(photo from publicdomainpictures.net)
Dr. Simon Trepel, child analyst and psychiatrist at the Manitoba Adolescent Treatment Centre, is seeing an increasing number of children and teenagers using phones – even during sessions.
“I was hearing more and more from parents about some difficulties they were having around technology and screen time,” said Trepel. “I was noticing, even in my own family, how pervasive screens are becoming … as a preferred source of entertainment, as well.
“When this stuff marinates in you for awhile, it makes you curious about deeper questions about what’s going on. It ultimately behooves anybody who is working in mental health to start wondering about all the ingredients that might be contributing to someone’s mental health…. I became more curious about how these devices and screen time might be affecting, not just kids and teens, but, really, all of us.”
According to Trepel, using technology in daily life is no longer a choice. It is a fundamental part of how we all get by. Most of us check our phones several times a day, and conduct business and communication on our phones or tablets almost exclusively.
He said there are about four billion people using the internet right now worldwide, and a third of those people are children and teens. There are about five billion people using mobile phones and a little over three billion people on social media at any given time, he said. And, these are all increases of anywhere from five to 15% in comparison to the previous year.
“These trends are changing how we communicate,” said Trepel. “They are changing how much face-to-face communication we have and the nature of the communication itself. The previous generation would use words and texts. Now, videos, pictures and memos are the preferred way to communicate. It’s changing the very ingredients we use to communicate with one another.”
There are implications to this change, especially in children, whose not yet fully developed brains are particularly susceptible to getting into trouble online. But, Trepel said, there is something that can be done – and it starts with adults getting off their phones and other screens, especially when around young people. We also need to start talking about these issues, as kids who come from homes that discuss such topics tend to be less at risk.
“When there’s a more negotiated amount of technology use and supervision and things like that, that is a good thing,” said Trepel. “But, there are many, many kids who have a combination of not a lot of supervision combined with having an immature brain, and these kids are the ones we are most worried about getting into trouble online.
“We worry that screens are displacing a lot of other activities that might be healthier than being on technology – things like getting adequate sleep or being outside. The amount of hours spent outside is now at about half of what it used to be. It’s gone from about 18 hours a week to about seven hours a week in one single generation.”
Getting a handle on this will not be easy, but it starts with parents making the time to fully understand the tech diet of their kids. Just like we monitor their food intake, we need to monitor their tech intake.
“Sit down with them and let them take you through a typical day,” advised Trepel. “What types of sites are they using and for how long? What types of interactions are they are having on this site? The timing of this is important. Is it the first thing they do in the day, getting on their device? Is it the last thing they do before bed? Do they themselves detect any problems with their screen use? Are they running into any cyber-bullying or being taken advantage of? Do they feel better or worse after using their phones? Do they notice phones cutting into their sleep, or do they notice themselves having a difficult time stopping themselves from checking? This is the beginning of getting data about how your kids and teens are using their phones. But, it’s also starting to ask the question of whether or not this is becoming a problem for your kid or teen.”
Trepel suggested that, when you monitor your kids, you want to make sure it is active monitoring – that you are co-viewing and discussing the sites that they are on. It is also important to avoid spy-type programs, he said, as kids will find ways to work around them.
Aim to be playing together, following each other on social media. Use any opportunity for educational guidance – not so much making it a single conversation, but, instead, an ongoing dialogue about the device. You can ask for their help learning about social media, for example. “I think that’s a very elegant way to cover a lot of bases,” said Trepel. “It allows the parent to learn a lot about what the kid is using, in terms of technology use. But, it also updates the parents as to what these social media sites are all about – how they are navigated, how they are used.
“It may also be a great way for kids and parents to spend more time together, interacting with each other, teaching each other. While they might teach you about Twitter, you might be able to point out various ways they are using the technology that might be helpful or harmful. You might, if the child teaches you Twitter, find out if the child has a public account and is being followed by hundreds of people the child has never met before.
“It’s not only a way to have a child feel good about helping a parent, but, once the parent knows more about the technology, the parent can start to look for red flags.”
Studies have shown that parental behaviour is one of the most powerful influences on a child’s behaviour. So, Trepel suggests taking an honest look at yourself as a parent, about how embedded these devices are in your own life. And then, start to change that for yourself, while also becoming a good role model for your kids.
“You want to be proactive with your kids,” said Trepel. “You don’t want to wait until there’s a problem. You want to educate them to the possibility of problems.
“You also want to be proactive about texting and driving. This really might be the drinking and driving of our generation. I remember, when I was in high school, there was MADD, Mother’s Against Drunk Driving. I think we need some sort of revival of that, looking at parents being concerned about texting and driving. The stats from Manitoba are striking that, just five or 10 years ago, we were seeing maybe 3,000 collisions per year. And, in the span of just a few years, it’s now up to 11,000 collisions involving distracted driving per year – a four- or fivefold increase, about 30 distracted driving collisions a day.”
Trepel said it is best to avoid taking technology away without offering an alternative. Make it easy for kids to see their friends in real life, he said. Let them go over to their friends’ houses, take them places they want to go, and do things they want to do – provide them with in-person opportunities. Play a board game, do arts-and-crafts, encourage them to learn to play an instrument or participate in a sport. Off-screen activities, he said, have a greater likelihood of making your kids feel happy as compared to on-screen activities.
Trepel suggested having your kids turn off their phone notifications at important times of the day, like sleep time, family time, meal time, school time, and so on. And make sure that you do the same.
“Every time we get a signal from our phone, it could be someone liking our photo or giving us a compliment, or something we anticipate might be good,” said Trepel. “And that reward system in our brain kicks into gear and compels us to want to check what the notifications are. Once our screen is on and in our hands, we might end up surfing or doing something else we weren’t even intending to do – at the expense of whatever original activity we were doing before the notification occurred. So, we have to make sure that we turn off all those attention stealers.”
Trepel recommended that parents turn off the wifi after 9 p.m., or even earlier, if they think there will be a significant battle to have their kids turn off their screens in the evening or if it is affecting their ability to do homework.
Or, he added, you can get your kids a phone with no internet capabilities. Some executives, he said, have even switched back to such phones, as they were wasting too much of their time when they had a phone with more tech capabilities.
For starters, Trepel said, begin the conversation. Ask your kids for ways to keep things under control. Dialogue, go back and forth, and find ways that work for your family.
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.