They rage. Break things. Cry. Threaten suicide.
In some cases, they’ve been diagnosed with anxiety, depression or bipolar disorder.
But the kids who visit Seattle-area psychotherapist Dr. George Lynn aren’t coping with symptoms of mental illness; they’re suffering from screen dependence.
Eighty per cent of Lynn’s patients come in with issues that stem from too much gaming, watching too many videos online or using too much social media.
“What I’m seeing is a personality syndrome that comes from basically unbridled, uncontrolled use of recreational use of screen media during the day and at night,” Lynn says.
“Most doctors, family doctors, even psychiatric practitioners are not hip to the obvious fact that a kid might be only getting two to three hours of sleep at night if that. And that causes personality problems.”
Lynn says kids who fall into the “moderate range” spend about eight to 10 hours a day on screens in middle school and 14 hours a day by the time they’re teenagers. The extreme users are on screens so much they don’t sleep. Lynn has seen all sorts of fallout: “school failure, lack of connection with family, acting out, anger, manipulative strategies.” He says those manifestations are the result of screen dependence versus a primary psychiatric issue.
The issue is so prevalent, Lynn has just released a book to give parents strategies to help their children overcome screen dependence. He says getting a plan is the most important step.
“Do family meetings to build what we call a sense of family vision…so that it’s clear to the kids that in their family people come first and they relate to each other first,” he says. “They don’t scuttle off to their rooms immediately when they come home. When dad and mom come home, they don’t scuttle off to their devices, throw some stuff in the microwave and then be shovelling food into their face while they’re still working.”
Screen dependence is on the rise in Canada too.
Earlier this year, a ParticipACTION report found only 24 per cent of five- to 17-year-olds came under the recommended daily maximum of two hours of recreational screen time. High school students spent an average of 8.2 hours in front of a screen, according to the report. The lead researcher said Canadian kids were having disrupted sleep due in part to screen use in bedrooms.
Vancouver resident Connell Green’s gaming addiction started early. He was about eight years old when he started playing Pokemon.
“We could only play games on weekends but I would sneak down during weekdays to the treehouse and play there,” Green says. “Or I would be in bed at night and have it playing and then if I heard my parents come, I could hide it under the covers and I had a book with me and I would pretend to be reading the book.”
After being cut during soccer tryouts in university, the hobby turned into an addiction. He started playing the video game FIFA for several hours at a time.
“My high school identity was kind of broken and abandoned, so FIFA gave me that sense of … it gave me that sense of progression,” Green says.
“I could win it – like I could do well where in real life I had failed at it.”
Green ended up dropping out of university as a result of his addiction and subsequent depression. Four years later, he is pursuing a career in counselling. He occasionally relapses but is much more aware of the hold gaming has on him.
“I’m kind of crawling my way out.”
Ross Laird says all Canadian kids are coping with media overuse “in one way or another.” The Vancouver-based consultant presents to teachers, students and parents about technology and how it impacts a child’s development, family life and schooling. Laird offers the following tips to prevent screen dependence:
With technology present at every turn, Laird says parents need to have an ongoing dialogue about the subject with their kids. Talk about the risks and benefits the same way you would teach your kids about nutrition or traffic safety. That means talking on the drive home from school and at the dinner table without the presence of devices.
Laird recommends zero screen time for kids under three years old. At four or five years old, he says parents should start to allow use in small doses (approximately 20 minutes per day). By eight to 10, parents should start to talk to kids about the implications of screen use. Kids between 12 and 15 years old who have devices need to be educated about age-appropriate content and online bullying. Laird says no child under 18 should have a web-enabled device in their bedroom.
“Parents who get in trouble are the ones who set a rule and forget about it.”
Laird suggests making screen time family time. Keep the computer in a common room in the house and sit nearby so you can make sure your child is pursuing homework not Facebook. Instead of allowing mindless media consumption, pick a movie night where you can make popcorn and watch a movie together.
Lynn is confident screen dependence, even in extreme cases, is surmountable.
“This is a problem that the cure is in sight and that’s pulling back from screens, getting back to real life,” he says. “The brain – even if the brain has been damaged from this – has enormous self-healing capacities and can heal from this.”