Digitally-dependent teens missing out on a healthy life of exercise, school work, life goals and supportive relationships

Priory’s Dr Hayley van Zwanenberg, child and adolescent psychiatrist and Priory’s Group Associate Medical Director shares her insight and tips.

As we welcome (and, as an expert in child and adolescent mental health, I really do welcome high-profile campaigns such as this, with its universal focus on detaching ourselves from devices), there will be some parents, teachers and carers shrugging their shoulders as they face the prospect of another well-meaning initiative, urging them to confiscate consoles and snatch away smartphones from their digitally-dependent teenagers for 24 hours.

However, as we become more aware of the importance of unplugging, and we hear the concerns of many experts about the growing dependency on social media, we should use this NUPD as an opportunity to “look inwardly” and question whether we, as adults, are always setting the best example in terms of responsible and reasonable social media engagement. Maybe it’s time to stop nagging, stop apportioning blame, stop despairing at the society we have become and start showing today’s teens what life was like before wifi ruled the world (and yes, that means putting our phones down too.)

There is myriad research linking levels of dopamine (a ‘feel good’ brain chemical) in young people to their regular use of social media and/ or gaming – with some experts referring to a now familiar “dopamine rush” experienced every time people “like”, “post’ or “share”. It’s even been suggested that many young people are now living their lives attached to a sort of portable “dopamine pump” (like a mobile phone), not seeking out the other pursuits in life than can provide that same ‘feel good’ factor, such as sport, exercise, relationships and achieving goals at school or work.

So, how can we, Generation X – possibly the last generation of adults that can remember a childhood without phones, tablets, social media and 24/7 on-demand TV – convince our multi-media Millennials (and much younger) that FOMO (fear of missing out) is really nothing to be afraid of? And, how can adults do that effectively, when so many now seem to be suffering from a bad case of nomophobia (an irrational fear of being without your mobile phone or being unable to use your phone for some reason) themselves?

Thankfully, it’s not as daunting as it sounds. As part of National Unplugging Day 2017, I was asked to prepare some simple tips to help children, teenagers and young adults develop a healthier attitude to social media and gaming and to learn to reconnect with the world around them, taking regular breaks from their virtual existence and online profile. It soon became apparent to me that these tips were just as applicable to adults and parents – perhaps even more so, if we are to proactively take on the responsibility of “handing over the baton” of the benefits of a life-before-technology and show future generations the importance of not being a slave to social media.

  • Get board, not bored! – from Scrabble to Snap to Uno, Pointless to Pictionary, board games are back and can be a great bonding experience, whatever your age and interests
  • Children (and adults) must have time to totally relax as well as get an adequate number of hours’ restorative sleep. Remove electronic devices from your children (and turn yours off too) at least an hour before going to sleep (and never leave devices charging in the bedroom)
  • Implement a new ‘regime of relaxation’, with no digital devices (that means switch on your “out of office” and mean it) Dredge your memory for how you used to occupy your time pre-iPhone and laptops, and encourage play with more innovative ‘device-free’ games
  • Ensure all digital devices are always put away (in a nearby bowl or basket) at all mealtimes – and that includes parents’ devices
  • Encourage your child to embrace boredom. Downtime is when a child’s imagination really takes grip, and when they learn to structure their own time and take charge themselves (if you can also remember what it’s like to be bored, you’ll soon remember how liberating it is to have nothing to do)
  • Sport! You can’t be on your iPad or phone when you are playing sport. If your children don’t like school sport, try Zumba, yoga or crazy golf or riding bikes
  • Read together
  • Encourage activities that involve meeting and seeing people, such as attending clubs, having friends over, or just going to shops. All these offer opportunities to build self-esteem and allow for healthier social comparison – away from the digital world
  • Walk and talk – the better weather is a great excuse to get out and enjoy the fresh air, without the distraction of the TV or tablet. Use the time to chat openly; laugh and maybe broach sensitive subjects that have been off limits during term-time (parents might be surprised at what teenagers suddenly decide to share –and vice versa)
  • Is your child better at texting than cooking? Show them how to rustle up an easy meal from scratch or how to barbecue. Taste things together.
  • What is your child studying at school? Take them to somewhere related and show them how they can impress their teacher and class with a more detailed knowledge of an historical event or author.
  • After National Unplugging Day, set clear boundaries about using devices. Avoid any digital devices for children under the age of 2. Recent research by the American Academy of Paediatrics suggests that for children younger than 2, the benefits of digital use are really limited, if non-existent. For children aged 2-5, the same study said that the more complex thinking skills essential for school – such as persistence, being creative and thinking flexibly, are best taught through unstructured and social play, not digital devices. Limit use of devices for children aged 2-5 to one hour a day (which should be supervised). For children aged 5 -10 continue to limit use to as close to an hour a day as possible, and for children and teenagers aged 10+, keep their use to under three hours per day.

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