Creating a Healthy Relationship with Technology
Pre-teens & teens today have never known a life without constant access to electronic devices. Screens are woven into pre-teens’ daily lives and regular routines, and can be found in every area of their lives, from their cell phones to their computers/laptops to their bedroom TVs and video game consoles. They’ve also been exposed to social media at a younger age, which opens up a world of comparison and psychological addiction, and is used to shape their budding identities. With technology’s increasing ubiquitousness, optionality, transportability, and increasing uses, the dependency on it is not a mystery.
So far, research on the health effects of screen time on pre-teens is limited and conflicting. On the one hand, it’s been found that moderate use of digital technology is not intrinsically harmful and may even be beneficial. Devices with screens can help teens stay connected with family, friends, and people whom they cannot see in person due to distance. The feeling of connectedness can be beneficial in avoiding precursors to suicidal thoughts, such as feelings of isolation and loneliness. In addition, moderate use of video games can be therapeutic.
However, the heightened use of electronic devices and social media to the exclusion of in-person social interactions and other activities that bring joy, like sports, hobbies, and religious participation, can potentially lead to isolation, depression, aggression, disordered eating, academic difficulties, substance abuse, and suicidal thinking. There’s clearly a fine line teens must walk between using screens for a healthy amount of time and overdoing it.
As adults, it can be difficult to fully understand this phenomenon, as we haven’t been a part of this tech culture to the same extent. Most of us did not grow up with the same access, level of use, and dependability on electronic devices as children and pre-teens do today. Many adults don’t know what it’s like to feel the need to keep up a Snapchat streak, manage several Instagram accounts, respond quickly to multiple people on Facebook Messenger at once, have a visually appealing Pinterest account, and like, comment, and hashtag on all their friends’ posts.
While every individual will experience, react to, and manage electronic device usage in their own unique way, there are some common threads that link pre-teens’ screen time. Read on for a summary of common experiences and recommendations on how to ease the negative effects of over doing it.
Mental Health Effects
The more a person looks at, watches, and analyzes another’s life on TV shows, social media, or the internet, the less that person enjoys her own reality. Research has shown that the longer you spend observing other people’s lives, the more likely you are to become depressed. This is because the longer you spend watching other people’s experiences, the less time you have to create your own enjoyable experiences. Three hours spent on social media is valuable time you could have been playing a sport, learning a new skill, going trampolining, reading a good book, or hanging out with friends. Ask yourself how you feel after spending time on social media. If it’s depleted and anxious instead of invigorated and inspired, consider what activities might be more nourishing to your mind and soul.
Watching TV involves absorbing the message being sent in the show you’re watching as well as the advertisements played in between. Advertising portrays many unrealistic messages that send negative and contorted realities about what girls should look like, what they should own, and what they should be doing to feel good about themselves. This can lead to symptoms of depression and anxiety, and can lower pre-teen girls’ sense of self-worth.
One study found that the more a person used Facebook, the more their life satisfaction levels declined over time. Meanwhile, interacting in person with others did not have negative outcomes. While Facebook can increase social connectedness, the way teens use it can have the opposite effects.
Emotional & Social Health Effects
An unhealthy relationship with electronic device use and social media can lead to depressive symptoms, and it’s not uncommon for people who are depressed to be socially isolated. Once isolated, it’s common for a person to go online or turn to video games to distract oneself from painful emotions, occupy time, and fulfill the need for some form of social connection. This then becomes a vicious and continuous cycle, resulting in increased isolation. Depression can increase screen use, and screen use can make depression worse.
The feeling of needing to have an online presence and stay up-to-date with all that’s happening on the internet can be stressful. The overwhelming feeling can even lead to burnout. Furthermore, the persistent buzz or beep from devices can be a distraction from important tasks, slowing your work and interrupting quiet moments that are crucial for creativity, problem-solving, and stress management.
Signs of Depression & Negative Health Effects of Screen Use:
-You feel tired after looking at a screen for more than half an hour
-You get anxious when you look at what’s being shown on a screen (internet, TV, social media, video games, etc.)
-You have trouble falling asleep
-You wake up feeling exhausted
-You get agitated & angry easily
-You stay up later than you should
-You eat meals in front of a screen
-Your patience and tolerance levels are decreasing
-You have difficulty concentrating
-You crave access to some form of technology
How to Create Boundaries
Make plans to see friends regularly. This ensures you’re building genuine relationships and are getting the social interaction needed to enhance mental, emotional, and social health.
Limit screen time to no more than 4 hours a day. Research has found this to be the “sweet spot.” Anything more and the negative health effects begin to develop. However, if you feel sad, anxious, or angry while using a device, stop immediately, even before the 4 hours.
Schedule when you will use a screen. The 4 hours includes time spent on a computer for homework or learning. Before using a device with a screen, plan ahead. How long will it take to use a computer for homework? How much time will be left to watch your favorite TV show? Budget your time wisely and aim to spend plenty of time away from screens.
Put all electronic devices away 1-2 hours before bedtime. Looking at screens before bed can negatively impact sleep, which is crucial for maintaining mental, emotional, and social health. An even better option is to avoid looking at any screens past 8pm, as their artificial blue light disrupts our natural circadian rhythm once the natural sunlight has disappeared. Try downloading flux to your computer to lessen the effects of strain and melatonin reduction.
Eat peaceful, screen-free meals. At pre-teen age, the relationship between food and body image begins to develop. Using a screen while eating can negatively impact eating habits which has an effect on mental and emotional health.
Take the TV and computer out of your room. Out of sight, out of mind. Make your room a tranquil and peaceful place for winding down, reading, and sleeping.
How to Take Space Away From Screens
Record TV shows to watch at a later time, or bookmark Netflix favorites for later. This will reduce the stress associated with missing out on something you’d like to see.
Do something calming right before bed. Listen to soothing music, do 5 sun salutations, read a book, draw/doodle, write in a journal, or play a board game with family members.
Find friends who have similar interests as you and would like to try fun activities. Having people who are interested in the same activities as you will increase the chances of you all doing them. More time spent with friends doing things you enjoy is less time spent looking at a screen, and this will enhance your emotional and social health. Make sure the activities are not scrolling through social media channels or watching TV together!
Keep your cell phone out of your bedroom at night. Get an alarm clock, if needed. Cell phones are detrimental to your sleep patterns and overall health. If your cell phone is out of your room, you’ll be less likely to look at it directly before going to sleep and right as you wake up.
How to Prevent Addiction
-Set boundaries of when and where electronics can be used and for how long
-Take ownership of the parameters you’ve set
-Recognize that your presence on the internet does not define your self-worth or your complete identity
-Don’t copy your friends’ and peers’ electronic device usage - what works for them and what they enjoy might not reflect your needs
-Rather than just limiting screen time, replace it with other enjoyable activities
-Find ways to make screen time productive - using it for learning and educational purposes, for example
How to Break Addiction
-Admit you don’t have a healthy relationship with electronic devices - acknowledge a problem
-Decide to start the healing process
-Set realistic goals, and begin the slow and progressive journey
-Accept that it will not be an easy process, but one that needs to happen for your health
-Focus on how to integrate in-person connections into your daily life
-Reconnect with your identity without screens
-Set rules as to when and where you will allow yourself screen time
-Take a detox from ALL electronic devices for 1-3 days in a row
-Reintroduce them gradually and take note if they bring joy or negative feelings - then respond accordingly
-Accept that you might fall back to your old ways, but know that you’re always in full control
-Discover a new normal of how screens are used in your life
How to Seek Help
If you feel as though you cannot manage screen time, it’s negatively impacting your health, and you have tried to limit the use and failed a few times, it might be time to seek professional help.
Therapy can provide a tremendous boost in controlling cell phone, internet, and other electronic device use. Specifically, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) provides step-by-step instructions on how to stop compulsive behaviors and change perceptions about screen time. Therapy, in general, can help with creating healthy ways to cope with negative emotions, such as stress, depression, and anxiety. Talk to any adult in your life you feel comfortable with to assist you in getting the help you need and deserve.
With some conscious awareness and effort, electronic devices can be used with mindfulness and positive effects, including connectedness and relaxation. Remember to include plenty of in-person social interactions and other activities that you enjoy to balance screen time. If you notice feelings of overwhelm or anxiety, the solution is simple: step away and give screens a break.