As a mental health clinician who regularly treats kids from various ages and backgrounds, one common denominator they share is their connection with technology, and even more specifically, screens. Kids today seem to always be in front of a screen, whether it’s a cell phone, tablet, computer, or big-screen TV. Like water running to the lowest spot, kids often revert back to screens any time they are free from the task at-hand. In fact, for many kids if there is not something to do, you can confidently predict that they will be in front of a screen all day, only getting off of their screen when forced to do so. We can set aside for the moment questions around the overall effects of constant “screening,” and instead turn our attention to what kids are not doing when in front of screens, and the answer to that question is a lot of meaningful life experiences.
Kids, like us, are not able to successfully do two (or more) different things at the same time. Practically speaking, kids are not able to study successfully and play video games — something has to give. But in too many of my conversations with parents these days, there is no “other something” they encourage their kids to do, so their kids end up on screens for hours on end. This observation is not designed to blame parents, but to instead nudge parents to get more involved by brainstorming fun ideas of things to do, then encouraging kids to do the activity. In fact, screen time can even be leveraged as something to do (on a limited schedule) after other, real-life activities have been completed.
Generally speaking, my clinical observations from watching kids interact with screens for big chunks of their day (and at the exclusion of “doing” real life things) include the following human development mental health concerns:
- Limited social interactions with others. Increasingly more kids today are replacing previous in-person interactions with solitary experiences, or only interacting with friends by means of gaming (in other words, screens). As a result, more kids today struggle with interpersonal relationships, how to verbally communicate, and how to read non-verbal cues (body language) — all issues that have a direct impact on mental health.
- Challenges relating to dating and developing romantic relationships. Kids today place less emphasis on dating, and instead compensate for meeting someone by simply spending more time on screens. Delaying normal romantic interactions can lead to later issues when trying to settle down and find a lifelong mate.
- Driving. Believe it or not, many kids today delay getting their drivers license! This news may be a surprise to previous generations who literally counted the days until they could drive; today’s kids, however, tend to put off getting their license and instead “travel” by means of instant messaging and other similar technologies.
- Gaining wisdom from life experiences, as well as mentors. For every minute a kid games online it is one less minute he or she has in the day to grow from life experiences, including time spent with invaluable mentors.
When screens as used as part of the human experience, the interaction can be quite fun and educational, but when normative human development is impacted in negative ways it might be time to revisit how your child’s time is being spent. And while this isn’t the first generation to enjoy screens and advanced technology, it is easily the most technologically-immersed generation of kids, resulting in a very different way of interacting with others in the real world.
Kids will only have more opportunities to interact with screens in the future, especially with the emergence of artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and other technological advances. Some of the interactions kids have with screens are healthy and educational, but in increasingly more situations we are seeing kids wasting away their developmental years by swiping through silly videos, or gaming deep into the night. It is important that parents pay attention to how much time their kids spend on screens, as well as proactively provide kids different options and opportunities to do things other than screens.