Do you worry about the amount of time your children are spending in front of a screen? According to the Center for Disease Control, kids ages 8 to 18 now spend an average of seven and a half hours in front of a screen each day. That is the equivalent of 114 full days per year watching a screen. As society becomes more and more dependent on computers, tablets and phones for information and connection to others, it is important to understand the consequences of this behavior for our children and even for ourselves.

Olympia Therapy outside time
Cary Hamilton recommends getting kids outside as much as possible. Photo courtesy: Cary Hamilton

Cary Hamilton of Olympia Therapy knows a lot about screen time and how it is affecting our children. As a mental health professional in Thurston County, Hamilton has seen firsthand the mental health effects of electronics overuse. “Electronics foster a false sense of relationship,” shares Hamilton. “Happiness for teens declined sharply between 2012-2015 and has never gone back up.”

These are the years when phones and social media rose to prevalence. And, the world of social media can be very confusing for children. “Everybody is putting on a mask to prove that they are happy,” explains Hamilton. “Talking about sadness is uncomfortable but everybody has sadness, you cannot be human without it.”

According to Hamilton, no child under the age of 13 should have any social media accounts or access. Before this age, children don’t have the cognitive ability to process what they see on social media sites like YouTube, which can be very dangerous for young children. Young children should be limited to no more than two hours of screen time each day. Be careful about trusting the parental controls that you may have set, too, warns Hamilton. It is important for parents to check in and see what their kids are seeing and watching and Hamilton suggests splitting up their viewing time so that they are doing something physical every 30-40 minutes.

Parents should also feel free to follow their children on social media. Tracking and checking in every so often should not be viewed as controlling or taking away their privacy. If you had a group of children in your home you would no doubt peek in every once in a while to see what they were doing or offer a snack. Checking in on their social media sites is simply opening a window to their world. A parent that has access to their child’s social media may need to nag less and can feel more confident that their child is making good choices.

Olympia Therapy beach time
Kids who spend more time outdoors will be less attracted to the electronic world. Photo courtesy: Cary Hamilton

As a parent myself, I have often used the phone as a disciplinary tool by taking it away for failing to do a chore or an act of disrespect. However, simply removing the phone may not be the best approach. Hamilton believes we need to teach our children how to have an appropriate relationship with their phone. Just like you wouldn’t open a book and start to read it in the middle of a conversation, you shouldn’t look at your phone in the same situation.

Parents tend to blame a wide range of behaviors on our kids’ use of electronics. According to Hamilton, a number of her teenage clients are simply mirroring their parents’ phone etiquette. She often hears teens say, “I hate the phone, my Mom is on the phone all the time.” In order to change your child’s behavior, you may need to take a look at your own as well.

Researchers now know that the neurotransmitter dopamine, which helps regulate reward and pleasure centers and emotional response in the brain, is released when we look at screens. This activates the pleasure center of our brains. The physiological reaction of looking at a screen can be very similar to our brain’s reaction to drugs and alcohol. Too much screen time for anyone can be over stimulating and cause unexplainable anger, especially just after the screen – the source of the pleasure – has been removed.

The world is getting more and more dependent on electronics and it’s important to teach our children how to navigate successfully in that world. Simply taking away something that has become ubiquitous to our society is not necessarily the answer. So what can we do to help our kids navigate the world of screens and have a healthier relationship with their phone?

  • Olympia Therapy stack of phone
    Carve out some phone free time daily. Dinner time is a good place to be electronics-free. Photo credit: Grace Belle

    Creating time at home where there are no electronics is a good first step. Family time of at least an hour each day where the connections are “human-based” is important. According to Hamilton, the phone may not be such a big draw when children see how much power there is in actual human relationships.

  • Modeling a healthy relationship with our phones as adults is an important piece. We need to set our own boundaries with electronics as adults in order to have credibility with our kids.
  • Recognize that use of electronics is a privilege and requires responsibility and respect.

When a child isolates themselves with their phone or a video game, it may be a sign of depression. “If your child is unwilling to come out of the electronic world, don’t be afraid to ask them about their mood, feeling down, being detached from friends, or if they are thinking about hurting themselves,” shares Hamilton. They may decline at first, but the pathway to communication has been opened.

Olympia Therapy talk to your kids
Families that talk about mental health increase their own happiness. Photo courtesy: Cary Hamilton

Kids are talking about suicide more frequently and children are often afraid to bring this up to their parents. Removing the stigma, letting our kids know that talking about mental health is okay, can go a long way to preventing more serious issues. Many tweens and teens are really struggling and may need someone to talk to. “Electronics and social media have launched kids into the world so much faster than we were,” explains Hamilton. “The pressures on them are immense.”

Olympia Therapy is a great place to turn when you need professional help or simply a bit of back up. Olympia Therapy specializes in play therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, solution focused therapy, marriage and family therapy and more.

Reach out to Cary Hamilton for help navigating the new electronic landscape with your child, or any other challenges you face as a parent, by calling Olympia Therapy at 360- 357-2370 to make an appointment.


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