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How to Get Everyone More Connected (and Happier) by Disconnecting

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How to Get Everyone More Connected (and Happier) by Disconnecting

The evidence is crystal clear folks, our kids’ (and our own) mental health as a whole has continued to worsen as they spend more and more time watching their friends and families looking gorgeous in filtered photos while attending parties to which they weren’t invited to celebrate amazing achievements on the show-off zones of Instagram, Snapchat, and for those who still use it like us uncool parents – FakeBook. ‘Lest we forget going through their texts or mentions to peruse hate cyber-bullying across various tribal, cliquey echo chambers.

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The evidence is crystal clear folks, our kids’ (and our own) mental health as a whole has continued to worsen as they spend more and more time watching their friends and families looking gorgeous in filtered photos while attending parties to which they weren’t invited to celebrate amazing achievements on the show-off zones of Instagram, Snapchat, and for those who still use it like us uncool parents – FakeBook. ‘Lest we forget going through their texts or mentions to peruse hate cyber-bullying across various tribal, cliquey echo chambers.

All too often our children’s brain, social and physical development is stifled by the anxiety, depression and increasingly suicidality related to a fragile “cyber self-esteem,” along with being hyper-stimulated, less creative and more sedentary as part of “acquired ADHD.” Indeed, our kids’ essential neuroplasticity and, in particular, the crucial processes of neural pruning are affected mightily from the get-go by devices. 

Add in the ease of finding and playing/viewing violent, misogynistic, and addictive video games, pornographic photos or videos, and a golden age of uncensored television, and perhaps we ought to be thankful when our kids are well-adjusted and have any normal face-to-face discussions, solid self-esteem, appropriate intimate relationships, actual books on actual paper they read, time spent outdoors or play that doesn’t include screens at all, let alone get into a college or job after their online profiles have been scanned and scrutinized.

Perhaps some of you can relate to the scenes in “Eighth Grade” - and if you haven’t yet seen it, don’t worry this isn’t a major spoiler alert – where Elsie Fisher’s character is engrossed in her phone with earbuds on at the dinner table and then in bed, becoming aggravated when Dad has the audacity to interrupt her fantastical social universe by asking if she’s excited to go to high school, encouraging her to attend a peer’s pool party, complimenting her for being cool, or wishing her “good night” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PkYoWM90af0&feature=youtu.be&t=82 and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WDUPoGnj51o).  I fear from hearing from dozens of teens and parents that these scenes are actually not fiction at all but all too common in many homes – if their family even has dinner together or kiddos lie in bed before their parents rather than playing video games late into the night in the first place.

Adam Silver, the commissioner of the NBA – recently remarked that his basketball players today are “genuinely unhappy” – and attributed this primarily to social media and being “amazingly isolated” with their “heads down” in their phones (www.youtube.com/watch?v=RJ1lFirN91E&feature=youtu.be&t=1239). If these rich and famous amazing athletes are as unhappy as ever, what can we expect from our much more socially vulnerable and identity-focused adolescents as they live in their devices? And Generation Z (or iGen) has grown up with social media, so how are we possibly to intervene and prevent such mental health issues?

Well, I just checked my own IPhone X settings and I’m averaging screen time just under the 11 hours the average adult in America does too. And I’m a child psychiatrist and father, so of course I should practice what I preach and model better behavior, right? But as we all know, doing what we expect from our children is often easier said than done, even as we know they’re watching what we do and not as we say. Ideally, we parents should schedule uninterrupted family dinners and other media-free times together and converse with our kids, or ideally at least 10 minutes a day of ‘special time’ interacting with each of our children, to build up that imperative parent-child bond that is the foundation of adaptive behavior, effective discipline, and these most rewarding relationships. And we ought to model good behavior by putting our own phones away, turning the TV off, and conversing with one another like in the good ol’ days when we talked with our loved ones without distracting devices stealing our attention and, ideally, even engaged in some deep, meaningful conversation.

We should monitor our kids’ media use and try to limit it to a couple hours per day, designate media-free locations (most importantly, the children’s’ bedrooms!), and be open to discuss and process the adult content they’re exposed to as it’s far better to learn from your than their peers or the Internet. Shoot for incremental improvements and expect pushback and perhaps even withdrawal agitation if your children are addicted enough to their screens, but please stay firm with your limits and enforcing rules and consequences -- the battle over screens with your kids is one that’s worth having.

Kids can survive with a basic phone, parental monitoring and limits over screens. In fact, if just a few sets of parents in a school or community were to get together and decide to start a new trend of not providing their children smart phones or adult video games, such courageous leadership may well create a new social norm and positive peer pressure that produces more productive and successful leaders in terms of the children.

Even if your children become upset now, rest assured that you’re being a responsible parent and everyone will be better off for you imposing such increased screen discipline. Who knows, the kids might even thank you later (www.youtube.com/watch?v=c_0dJJhIrSo&feature=youtu.be&t=406). 

Raj Loungani, MD, MPH
Board-Certified Child/Adolescent & Adult Psychiatrist
Enhance Psych, Inc.
www.enhancepsych.com
904-473-4963

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