to people becomes challenging. Teens explain they want to avoid awkward situations by having a screen to look at. As we become increasingly distracted by our phones we make less eye contact and are unable to develop empathy. This is concerning to me as I believe empathy is one of the most important characteristics people can have. I fear so many people lack it as they focus so much on me, me, me.
I have never been a fan of violent video games for any age, especially kids and teens. I learned that originally violent video games were made for the military to help prepare soldiers before deployment. These games were designed to decrease empathy and desensitize soldiers to prepare them for war. Why would we take a military training tool and make it available for children with developing brains? As more deadly situations were happening around the country, a senator tried to pass a bill to regulate the gaming industry. In retaliation, the gaming industry spent more money than the NRA did to shut down the bill. They won and we lost.
So what is a parent to do? A school counselor shared in the film that children want us to love them and be proud of them. They do best when they have loving, caring parents who give consistent boundaries. In an environment with boundaries, children thrive in all areas including schoolwork, empathy and relationships. So make rules that are best for them– not necessarily what they want.
How do we teach tweens and teens how to be responsible with texting and using social media? (Our principal relates handing a cell phone to a tween without guidance or boundaries to handing them car keys without driving instructions or training.) How do we prevent bullying? How do we prevent children from sending inappropriate pictures of themselves?
The documentary reviews these topics with a teen girl who was asked by her boyfriend to send him a picture of herself. When she asked what kind of picture, he asked answered, “In your bra.” She wanted to please him, so she did. The next day at school everybody knew and looked at her as if she was “dirty.” She suffered in silence because she did not want to disappoint her mom by telling her what she had done. So she kept all the negative looks and mean texts to herself. Finally one day her sister told their mom that kids were telling her daughter to kill herself and that they would give her a shovel to help!
This could happen to any one of our children, either as the victim or the bully. We have to be aware of what our children are doing and having done to them by checking their text messages and social media accounts regularly. It is work and one more thing to remember to do, but vital in this digital age.
Our kids are experiencing a loss of empathy due to too much technology use. We need to model for our children less screen time and a balance of other things in our lives. Encourage family rules such as no tech at the dinner table and a time when screens go away in the evening before bedtime. This is as valuable for adults as it is to kids. Life is too short! We need to get off our phones and enjoy time with each other.
– Susan Patcha, R.N., Neo-natal nurse at Mission Hospital and Birds & Bees Connection Educator