The average American’s exposure to media is nearly constant. According to Statista, Americans spend more than six hours per day with traditional media, along with about six hours of digital media. So it’s no surprise that media also affects teens and even children in the U.S.
“We have such a steady stream of information available to us and a lot of it is stressful to hear about. There’s a lot of really alarming events in the news,” Dr. Lund said. “We also have this steady diet of social media and I think that those things taken together are causing a change in kids’ behaviors and the emotions that they’re experiencing.”
She has seen firsthand that media consumption, especially at high volumes, has the power to shape development.
“It impacts the way children’s brains are working and can change the course of their social and emotional development,” Dr. Lund said. “I notice that many kids seem to feel more pressured — there’s a sense of tension, a difficulty relaxing. They tend to have more worry about needing to keep up and negative things that could happen. They also make more comparisons between themselves and others.”
The stress of keeping up
Social media can create a storm of negative comparisons and anxiety about keeping up with the stream of information.
“I think there’s a pressure to keep up. It’s one more thing kids have to be responsible for, to keep up with what other people posted,” explains Dr. Lund. “There could be social consequences with their peers if they don’t know what everybody’s talking about. There used to be more breaks from that kind of anxiety, like downtime when kids were at home.”
When kids see a curated version of other people’s lives online, they can often feel like they’re not having as many interesting or positive things happen to them. These negative comparisons increase risk for depression and anxiety.
“I think it affects their physical activity level and it affects connecting with other people, connecting with nature and actually doing activities that they find meaningful,” Dr. Lund said.
Constant comparison can also drain a child’s sense of contentment.
“They may have a reduced sense of enjoyment with what is, and instead they may have a desire for variety and novelty, which can reduce their happiness,” Dr. Lund said. “There’s more of a feeling of seeking — always searching for what’s next.”
Managing screen time
It’s normal for children to experience some anxiety during development. But if a child is experiencing frequent anxiety, it will add stress to their overall family life.
Anxiety may show up as fear, fatigue or worry, but it can also make children irritable and angry. Parents trying to set limits on social media usage often encounter these emotions.
“Social media can be so reinforcing to the brain that enough is never enough,” Dr. Lund said. “There’s a level of normal anxiety with that, and then there’s a point where kids will get so anxious that they’ll have meltdowns when adults take their devices or limit their screen time.”
Dr. Lund describes a meltdown as a child arguing with their parents, crying and getting agitated to the point where they have a hard time settling themselves back down or they resort to physical aggression.
“Almost every child I talk to thinks that other kids get more screen time than they do and they think it’s unfair. Even when they’re already getting hours and hours,” Dr. Lund said.
Even though their parents have their best interests in mind, kids often view screen-time limits as punishment.
“Oftentimes kids are so absorbed in their online activities that they really feel like it’s the only thing that’s going to make them happy,” Dr. Lund explains. “In almost every situation I’ve seen where it was a really big problem, someone needed to set a lot of limits on screen time and then make the effort to help their kids engage in more meaningful activities and connect with others.”
Creating real connections
According to Dr. Lund, if anxiety and mood changes associated with screen time become problematic, such as when a child’s mood is often irritable or if they’ve lost their enjoyment for other activities, it might be time to evaluate their media usage.
“I think when kids spend a large portion of their day feeling anxious or feeling that they compare less positively to other people — that’s a problem,” Dr. Lund said. “It can be concerning if there’s a lot of agitated behavior when a parent is trying to get their child to turn off their electronic devices — especially when it’s to do something enjoyable with the family. If all they want to do is their Snapchat or Fortnite, that’s a problem.”
Getting kids more active and involved with an experience that they’re actually doing in real life — not what they’re pretending to do on a screen — is often the key to turning around their anxiety.
“While it’s not impossible to feel connection via social media or online, there’s not that spark of shared emotion that we may feel in person,” Dr. Lund explains. “If the primary interaction is digital only, I don’t think it’s as rich of an emotional experience. It doesn’t create the deep sense of shared emotion that fosters well-being.”
Activities that lead to enjoyment and meaning can be centered around music, art, sports, science or other areas of interest. Instigating this kind of change can take a lot of effort from everyone in the family. But talking to a mental health professional can help.
Behavior therapy includes child therapy, family therapy or a combination of both. During these sessions a therapy plan can be developed that works for both the child and their family.
“In situations where there are significant emotional and behavioral problems associated with excessive screen time, I try to help kids see the connection between their feelings and their media use,” Dr. Lund said. “They think they’re unhappy when limits are being set, when really it’s more likely that the opposite is true.”
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