Over the past 15 years researchers have continuously observed alarming trends in children’s mental health. We now have data showing that 1 in 5 children have mental health problems. With sharp increases in reported cases of attention deficit hyper activity disorder (ADHD) and teen depression, along with a suicide rate in children 10 to 14 years old that has increased by 100%, it is time we really start addressing the mental health issues that our young people face.
While there are many factors contributing to these sharp increases, researchers have looked to the role that technology can play in negatively affecting our mental health. Studies indicate that on average children are spending seven hours a day in front of a screen. Young minds with access to unmonitored electronic devices get endless stimulation when what they actually need is social interaction – the kind that forms positive coping and resiliency skills. Now, not only are children struggling to overcome these distractions themselves, but many may have digitally distracted parents. Parents that are emotionally unavailable and unable to teach them how to deal with their feelings.
Children, as well as adults, are also experiencing a lack of sleep due to over stimulation, and their own natural physiology. All parents know that “bedtime” can be a challenging ritual to instill and now we know why. Research has shown that blue light that most screens emit awakens the brain and interrupts our circadian rhythms (sleep wake cycle). This leads to sleep deprivation and can also mimic the symptoms of attention deficit hyper activity disorder: irritability, aggressiveness, and distraction.
Further research has shown the brain has the ability to rewire itself relative to the environment that surrounds it. While it is tempting, and certainly convenient, for parents to allow constant access to technology for entertainment purposes, this practice is absolutely affecting our children’s growth and development in a way that could have detrimental long term effects. This rewiring can contribute to the challenges down the road of everyday life and maybe even success in the future.
Luckily, there is a way to improve children’s mental health, and it is very low tech. Allow them to be bored. Boredom brings to life creativity. Do not use technology as a cure for boredom whether it’s in a restaurant, a long car ride, or at the grocery store. Instead, train their brain to operate under boredom. As the weather is getting better, encourage children to spend at least one hour a day outside. Have a sleep routine by setting a “bedtime” and insisting children turn off all technology at least 1-2 hours before that bedtime. This will take some will power and planning ahead to deal with the grumbling, but the results will be well worth it. Most importantly, instill positive life skills in children that will prove valuable as they grow. Empower them to engage with adults and address mental health issues early. Children should never be afraid to start a conversation about a specific issue they might be experiencing.