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#MentalHealthMatters: Consequences of excess screen time and mental health

January 4, 2019

Brittain Paul, LISW-S, CTP, Ravenwood Health’s Chief Operating Officer

(Editor’s Note: Each month, the experts at Ravenwood Health write a post about an aspect of mental health. Brittain Paul kicks off 2019’s #MentalHealthMatters with some sage advice about how families can develop healthy habits regarding their electronic devices. This column is especially helpful after the holidays, when many people give and receive electronics.)

With the passing of the holidays I am sure many of our teens—and even younger kids—were given electronics from Santa. While they are likely still excited and thankful for their gifts, it is up to parents and caregivers to make sure these gifts do not go on to create long-term problems. 

Today, teens are already more anxious and depressed than they were just 10 years ago. Teens face unique challenges different than what many of us as kids had to face. With the rise in mental health symptoms, which also includes suicide, we need to look at all the factors, which could be contributing to this ever increasing concern.

Too much screen time raises the risk of obesity, interferes with social activities, family time, and decreased connectedness with others, taking an overall toll on a youth’s mental health.

Strategies to manage your family’s screen time*

Make screen time a privilege. Just because they now have a phone, does not mean they are entitled to use it all the time. Homework, chores, and family time still need to be a priority.

Role model healthy habits. We all can get caught up in screen time. Practice what you preach.

Multitasking does not work. We all think we are able to do this better than we actually do and it prevents us from being “present” fully when in conversations. 

Establish clear screen-time expectations.  One rule I have found most helpful is setting a time at night an hour before bed where all electronics have to be off and placed on the kitchen counter. This allows our kids’ brains to unwind from the images they see on their electronics before they need to fall asleep. Also, no electronics in the bedroom overnight. Getting interrupted by texts from friends or being worried about posts from social media greatly disrupts sleep patterns.

Encourage physical activity. Get up and move without the phone being glued to you.

Educate your teen about media.  Even if your teen feels they already “know” everything, do not stop talking to them about the dangers. I find it helpful to share articles about real life experiences that have occurred to others.

Mealtimes should be sacred. All devices should be on silent and away from the table. Sometimes this can be the most precious non-distracting time you will share with them during the day. Make the most of it.

Create screen-free days. Enjoy a day here and there detoxing from your devices.

Make sure all the adults are on the same page and send the same message. Mom, dad, grandparents and caregivers need to all know the same set of rules and have the same expectations. 

Even if you succeed in only a couple of these tips, you will go a long way with helping your teen and family. Being connected to others promotes good mental health. By practicing these tips, you will help yourself and your family enjoy meaningful connections with each other.

To help children embrace their emotions, read with them. I recommend Don’t Feed the WorryBug by Andi Green.

*Some of the information in this post is from Amy Morin’s “Verywell Family” article “Ten Strategies to Limit Your Teen’s Screen Time.”

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