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Computers, teenagers and mental health

Technology has taken the world by storm in the last ten years, and with it, brought new levels of graphics, entertainment and browsing. Long gone are the days of being impressed by a Commodore 64 or a Gameboy, as platform games and interactive social media platforms now absorb hours of our days.

Whilst technology has opened new forms of communication, entertainment and interaction, alongside the blessings, for many it has brought a new curse onto their households. A curse that few people can avoid, adults, teens and children alike.

Whilst some can take and leave electronics, easily switching off and putting them aside. For others, computers and electronics create unhealthy attachments and create huge emotional responses.

The Royal College of Paedatrics and Child Health, surveyed 109 children and young people and found that:

  • 88% of children and young people (11-24 years) acknowledged that screen time had a negative impact on their sleep
  • 41% of children and young people (11-24 years) said screen time had affected their play or fun
  • 35% of children and young people (11-24 years) said screen time had a negative impact on their mood and mental health
  • 18% of children and young people (11-24 years) said screen time had a negative impact on their family time and schoolwork
  • Children who spend more than 2 hours a day using screens tend to have more depressive symptoms (although it is noted that some use does have a positive impact on mental health)

The RCPCH found that on average young people (11-24 years) spend:

  • 5 hours on a tablet or computer, 3 hours on their phone and 2 hours watching TV = 10.5 hours a day

World Health Organisation (WHO) guidance for screen time (TVs, computers, electronic devices and phones) are:

  • Under 2s should spend NO time watching screens
  • Children 2-5 should spend no more than 1 hour using screens in a 24-hour period
  • Children aged 5-18 years should spend no more than 2 hours a day using screens
  • Adults – no more than 2 hours’ screen time per 24-hour period

The first step to change, is to acknowledge current habits and look at times of days when we fall into the ‘screen time’ hole… taking some time to monitor your family usage, including your own, and the pot holes in your routine that lend themselves to scrolling, playing or using screens gives you a good starting point to make changes.

 

Negative behaviours seen from screen use

Whilst some children and young people can easily switch between toys, games and computers/screens, for others, screens can have a negative impact on emotional and social well-being such as:

  • Sleep issues – including irregular sleep schedules and less sleep
  • Behavioural issues
  • Increased anxiety
  • Increased depression
  • Attention and concentration difficulties
  • Aggressive or violent outbursts
  • Reduced social skills
  • Mood swings
  • Obesity
  • Body dysmorphia
  • Self-esteem issues
  • Reduced academic performance
  • A study by Weng (2012) found that gaming addiction can cause Brain shrinkage in processing areas

Studies have shown that the use of computers in children can impact their brain development. As children and teens brains are developing continually, the use of computers has been found to:

  • Cause shrinkage in areas of the brain where processing occurs
  • Affect the frontal lobe impacting impulse control
  • Volume loss in the brain affecting impulse control, empathy and compassion (linked to violent behaviour)
  • Affecting misfiring of neural connections causing erratic behaviour
  • Reduce thickness of the brain impairing thinking

 

Why do children become addicted to computers?

Children lack the ability to regulate their own behaviours, and as such, once absorbed in an activity they will not consciously recognise that it is time to stop (think about a time when you got caught up in scrolling or binge watching a series and overrode your knowledge that you should stop – but chose not to – children don’t get the sign to tell them that they should stop!).

Many parents, and some children/teens will describe their child’s behaviour to gaming or screen use as ‘addictive’. Whilst some schools of thought refer to the addictive behaviours, others will refer to the excessive use or reliance on screens as a mental health disorder. Anderson (2019), a US psychologist, highlights the importance of identifying any underlying emotional, developmental or additional needs of children and young people which may contribute to the behaviours. For instance, a child with ADHD or depressive symptoms may find that computers are a positive to them. However, in the UK, the NHS has developed gaming treatment centres to support 13-25 year olds struggling with video game addiction.

Our brains love reward, and screens and devices offer immediate reward and continual validation. Computer games, apps and social media platforms have been designed to stimulate your brain and create entertainment. The developers are masters at what they do, and using screens therefore becomes rewarding.

Within the brain, we release dopamine, which motivates our behaviour. Dopamine is released when we experience something ‘rewarding’ or ‘pleasurable’ and this motivates us to repeat them. When we experience something our brain deems as positive, rewarding, exciting or pleasurable the dopamine pathways in our brain are activated and the more we repeat the behaviour, the stronger and more intense they become. Therefore, reinforcing the behaviour. Screens, phones and gaming offer an unlimited supply of reward and as such it stimulates and intense dopamine response. This is coupled with serotonin which reinforces our behaviours, releasing after the event to tell us that the event was positive and giving us a happiness hit.

So when we are playing games, and consistently achieving, increasing levels and moving forward our brains become flooded with dopamine and serotonin continually reinforcing to us that screens are the best thing we have ever used.

Programmers of computer games utilise their knowledge of brain psychology and behaviour to create systems which activate the reward system and keep us engaged. As such, we see the development of sensitive algorithms which are tailored to our preferences and as such keep us enticed. In platform games, the multi-sensory and highly creative nature of the games creates the same response. When we stop using them – we miss them, for many, it creates a sense of anxiety which is only resolved when we are reconnected with our game.

 

Why does their anger antennae go off when they use them?

Research has shown that the ongoing use of computer games can lead to a change in the reward system in the brain, creating a dependence on their usage. As such, those who persistently use computers become less responsive to natural rewards (for instance, nature, interaction, toys, hobbies, sports). Quite simply, the level of effort required to engage in everyday hobbies can pale in significance to the ease that they can achieve a dopamine hit from computers.

Therefore, removal of the computers, or being made to come off them can create heightened stress and anxiety and a withdrawal process as their brains have become attuned to the high levels of dopamine reward that they achieve through the computer usage.

For some children, if their usage of computers has become:

  • Excessive
  • Incessant
  • Disrupting their daily tasks
  • Isolated, depressed or preoccupied
  • Causing significant impairment to personal, social, family and educational functioning

There may be cause for concern that screen usage has become excessive and need support. You may also notice that when stopping usage they experience:

  • Agitation
  • Irritability
  • Be agitated or angry
  • Violent outbursts
  • Withdrawal symptoms

The removal of screen usage withdraws our dopamine and serotonin hit and if we have nothing in our day to day life which offers a similar experience of dopamine and serotonin then our mood, energy and mental and emotional well-being is directly impacted.

 

What’s the best of both worlds?

Screens have a place in society and we cannot escape the fact that we need to be able to access, engage and utilise them in order to move forward in studying and careers. However, we do need balance:

For younger children:

  • Limit all screen time (for under 2s it is not advised)
  • Encourage physical activity and fresh air as much as possible
  • Engage children in social activities to develop social and communication skills
  • Offer children a wide range of toys, resources and games for all areas of development
  • Support good sleep routines

For school age children

  • Limit screen time to one hour per day
  • When using games look for educational based activities
  • Ensure that meal times and snacks are not eaten in front of screens (this prohibits the ability to recognise satisfaction as the brain is engaged with the dopamine loop of the screen)
  • Encourage physical activity and fresh air as much as possible
  • Engage children in social activities to develop social and communication skills
  • Offer children a wide range of toys, resources and games for all areas of development
  • Stop screen use at least one hour before bed
  • Support good sleep routines

For older children:

  • Limit screen time to two hours per day
  • When using games look for educational based activities
  • Ensure that meal times and snacks are not eaten in front of screens (this prohibits the ability to recognise satisfaction as the brain is engaged with the dopamine loop of the screen)
  • Agree boundaries for phones, computers, tablets and gaming and enforce them
  • Plan non-screen time in the household
  • Encourage physical activity and fresh air as much as possible
  • Encourage hobbies and group activities to develop social skills and promote positive habits (as well as natural dopamine hits)
  • Stop screen use at least one hour before bed and do not store screens in the bedroom
  • Support good sleep routines

 

How do I help them reduce their computer time?

Children and young people’s brain development continues until their early 20s. As such, the frontal cortex, where children and teenagers make rational and logical decisions is not developed and as such they remain impulsive in their decision making. Therefore, children and young people rely on parents and the adults around them to set boundaries, guidance and controls to support screen time. As such, the earlier this is installed, the better, but it is never too late to make amendments to support children’s long term mental health and emotional well-being.

  1. Be the role model – to be instilling boundaries about screen time, we need to role model it first. You cannot be telling children and teens to be outdoors in the fresh air whilst scrolling through social media – you need to be the change that you wish to see.
  2. Set boundaries – Enforcing new boundaries is easier if everyone is on board. Setting limits/times for screen time e.g. computers and phones will inevitably cause conflict but the long-term benefits are greater than the short-term consequences. If parents pay for the mobile phone contract, setting expectations of contributions to the household to earn this (which must be stuck to) and
  3. Set screen free time – Having periods of the day and week where there are no screens, to support children is both supportive to their social skills and supportive of life skills. Leaving all screens in a separate room to allow meals to be enjoyed together, and having a day at weekends with no phones supports children, teens and adults to learn to use time productively and engage in different ways.
  4. Identify underlying issues – If your child has indictors of additional needs, such as ASD, ADHD liaising with their professional network can support you to guide their screen time and identify additional triggers that may need to be considered, e.g. blue lights, types of games, trigger sounds, impulsivity.
  5. No screens at bedtime – screen time has been reported to affect sleep quality and the impact of blue light on the ability to relax has been widely reported. Stopping all screen time one hour before bed and leaving phones outside of the bedroom is beneficial to both sleep and emotional health.
  6. Praise is offered – When changing routines, it is imperative that children and teens receive praise and acknowledgement for sticking to the agreed boundaries. This can be verbal, or a reward such as a family activity e.g. a board game or trip to the park to offer engagement in different ways.
  7. Offer different ways to connect – Many children and teens use computers as a way to interact with friends, planning ways that they can spend time with friends and develop social and communication skills needs to be offered to support them to learn connection in different ways.
  8. Promote physical activity and hobbies – If we have nothing else to engage with, then the removal of screens is an even greater issue. Therefore, ensuring that children and young people are engaged with other hobbies including groups, sports activities to activity programmes (e.g. Duke of Edinburgh) allows brain development to create natural dopamine loops and ease the loss/reliance of screens.

If your child is reliant on screens, or habits at home have become unhealthy, reducing them can feel overwhelming. Using school holidays as a time to implement new activities and boundaries can be a great start to new routines – but these need to be for the WHOLE household – not one rule for one and one for adults.

 

References:

https://www.nhs.uk/news/pregnancy-and-child/who-guidelines-screen-time/

https://www.rcpch.ac.uk/sites/default/files/2018-12/rcpch_screen_time_guide_-_final.pdf

https://www.nspcc.org.uk/keeping-children-safe/online-safety/

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23328472/

https://www.ejradiology.com/article/S0720-048X%2809%2900589-0/fulltext

https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0020708

https://www.ejradiology.com/article/S0720-048X%2813%2900073-9/fulltext

https://childmind.org/article/is-internet-addiction-real/

http://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2018/dopamine-smartphones-battle-time/

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20545602/

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