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  • Writer's pictureDr. Susan Beesley

Forging ahead in the Screen Age


Teens on screen

The internet and screen use have become ubiquitous parts of our daily lives. Gone are the days of landlines and flip phones. It is estimated that 95% of US teens have a smart phone and almost half of them describe themselves as “constantly connected” to the internet. While this connectivity has some benefits like access to information and resources, internet and screen overuse is linked to many negative outcomes including sleep disorders, obesity, anxiety, depression, and poor social and academic adjustment. 


Problematic internet and electronics use is common. It is estimated that around 15% of US teens have problematic internet use (PIU) as defined by the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistics Manual, 5th edition) as preoccupation with online activities, decreased interest in “real life” activities and relationships, unsuccessful attempts to decrease use, and withdrawal symptoms. 


Pediatric psychiatrist Dr. Victoria Dunckley has theorized that screen overuse plays a large role in the recent increase of many mental health diagnoses including ADHD, sleep disorders, ODD (oppositional defiant disorder), anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder. Dr. Dunckley says that overuse of electronic screens causes sensory overstimulation which shifts the nervous system into its “fight-flight-freeze” stress response. This dysregulation can lead to problems of various biological and hormonal systems causing or exacerbating many emotional and behavioral problems. 


Boys gaming

We find ourselves in this precarious place of screen overuse because screen use tickles the most primitive part of our brains, our dopamine reward pathway. Dopamine is the feel-good neurotransmitter of the brain. It is associated with pleasure and reward and is released when we accomplish something. That might be eating a good meal or receiving a good grade. Usually, dopamine activities come after effort, planning, and delay. However, in the electronic world, the dopamine reward system gets a hit every time the next level is reached or with each additional “like” of a post. This short-cut dopamine pathway initially feels good, but the dopamine receptors become quickly overwhelmed, leading to deceased dopamine production. With this reduced capacity, the screen user now needs to repeat the short-cut reward behavior over and over again just to maintain their baseline dopamine level. This is the same brain catch-22 involved in all addictive loops.


Have you ever wondered why the worst behaviors come out when kids are forced to get off of their screen? It is a dopamine withdrawal phenomenon. Leaving their short-cut dopamine reward activity leads to a temporary slump in dopamine production and it doesn’t feel good. They become dysregulated and act out. Additionally, chronic screen overuse decreases frontal lobe activity, which impairs impulse control and emotional regulation. 


Managing internet and screen use may be one of the hardest parts of being a parent right now. Especially because most parents did not grow up with it. My first cell phone was a flip phone that I got the year after I graduated from college. Probably many of you are younger and more connected than I am, but it is safe to say that we did not carry around little super computers in our pockets. No wonder it is daunting to navigate. Additionally, by keeping the kids engaged, screen activities tend to be good babysitters. Parents are tired and stressed and frankly it’s just easier to let the kids veg out on screens. I get it. I’ve done it. And I know that most often with parenting, the easy fix is not the best choice. 


This may all seem like doom and gloom, but don’t fret. There is a path forward. Let me share with you some resources for partnering with your children and forging ahead together in this digital age. 


Family on screen together

Create a family media plan that is in line with your values. Setting up a family media plan sets boundaries for each family member based on their developmental level and their activities. It helps everyone know what is expected and takes the pressure off figuring out limits as you go. Post the family media plan on the fridge and revise it as often as needed. I co-wrote a phone use agreement with my oldest son that I will share with you below. Mine was adapted from one written by Janell Burley Hoffman in 2014. Feel free to copy, edit, modify and use mine as you see fit for your family. 


Here are some things to consider as you get started on your own family media plan: 


  • Involve your child in making your family media plan. Children are more likely to be on board with a plan that they help create. Ask your child what boundaries they think are fair.

  • Address what type of and how much media are appropriate for each family member

  • Place consistent limits on the time spent on each type of media

  • Have screen free zones such as the dinner table to encourage face to face interactions. 

  • Designate screen free times such as before bed or during homework so that media does not interfere with sleep and learning

  • Have a one screen at a time rule and turn off devices not in use

  • Keep screens out of the bedrooms and plan where devices will be charged overnight

  • View media together. Reflect on and discuss it. Use it as a way to increase understanding and connection.

  • Keep the lines of communication open. Open up conversations about online citizenship and safety, cyberbullying and sexting.


One of the hardest and most important aspects of a family media plan is that it needs to apply to the adults in the home too. Your most powerful parenting tool is setting a good example. Your kids may act like they are not listening, but they are noticing your interactions and screen behaviors. It’s hard to unplug, but here are a couple of tips:


  • Put your phone away when you are having a conversation

  • Turn screens off when you are not directly interacting with them

  • Plan activities with you kids that don’t involve screens: cooking, crafts, gardening, sports

  • Do not use your phone while you are driving


I would also recommend using  Common Sense Media to screen any type of media for age appropriate content. Games can also be run through the Entertainment Software Rating Board. Both of these are independent platforms that help families make informed choices about media consumption.


If you are concerned that your child may have problematic internet use or be suffering negative health or social consequences related to screen use, there are clear steps you can take:


  • Digital detox: wean your child off all screens and tech by an hour a day until they are off all screens. Continue screen-free for 4-6 weeks. This is the recommended amount of time necessary for the hyper-aroused nervous system to reset. Expect increased irritability and anxiety during the withdrawal period.

  • Replace the screen time with healthy habits such as sports, cooking, playing games, and connecting with friends. Bonus points if some of the replacement activities are novel dopamine experiences such as physical activity, hot or cold exposure, stretching, listening to or playing music, getting some sunshine on your face, and connecting with nature.

  • Let your child experience boredom. This is an underrated developmental experience from which the spark of creativity often emerges.  


My Phone Use Agreement

  1. This contract is for my safety. I understand that my parents want to give me freedom while also providing enough guidance and security to make smart choices. 

  2. The phone belongs to my parents. I am allowed to use it because I agree to these terms of use. If I cannot adhere to this contract, I understand that I will lose the privilege of using the phone.

  3. My parents will always know all of my passwords and pins.

  4. I understand that if it falls in the toilet, gets smashed, or gets lost, I am responsible for the replacement or repair costs.

  5. I will put my phone in its charging spot in my parents room at or before 10pm. 

  6. I will use common sense when calling/texting someone. If I would not feel comfortable calling a landline and talking to a parent, then I will reconsider whether I should call/text at all. I will respect people’s resting and quiet time as I would like to be respected. 

  7. I will not text, email, or say anything through this device that I would not say in person. I will censor myself. I will practice “take a breath, count to 10, read it again, before pressing send.” 

  8. I understand that what I put into cyberspace never dies. It will follow me. My behavior on the phone can impact my future reputation. 

  9. I will not receive or send naked photos. Ever. I understand that it is risky and could have serious legal consequences and could ruin my future life.

  10. No explicit content. I will search the internet only for information that I would openly share with my family. I will have questions about sensitive and private topics and I will ask a person instead of asking google for the answers. 

  11. If it rings, I will answer it. I will say hello and be polite. I will not ignore calls from “mom” or “dad” ever. 

  12. I will turn it off, silence, and put it away in public, especially at a restaurant, the movies, and while speaking to another human being. I am not a rude person, so I will not let a phone change that. 

  13. I will follow my school rules regarding phone use. When I am with my friends at school, I will have face-to-face conversations with people. I will practice putting my phone away even when I don’t have to. 

  14. I will not use this technology to lie, bully, or deceive another human. I will not involve myself in gossip or conversations that harm others. I am a good friend and will not let technology change that. 

  15. I will tell my parents when/if I receive suspicious text/emails/phone calls. I will tell my parents if I become the victim of cyberbullying. 

  16. I will leave my phone at home sometimes. I know that it is not an extension of myself and I know that I can live without it. I am bigger than the FOMO. 

  17. When I am old enough, I will never text and drive. 

  18. I will never lie about where I have been or how I am using the phone. I promise to answer questions openly and honestly. 

  19. I will keep my head up and my eyes open. I will take in the world around me and wonder without googling, for the world is large and magical and most good questions cannot be answered by the phone.

  20. I understand that I will mess up and my phone will be taken away. We will sit down and talk about it and try again. I am learning and my parents are on my side. We are on this journey together.


Resources:


American Academy of Pediatrics Family Media Plan: https://www.healthychildren.org/English/fmp/Pages/MediaPlan.aspx




References:


Council on Communications and Media. (2016). Media use in school-aged children and adolescents. Pediatrics. 138(5).


Dunckley, V. (2015). Screentime is making kids moody, crazy and lazy. Psychology Times. 8/18/2015


Kardaras, Nicholas. (2016). Glow Kids. New York. St Martin’s Press.


Mohamed SM, Abdallah LS, Ali FN. (2023). Effect of digital detox program on electronic screen syndrome among preparatory school students. Nursing Open.10(4): 2222–2228.


Santos RS, Mendez DG, Bressani GY et al. (2023). The associations between screen time and mental health in adolescents: a systematic review. BMC Psychology. 

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