You don’t need an expert to tell you that children are spending more time than ever before immersed in technology and the digital world. The amount of time they spend outdoors is sharply declining as the amount of time they spend on iPads, games consoles and smartphones increases. Although it is undoubtedly adaptive to be tech-savvy and computer literate in the modern world, this level of screen time is also bringing with it an array of negative health consequences. Childhood obesity has sky- rocketed across the Western world with sports engagement and fitness levels dropping.
Some psychologists are also arguing that not only is this digital overload affecting kids physically, but it is also having negative consequences for their mental health. The past decade has seen a rise in the number of children diagnosed with issues relating to memory, concentration and even depression. Now, some theorists claim that this may be partially rooted in the home environment, particularly the amount of time they spend using technology.
So could there be any truth in this, and how does technology influence the young mind?
1. Exposure to Screens Disrupts the Body Clock
When the body and mind begin to feel ready to sleep, that’s when you know the chemical “melatonin” has been released. This chemical is released when we exerted ourselves enough to be tired, and when we become aware that the day is winding down. Since screens mimic sunlight, they disrupt our perception of time and subsequently the amount of melanin we produce. Poring over an iPad before bedtime therefore, is terribly disruptive to our sleep patterns and body clock. Sleep is such an important factor in terms of our mood and mental health, so anything that affects it adversely is worth worrying about. Try to cut out screen time a couple of hours before bed, and develop a consistent routine. When the body clock is disrupted it can lead to irritability, hormone imbalance and weight gain so it’s important to ensure every child keeps a balance.
2. Technology Can be Addictive
Another chemical worth mentioning is called “dopamine”; this chemical is part of our reward system and makes us feel good. Unfortunately, it is also associated with addiction as the brain needs more and more to induce a reaction. Scientists have found that dopamine is released during gaming, and that increased use of video games causes the individual to crave more screen time (Kuhn, 2011). This finding indicates that some children may actually be addicted to technology. This might explain the irritability and tantrums demonstrated by some children when parents attempt to remove or reduce game- time. Like any process that can be addictive, it’s important to be aware of usage and any bad habits.
3. Excessive Screen Time can Damage Attention Span
Studies have found that spending too much time in front of the television may DOUBLE the risk of attention problems in young adults and children (Swing,. Excessive time was designated two hours or more. The research time find that those over the two hour limit were 1.6 - 2.2 times more likely to have difficulty focusing. While technology use was measured in the home, attention problems were measured in the school. These included interrupting other children, paying attention in class and being able to focus on assignments. The study also identified that middle school students spend a staggering 4.26 hours per day, on average, watching TV or playing video games. When children are immersed in the virtual world for such a large part of their day they do not find day- to-day tasks exciting enough and their mind is no longer able to focus. In addition, children are used to be rewarded quickly and immediately i.e. reaching another level in a videogame. So anything that requires long term input is difficult for the mind to grasp.
4. Screen Time Reduces Time Outdoors
Spending time outdoors is a natural part of childhood and should be encouraged. We’ve all seen the calming effect a walk in the park can have on kids or how a day spent out playing results in a tired but happy child. Just like adults, kids need exercise and time outside to improve mood and have fun. Spending time with nature can reduce stress and aggression dramatically, so it is important that we allow this to happen. If you try to help your kids unwind in the same way, by allowing them to watch TV before bed etc. it simply will not work as well. Try to set limits to the amount of time your child can spend on technology at the weekends and factor in some outdoor activities instead.
5. Screen Time Influences how we Respond to Stress
Spending too much time in front of a screen influences cortisol levels (the stress chemical) and this in turn influences how we react to stressful situations. This change in brain chemistry can make us more irritable and less able to process any internal or external demands healthily. For example, your child may respond with a temper tantrum to a minor inconvenience because they simply cannot properly process what is happening. An unhealthy ebb and flow of cortisol may also cause depression which could potentially be another by- product of too much screen time.
It’s clear that our modern obsession with the screen can have a worrying effect on the developing mind. Too much time in the digital realm can damage children’s ability to focus at school, their physical health and even their happiness.
We all want our kids to be competent using the internet and to have basic computer skills, but hours spent gaming and watching TV can be truly damaging.
It’s hard to prove the claims of scientists that screen time may be linked to ADHD, but it is apparent that we should place a limit on technology and help kids to be kids for a little while longer.
Kühn, S., Romanowski, A., Schilling, C., Lorenz, R., Mörsen, C., Seiferth, N., ... & Conrod, P. J. (2011). The neural basis of video gaming. Translational psychiatry, 1(11), e53.
Swing, E. L., Gentile, D. A., Anderson, C. A., & Walsh, D. A. (2010). Television and video game exposure and the development of attention problems. Pediatrics, 126(2), 214-221.
What is Enabling?
We’ve all heard the term “enabling”. In its simplest form, enabling means helping somebody do something they would not be able to do by themselves. This is a natural and very human instinct that we all have. Parents want to help their children learn to cycle a bike, friends want to help their friends recover from a broken relationship and we may even want to help a stranger who has dropped their groceries.
Enabling has another more sinister meaning however, when it is paired with addiction or an unhelpful behaviour. In this instance, enabling is when we inadvertently or otherwise help someone to continue perpetuating a dysfunctional habit. People have various reasons for enabling an unhelpful behaviour. Often, when faced with the distressing situation of addiction and a loved one, enabling can be the only way to feel in control of the situation. At other times, the enabler may genuinely believe they are helping.
How do I Know if I'm an Enabler?
It can be hard to know when behaviour transforms from supportive to enabling. Below are a list of questions which may help to separate the two. Remember, enabling is not purely restricted to substances but also to dysfunctional behaviours. Check how many of the following you answer “yes” to.
Why is Enabling Harmful?
Enabling removes the consequences the addict or individual would otherwise face as a result of their habit. The damaging consequences of enabling have been highlighted by science with studies showing that the negative consequences of addiction are the single biggest motivation for change to occur. With the enabler continuously softening the blow of addiction the addict may never “hit rock bottom”. For example, if a co- worker continuously covers for their alcoholic friend’s absences, it allows them to avoid any disciplinary proceedings and operate as normal in the workplace. Whilst the intention may be noble, this prevents the addict from receiving help in the long run.
Sometimes the individual perpetuating the enabling may be referred to as a “Co- dependent”. This is because they often end up taking the fall for or shouldering the addict’s responsibilities. Ultimately, the addict will rely on the co- dependent to get by, making it increasingly difficult for the co- dependent to disengage. Often, the addict will take the ongoing help for granted and this builds a dysfunctional and resentful relationship.
Some of the most dysfunctional relationships can be between parents and children. As parents often have a duty- of- care to their children they may not recognise the difference between parenting and enabling. If you catch your child smoking during exams, and wait until their exam is over to impose consequences, this is not enabling. If however, you continue to provide a weekly allowance after exams then this is allowing your child to continue to engage in an unhealthy behaviour.
How Can I Stop Enabling?
We’ve already mentioned the importance of highlighting negative consequences to the addict. Often, the addict will be denial regarding their actions and seek to justify the addiction. It is important that the enabler stop minimizing the consequences of the dysfunctional behaviour. For example, if man carries his partner to bed every night after they have blacked out in the kitchen, they will not have to deal with the discomfort and embarrassment in the morning. Similarly, if a Mother pays her sons phone bill every time he has spent his pay check at the bookmakers, he will not have to deal with the consequences of having his phone disconnected.
This may sound callous initially, but remember that you are not responsible for the outcomes of addiction and that enabling will only make things worse in the long run. It will be very difficult to do this as often ceasing enabling brings with it a lot of short- term pain and suffering. For example if your parent loses their job once you cease enabling, this will impact the entire family financially. On the other hand, without them losing their job there is no incentive to change.
In order to maintain your resolve in this difficult time it is important to seek support and to learn to embrace your independence from the addict. “Al- Anon” is an organisation for relatives and friends of addicts. It offers a programme which aims to guide the enabler away from their co- dependent habits. It teaches practices such as “disengaging with love”. This means that whilst you love the addict and care about what happens to them, you recognise that you must distance yourself from their addiction as it is ultimately the only path to true change. In addition, you will get to meet others in a situation similar to yourself. This is important as caring for an addict can be isolating and often our support networks have been damaged.
If you are in the difficult position of being a co- dependent then don’t continue on this journey alone. Reach out to one of the many organisations that may help and take the first step in recovering your autonomy.
Haaken, J. (1993). From Al-Anon to ACOA: Codependence and the reconstruction of caregiving. Signs, 18(2), 321-345.
Moore, K. D., & Moore, J. W. (2013). Ecological restoration and enabling behavior: a new metaphorical lens?. Conservation Letters, 6(1), 1-5.
Divorce can be an extremely stressful and confusing time for kids. As big changes lie ahead a lot of the stability and certainties they once had can begin to fall away. This uncertain future can elicit a lot of negative emotions such as anger and sadness and lead to some behavioural changes. As a parent, it’s important you recognise how difficult this period may be for your child and do your best to minimise the stress associated with it. While it will never be an entirely smooth process for you or your child, these tips will hopefully help make it a little bit easier.
How to Tell Them
This is a truly difficult task for any parent. Try to keep things as simple as possible and address the important points. There is no point avoiding the issue for too long it confusing things even more. Your child deserves to know the truth and what the future holds. Look for the most child- friendly explanation such as “We are not getting along like we used to before”. Inform your kids that sometimes this can happen between parents but that it does not influence how they feel about their children. It’s important to emphasise that you still love them and will still be as much of a parent as you were before, down to simple things like helping with homework. Also address what will happen next, as this will be a source of anxiety for children. If you are not sure, be open about this too.
Don't Introduce Blame to the Conversation
If things are tense then try not to reveal this to your children, particularly at this early stage in the conversation. This will only add to the anger and confusion they are feeling. Agree with your ex that you will present a united front to the children. This may involve deciding what you are going to say beforehand and discussing how to best field any difficult questions. If you are angry with your partner then it will be difficult to co- operate and you may even be tempted to lash out when discussing the reasons for the separation with your children. Resorting to such measures however will only make the process more difficult in the long- run and sets a bad precedent. Remember that you are staying calm and reasonable for your children and not the person you are angry with.
Try to Listen to your Child
It’s important in the midst of the turmoil you are feeling yourself that you put aside some headspace to truly listen to your child. Don’t them what they are feeling or thinking. The best way of doing this is to ask open questions and to only respond to what they actually tell you. For example, if they are upset don’t ask leading questions such as “Are you angry that your Dad has a new girlfriend?”. This is not in the best interest of the child and may more accurately reflect your own feelings rather than theirs.
If your child can open and honestly reflect on their own feelings they are more likely to develop in an emotionally healthy way. If your child tells you that they feel sad, validate their feeling. It is a difficult time and they are entitled to feel this way. If your child feels they can express themselves without fear of anger and judgement you will create a healthy relationship which allows space for stability and healing.
Don't Put Your Child in the Middle
Although your relationship may be over your child is still permanently connected to 50% of it! If your child retains a relationship with your ex- partner it is not right or healthy to interfere with or attempt to use this.
If you continuously trash- talk your ex- partner this can be confusing and hurtful for the child who still loves their parent. Children can also internalise this criticism as relating to them.
Similarly if your child spends a significant amount of time with your ex- partner this should not be exploited for information- gathering purposes. Grilling your child about your ex- partner’s new home or whether they are seeing anyone creates a toxic scenario where your child may feel the need to keep secrets and feel uncomfortable. Respect your child’s right to normalcy.
Try to Keep Some of Your Child's Routine Intact
When the topic of divorce is introduced your child can feel nothing will ever be the same again. Retaining some of the day- to- day normal features of their life can be extremely comforting, and provides a sense of stability in an otherwise unstable time.
If possible, delegate out some responsibilities with your ex- partner. If your child loves attending Monday soccer practice with their Dad then allow them to continue with this weekly outing. Similarly, if Mom throws the best Halloween party for their friends then keep this custom alive.
Although changes are inevitable, keeping a certain amount of the routine in place can provide a basis for your child to adjust and heal.
As time goes by new routines will need to be created and this is also an extremely important step. If there are consistent times when your child sees each parent it will help them to feel part of both lives. Pre- agreeing routines with your ex- partner can also help to alleviate tension in the future as both parties know what to expect.
Reflect on Damage Done
If your divorce was preceded by a tumultuous time this may have affected your child just as much as the aftermath. If necessary, admit your failings and apologise to your child. Discuss what can be done better and what they would like to change.
It may also be worthwhile exploring whether your child would like to speak to an unbiased professional. If this seems like a path worth exploring then seek out an accredited family therapist.
By: Dr. Syras Derksen
Pryor, J., & Emery, R. E. (2004). Children of divorce. Rethinking childhood, 170.