Screen Time and the Brain: Expert Advice on Electronic Addiction and Teaching Kids Healthy Tech Habits

by Apr 27, 2020Screen Time

I recently had the opportunity to interview Dr. Christy Kane to talk about screen time and the brain. You can watch the recording of our interview or read the transcript (edited for clarity) with links to other helpful articles. 

 

Kristen: Today we have a real treat! We have  Dr.Christy Kane with us today. She is a mental health counselor who practices in Utah. She is a sought-after speaker and she does workshops. Her specialty is working with teenagers and adults where she provides evidence-based research on brain functioning and how electronics impact the neurotransmitters in the brain and how to mitigate developing an addiction to electronics. I’m really happy that she is willing to come on. Welcome Dr. Kane! Thanks so much for your time.

Dr. Kane: Thanks for having me.

Kristen: The last time we were together was at a United Nations conference in Salt Lake.

Dr. Kane: Yes. That was fun, wasn’t it?

Kristen: Yes. We presented on a panel and there was a lot of interest in that workshop. I was grateful to see that. 

Screen Time and the Brain

Kristen: How did you get into this? What initiated your interest in how electronics impact the brain?

Dr. Kane: When I was working on my dissertation we began to see the heightened increase of anxiety, depression and teenage suicide ideation. And as scientists, anytime we see substantial gains of negative markers in the mental health world, we begin to ask why. 

And based on research, one of the main impacting possibilities was the increased usage of cell phones. And so I started looking at all the research that had been done worldwide based on the amount of hours kids were in the electronic world and what they were using–video games, social media–and at the same time, the comparison of that information to the rates of suicide, teenage depression, and anxiety. 

So that’s how that started for me: “Why, today, is mental health such a crisis in the world?” 

Kristen: What’s causing all this? We know the iPhone came out in 2007 and the iPad in 2010; we’ve definitely seen dramatic changes since then. With the iPhone you got full-on videos, streaming…

Dr. Kane: The other time in the history of our country when we kind of matched these similar anxiety and depression rates was the 1990s. That’s when the internet came into being. And then we saw a lull and then we saw the smartphones come back in place.

Now that we as humans carry around this small, miniature computer, as you said, that becomes our window to the world, we no longer develop or engage our brain in the habits that we used to, both for adults and children. 

When I lecture, one thing I show adults is how the electronics have impacted their life. Back in my great grandmother’s generation, you memorized addresses, you memorized phone numbers. If you wanted to go somewhere, you plotted it on a paper map or you took out the world atlas, right? 

If you wanted to talk to friends, you walked across the street and knocked on their door. You did gardening. If you met a friend on the street, you didn’t have all these bubbles of exclusion. You were very comfortable giving them a hug or shaking their hand. 

Now today, my coin phrase when I present is “We’ve become the most social antisocial generation of all time.” We’re Facebooking. We’re Pinteresting. We’re Snap-chatting. We’re Instagramming. We’re sending emojis. We’re text messaging. All in the dopamine-driven electronic world. 

Related: Screen Time and Mental Health: Simple Life Hacks for Raising Resilient Kids

I just saw a fascinating research the other day that showed that when the brain is overstimulated, a part of the brain that would naturally produce sympathy and empathy shuts off! That you actually have to go into more of a quiet, meditative, non-stimulatory place of the brain, almost in a daydreaming sense, to engage again that process of empathy and sympathy. 

So if you look at the electronic world, you look at the statistics of bullying, you look at the statistics of exploitation--we have much more sexual aggressiveness in the electronic world because the brain is playing with dopamine and being altered versus the older generations who spent more time in maybe a less-engaged downtime world, but a healthier, engaged world for the brain. They had to think!

Kristen: When I look back at how I grew up and how my kids grew up, and then how kids are growing up today–it’s three completely different experiences. 

Now you mentioned dopamine. When I was listening to you present in Salt Lake, I was fascinated with how you talked about the three neurotransmitters: serotonin, oxytocin and dopamine. And could you just describe, in whatever order you want, those three neurotransmitters and how they are impacted by using electronics and why we should care?

Dr. Kane: Dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin are all beneficial and natural neurotransmitters for the brain. The question is, how we engage them, how often we use them and the environment that we’re using them in, right? 

Dopamine

Dr. Kane: Dopamine is what we call an anticipatory neurotransmitter. For example, on a positive side, if your birthday’s coming up and you know you’re going to get a present and you want to be excited about that, the brain sends dopamine into the synapses with the anticipation of getting the birthday party, the birthday present, seeing your friends. It would be terrible if we anticipated that in flatline and there was no excitement, right? 

The dopamine is designed to excite us. It is the neurotransmitter that whenever we anticipate something, the brain puts dopamine into the synapse if it’s going to create that excitement. 

In the electronic world, there’s a reason that video games level up. There’s a reason why Snapchat and Instagram have likes. The reason Facebook has ads, likes and all those kinds of things. Because it’s the knowledge base that we send dopamine into our synapse when we anticipate something. 

So these young people, in this social video-gaming world, spend on average six and a half hours a day in the dopamine environment because those electronics create anticipation. Now, can you imagine what happens when “likes” don’t happen or when people aren’t getting texts? You know, our kids use this term called FOMO, fear of missing out. Well, literally they’re spending all this time in this dopamine-charged world, which has negative side effects as well because they’re using it to higher levels than any generation ever has.

Related: Social Media and FOMO: What the Fear of Missing Out is Doing to Your Family

With the issues with dopamine, we see depression, we see anxiety. Dopamine drives bullying in the electronic world, where I talked about the empathy and sympathy is turned off. 

And so all of this anticipatory stuff, nobody’s going to play a video game if you never level up. Nobody’s going to send a picture if nobody likes it. Nobody’s going to go onto Facebook to see what somebody else is doing if it wasn’t there. 

And what drives that is the neurotransmitter dopamine. It’s an anticipatory transmitter that can be addiction forming. 

It’s the same neurotransmitter that drugs play with. When someone takes an opioid the brain then does something different with the dopamine. It either leaves the dopamine in the synapse longer or it puts too much dopamine in the synapse. Electronics are playing with that same neural transmitter. And that’s why they can become addictive over time. 

You have countries now passing laws against social media. You have countries trying to recommend that kids spend less than three hours a day in the electronic world. You even have classrooms in some countries banning any type of personal electronic devices in school because of this unsettling process of too much dopamine in the brain. And it’s all about anticipation.

That’s why parents can see how upset the child gets if they take the video game away. I’ve heard from a lot of parents who say, “Well, I just tell them they’re going to lose their cell phone and then they go like crazy people.” But that’s because neurologically you’ve just taken away what has been stimulating their brain and is their social network. So don’t just suddenly take a kid’s cell phone away. I’m not anti-electronics. It’s about balance. So that’s what parents need to understand–those electronics are designed to play with dopamine.

Related: Be Smarter than Your Dopamine: Lessons from Powerball Fever and Porn Addiction

Kristen: So dopamine is big. I’ve heard it is also called the molecule of motivation. 

I heard about an experiment that if you put a rat in a cage and you took away the rat’s dopamine, you could put food on the other side of the cage and the rat would never get up and go get the food because it didn’t have the dopamine to push it, to anticipate, to motivate it to be excited to go get the food. It would starve even though it was hungry. 

So it’s huge and it’s really important in our brains to have that, but definitely can become an addiction and be a problem. 

So what about serotonin and oxytocin? 

Serotonin

Dr. Kane: Serotonin is the natural mood-stabilizing neurotransmitter that our brain produces. It’s actually supposed to regulate us between anxiety and depression, is what serotonin does. And it does that naturally. 

Serotonin is really based on types of healthy food that we eat so that the brain can produce serotonin and use serotonin. Now lots of people know about serotonin and understand that we need to be eating foods high in serotonin every day because it’s beneficial to help regulate our moods. 

The one thing a lot of people do not understand is that there’s another hormone produced called cortisol. Cortisol is produced when we are afraid, when we are stressed. Like the fight and flight process of the brain produces cortisol to protect the synapses. It goes in and coats the ends of the neurons in the synapse to protect the body during this heightened time of fight and flight. 

So here’s what happens. If we stay stressed for too long, the cortisol stays in that synap area and prohibits the brain up-taking serotonin. 

People need to understand that not only do they need to be eating foods high in serotonin, they also have to allow their brain to absorb serotonin by pulling out of stress. And the national average for us as citizens, nowadays, is about four to five hours a day in a stress level. 

So why do we see higher anxiety and maybe higher depression? It’s because although we’re getting more health conscious, everybody’s into green smoothies and all this stuff, we’re not changing the stress component. So the brain is not getting to absorb the serotonin. 

One of the first things, when I have clients come in to see me who are struggling with depression or anxiety, I ask, “Where are your serotonin levels and then where’s your stress factor that’s preventing your body from naturally absorbing the serotonin that helps stabilize the brain, stabilize the mood?”

The critical factor again is you can change your diet, but if you don’t change the stress factor, it doesn’t matter how much serotonin you get. 

Kristen: So both diet and lifestyle.

Dr. Kane: Yes. And electronics create stress and overstimulate. You can see aggression increase in kids who are playing very violent video games. And so you can see that video games and social media, depending on what they’re looking at, can move a kid into that fight and flight process of the brain as they’re stressed and then they don’t have the uptake of serotonin. 

Kristen: I saw that in my own kids. I’d say it’s time for dinner, time to go, time to stop playing the game, whatever. And there were a couple of times when there was some definite explosive anger. 

Dr. Kane: Yeah, and a change in mood.

Kristen: And it’s not like they were bad kids, it was just neurologically that was driving them to be very upset. 

Dr. Kane: I think as we educate parents and as parents come to understand the brain process, like your example with your kids, it allows us to remove shame that makes us think, “Oh, kids are bad.” Which they’re not. It’s understanding the brain really does change. 

We can do brain scans now that show that positive thoughts actually improve the transmitter process in the brain in a positive way. And that negative thoughts actually affect it negatively. So you know, that old-fashioned statement of positive thinking is beneficial? Now we can electronically prove that.

Another study that was done at the University of Utah that was very fascinating is they showed individuals who had spiritual experiences, not religioun, but spiritual experiences, in the FMRI machine were very powerful and beneficial to the brain. 

We don’t have a lot of those meditative, spiritual experiences on social media and video games. We tend to have them more often in that meditative world or in that one-on-one, face-to-face world of deep conversation. So that’s beneficial. 

Related: What is Screen Time Really Doing to your Kid’s Brain?

Oxytocin

Dr. Kane: Now you asked me about oxytocin. Oxytocin is the cuddle hormone neural transmitter that’s produced through human touch. So like when a mother’s getting ready to give birth to her baby, the neural transmitter hormone that’s increased is oxytocin. It’s the bonding chemical. 

When we sit eye-to-eye, knee-to-knee, when we embrace each other, we are producing oxytocin. And oxytocin so foundationally stabilizes us as humans. 

If you look at the research, communal communities that are much more involved in human connection, and they don’t have this big European bubble that a lot of us carry around, they don’t have the same levels of anxiety and depression because they’re used to that human connection. 

The bad thing is that in some of the areas where kids would be held, like in religious services or at school, get a hug from a teacher–that’s no longer allowed and they may not be getting that affection at home. 

I lecture that people should get eight hugs a day for eight seconds. Now is there a solid science behind that? It could be 10 hugs a day for five seconds. The point of the research that I did is that the increased levels of connection help to decrease the levels anxiety and depression. 

So I ask individuals to make sure that they get eight hugs a day for eight seconds. I’ve had so many people send me text messages and emails and say the biggest thing that they took away from my lecture was the eight hugs. 

I had a mom [tell me about how she] and her daughter had a disagreement one morning and they were pretty heated and the daughter got to the door to walk out and said, “Well, at least give me my hug for eight seconds.” 

So you can tell that it’s making an impact. I’ve had parents say that now when they come home, the little younger kids come up and count eight, seven, six, you know, and it’s so simple. But it’s funny when I recommend that, I’m amazed at how many people say, do you know how long eight seconds is? Have you ever held anybody for eight seconds?

Kristen: That’s a long time!

Dr. Kane: Yes!  But [I tell them], “You play in the electronic world for six hours a day. I’m asking for less than two minutes of human connection.” 

Now, the older generations, they had more than two minutes every single day. When I was a little kid, I’d spend my time with my great grandmother. She was always visiting with her next door neighbor friends or going to the post office and coming home three hours later because the whole community showed up to talk. We don’t do that anymore. 

Electronics aren’t going away. Nobody’s going to give up their cell phones or computers or iPads. So if we’re going to create balance then we need to understand what the dopamine world does and how to help our kids balance.

Related: 5 Easy Tricks to Manage Screen Time and Get a Happier Family, Too

There’s research that proves going outside, being in nature is beneficial for the brain. How many kids play outside? The American Academy of Pediatrics just listed a warning that we have the most obese young population of any time because kids are more sedentary and their eating habits are bad. There are kids that will go 12 to 14 hours playing a game without eating. 

Looking at how we were designed as humans, we weren’t designed to be connected to a computer. Our brain is very old. 

Kristen: I have a question about that. I’ve heard that people can bond to a person on a screen. For example, I’ve heard that with pornography that you can actually bond to the person on the screen and that can be problematic because what you want to do is to bond with real people, the people in your life, your spouse or family or friends, not with somebody on a screen.

So can you bond with somebody on a screen? Can there be oxytocin? Or is that false and there’s none of that really happening?

Dr. Kane: The American Academy of Pediatrics listed a warning that children under the age of two should not be on electronic devices because kids were bonding to the devices and not to their parents. 

But that’s not oxytocin, that’s playing in that dopamine addictive world. 

Kristen: So it’s not oxytocin that they’re experiencing. It’s dopamine addiction. 

Dr. Kane: As a researcher, I wouldn’t go as far as saying there’s no oxytocin with that because I’ve never done research in that area, so I can’t say for sure. But I can tell you that we do know that graphic visual viewing changes neurological pathways so that which would have naturally stimulated no longer does.

That’s the same thing with drugs. For example, no one ever gets back to the first high they got when they took drugs for the first time because the brain is designed naturally to try to correct when something’s wrong. 

So if someone takes meth and it suddenly rushes into those synapses, all of this dopamine, the brain goes, no, no, no, no, no. So it begins shutting off the natural production of dopamine and it tries to fix the problem. Well it can’t. So when the person takes meth again, the brain’s already trying to solve that problem. So they’ll never get back to that first original high. But they try to, and that’s why they continue to use it. That’s why dopamine is the addictive hormone. 

It’s the same with visual viewing. The more graphic the viewing, the more production of dopamine. Then you become acclimated and then you step up, step up, step up–just like they do with drugs. 

People need to understand the change of that neural transmitter and how it’s released in the brain, either it produces way too much or it makes it stay in the synapse too long. 

I can tell you any type of visual graphic (pornography) viewing changes the process of the dopamine in the brain, it also alters the optical lens. There’s a lot of research that shows that what the lens responds to changes depending on how graphic it is. 

Kristen: It makes physical changes in the brain. I know it changes the wiring of the brain, even the optical lens. That is just amazing.

I explain that also in Good Pictures Bad Pictures–that whole process of developing tolerance to pornographic images. You develop a tolerance to that and so you’re always chasing that high. You’re always trying to get more and more, but your receptors are shutting down and you’re not producing as much. 

Kids need to know how their brains function and how their brains are affected by technology and by some of the content that they can view via their devices. It’s only fair to teach them about this. 

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Technology and Suicide

Kristen: We’ve talked about the role of these neurotransmitters and how they’re impacted by technology. You talked about the importance of oxytocin and also a knowledge of dopamine. 

You also mentioned [technology]’s role in producing anxiety, depression, suicide even. Do you have any research about technology and suicide as far as that connection?

Dr. Kane: There’s a lot of research that shows…young women who spend a lot of time in social media, have substantial increases in levels of depression and anxiety that can then lead to suicidal ideation. There’s a lot of research that bullying has led to suicidal ideation within the electronic world. 

It’s always difficult to prove a direct cause and effect. It’s like how many people ask if you can prove a violent video game caused someone to commit a crime. We can prove that a violent video game changes the neurological chemistry of the brain, but we can’t prove that the game then caused the person to go and be violent. People are smart enough to make their own conclusions. 

We can prove changes in levels of depression because of how many hours people spend in the electronic world. We can prove changes of aggression based on how long kids play violent video games. We can prove the increase of suicide ideation due to bullying and things like that. 

Can we directly say the electronic world causes a suicide? No, but we do know that when there’s  increased levels of depression and increased levels of anxiety is when people begin to think about suicide ideation. There’s some research out there that bullying directly led to someone taking their life because they felt they had no way out of it. 

Kristen: Yes because technology is all around. I remember getting bullied when I was in seventh grade. But once I left school, went home, played with my neighborhood friends–that was all done. It was gone and I just had to deal with it at school.

My mother taught me to just “kill them with kindness.” She told me not to let these kids see that they were getting me upset and to just be nice to them, shrug it off, don’t let them see you sweat. 

But it doesn’t quite work the same way in today’s world where you’re followed around and everything is blasted over a huge network. It used to be hard enough to navigate adolescence, but now you’re here in a minefield because if you upset the wrong person or maybe even don’t respond to a boy asking you for a nude picture, then your whole world online can be blown up with threats or with bullying or with lies about you. 

Related: 3 Scary Things Haunting Your Kids Online

Dr. Kane: Parents need to understand that the adolescent brain is not developed fully in females until about the age of 24 and in males to the age of 26. Adults with fully developed brains are dealing more in the cerebral cortex, which is the reasoning thinking part of the brain. Young people are processing more in the limbic system. 

So when parents today tell a child not to let a thought bother them or to just get over it or leave it alone, if they were playing more in their cerebral cortex and reasoning area they could probably set that aside. 

Where they’re more emotionally based that emotional trigger oftentimes gets them caught in what we call a thinking loop. If someone makes a negative comment, an adult could reason–”Who was it that said it? Why did it matter? I don’t care.” Where a kid will continue to play that thought over and over and over again that then intensifies the anxiety, depression and potential suicide ideation. 

What parents need to understand, because of what you pointed out, is bullying in the electronic world is so graphic, so overwhelming, so blatant that they have to help kids understand how to do disruptive thought patterns so that when they get caught in this thinking loop, they can back out of that. 

Parents need to teach them skill sets, whether it’s shifting the channel to focusing on some really good rhythmic patterns of music or taking a hike in nature, because oftentimes kids don’t know how to disrupt the thinking loop they get caught in. The only thing they micro-focus on, especially if it’s fed by social media and many people begin to join in in that process, is that one thought that was negative, which then can go very bad. 

Kristen: It’s the same thing that we talk about in Good Pictures, Bad Pictures with the CAN DO plan. What do you do with those memories of the bad pictures that keep popping up in your mind? It’s really that same skill, that disruptive skill. [We teach kids] that as soon as those things pop up, to think about some other thing that is interesting to me that I can create a neural pathway away from that original picture that I saw that’s so disturbing.

It’s the same thing with the bullying. They think about what was said and just keep stewing in it. Then you have to find some ways to go away from that. 

Dr. Kane: Yes and it’s important to understand that that’s how a kid’s brain is designed and so we have to help them understand that. 

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Safe Screen Time

Kristen: I really want to help parents navigate this with their kids. Let’s talk about safe amounts of time on technology. What do the experts say about how much time should kids spend on technology? Let’s start with kids ages 3 to around 11. How much time should they be on electronics? 

Dr. Kane: In regards to age, I haven’t seen clear research that’s been done. I can tell you the World Health Organization has issued statements on age for when a child should have a cell phone and how many hours should they be involved in that. 

Australia did a lot of studies that showed anything above three hours dramatically changed the impact of depression and anxiety. The American Academy of Pediatrics has said children under age of two. I would tell you children under the age of five. 

[When my kids were young] we would give them crayons and a piece of paper. Now we see babies being handed an iPad or a cell phone and instead of creating neurological growth that kind of shuts the brain down. 

Parents need to understand that the longer kids can stay in tactile activities that involve hands, eye coordination–that stimulates the brain far better than playing electronic games. So the longer parents can allow their children to develop their brain by making mud pies, playing with Legos, drawing, playing with crayons, playing an instrument, the better neurological growth is created. 

There are disputing factors. There’s people who want to say that video gaming creates neurological growth. There’s people that will say that the electronic world does not promote neurological growth. 

The only studies I’ve really looked at were military saying that these increase your reflexes. All the other studies I’ve seen show that there’s even a thinning in the cerebral cortex when kids spend too much time in the electronic world. There’s so much research that shows that when we manipulate something with our hands, we maintain the information better. 

Kristen: Like if you actually write out notes you remember them better than if you’re typing them on a screen. 

Dr. Kane: Yes, that’s the research. And it’s the same if you read the old fashioned books, turn the pages, feel the paper.

Parents need to be mindful of that. My recommendation is the longer your child can be without the cell phone or the electronic iPad the better. 

The problem we have is in the educational system kids are now being given a Chromebook the minute they go into school. Now, educational programs, CAD programs, engineering programs, they don’t carry the same side effects as electronic social media and video gaming because they’re not changing their screen or image every 13 seconds. So there is a downside and there’s that overstimulation, but not the same as the social media and video gaming world. 

And I know why we’re going to that. But let’s look at France for example. They don’t allow personal electronics in the classroom because they’ve seen the issues. India and Korea are getting ready to pass anti social media laws. 

As parents, if our kids have to be in electronics then we need to be mindful of how many hours they’re out. I recommend if you’re going to be an hour playing video games, then an hour outside. 

It’s not only just handing them a smartphone, but you’re handing them the world. Should an eight year old have a smartphone? Unlimited access to everything that’s out there? Should a 12 year old? Parents need to be mindful of that. Do I want my 12 year old trying to navigate adult content? 

Related: When Should Kids Have Cell Phones? Savvy Parents Reveal Best Strategies

Electronics are now the number one place where perpetrators go to groom their victims. Do I want my child involved in that world? Parents will tell me they’ve educated their kids. But all your child has to do is take a picture in front of the school that they’re at. And a perpetrator knows where they are, even if they never showed their name. 

Related: 7 Tactics a Child Predator Uses to Lure Kids: Red Flag Phrases Every Parent Needs to Know

Managing Screen Time

Kristen: Great advice. Let’s talk about managing this with your children. Do you have any specific parent advice for helping to manage tech use with their kids without shaming or being over controlling? So many kids at 10 years old want to be on Instagram because all their friends are on Instagram or they’re 12 years old and they want to be on Snapchat because all their friends are and that’s how they are communicating. How do parents who don’t want their kids on Instagram or Snapchat deal with that?

Dr. Kane: First of all, parents have to remember they’re the parent and that they own that electronic device, not the kid. On my website I have a family media plan that I recommend families do together where they decide what the limits should be. For example, one thing I tell parents is that electronics should never be in bedrooms at night. Ever. Go back to the old fashioned alarm clock. There’s research that shows just having the device in the room without even being on it disrupts sleep patterns. 

Kristen: That’s probably what’s happening with me. I need to take [my phone] and charge it somewhere else! 

Dr. Kane: Yes. Our brain is conscious of that device and waiting for it to go off because that’s our world. So those should go into a central area and off. If you have to go back to just one phone, that’s the emergency phone, and you have to go back to old fashioned alarm clocks, that’s what you use. 

So the first thing I tell parents is no cell phones in the bedroom. You also may think your teenagers have gone to bed. The research shows they’re on their phones under their pillow hoping nobody will catch them. Second, I think families can decide when they come on in the morning and when they go off and that they set times when they aren’t present–at meal time or family time. 

The other thing I tell families is use this media as a family. Watch a YouTube video together and then go create whatever it is you were watching. Watch a speech and then discuss the content. 

There are ways to help our kids use this in a positive way. Do a positive media challenge where everybody who’s going to post on Snapchat or Facebook has to do so in a positive, uplifting way and then report back on that. 

The other thing parents need to know is they have complete access. They have the right to request passwords.I know some people share all one Apple ID so they can see every text message, every snapchat that goes out there. If kids know their parents are going to see what they’re going to post, there might be a little bit of mindfulness of what they’re posting. I know the iPhone has parental controls. Use them. There’s filters that you can buy. Use them. 

Just be mindful. This is the smartphone generation. Are we smarter than our smartphones? If we are, then we’re okay setting limits. We’re okay setting controls. There’s apps that kids should never download that are extremely dangerous that parents need to look those up. You can go on a search engine and type “apps that should not be on kids’ phones” and you’ll get a list. There’s a list on my website. Be mindful that you have the right to say no. 

Related: Hidden Porn: Apps with Dangerous Doors to the Internet

Now I get the [kid’s perspective]–”This is my whole social outlet.” I have parents who say, great. Then we share the same Apple ID so I can see when you’re invited and what’s going on. So there’s ways to do things to keep kids safe. At the end you have to be a parent. And there are times when you simply say, I know everyone has this, but this isn’t an appropriate app for you.

Kristen: That’s great. I really do think this idea of the parent owning the technology and lending it out to the child is that there’s a psychological difference between the child saying, “This is my phone. You gave it to me for Christmas.” I think if you get a phone or an iPad it should be a family [device] and this child can use it. 

If you’re giving it to them as a gift then they feel like it’s their territory and they get total control and they can say what’s on it and what’s not and how they use it. If you’re going to maintain some control you have to own the device and lend it out according to your rules. 

Dr. Kane: And technically legally, I think there’s been some clarification that the parents own the phone.

Even if they gave it as a gift, the parents still have the right to control it, take it away and do all those things. 

Now I don’t recommend that parents get frustrated and suddenly take away electronics. We’ve actually ended up with kids admitted to psychiatric wards because their parents took their cell phone away. Which is one, their social outlet and two, their addiction, with the dopamine in the brain. 

Parents just need to teach kids balance. Isn’t it interesting how things come out, like when cigarettes came out and everybody thought they were great. You could see pictures of pregnant women smoking, pictures of athletes smoking and it was supposed to be healthy for us. 

Then the research came into place and we backed up and now you don’t see any posters of athletes being prescribed cigarettes. 

Kristen: You don’t see the candy cigarettes anymore…we used to get candy cigarettes! My mom used to buy us candy cigarettes!

Dr. Kane: I had them as a kid, thought they were fun!

The same thing happened with the electronic device. It came on the line. We saw no negative side effects. It was a way to keep track of our kids so we can know where they’re at. And there’s been some wonderful blessings of this electronic world.

But now the research is coming in place and we’re starting to see there are also negative side effects when there isn’t balance. Parents need to know that.

Kristen: They do. Parenting in this age is quite the job–there’s a lot to it. That’s why you and I are trying to make it a little easier by giving some good information to parents so that they don’t have to go out and get a PhD, but they can benefit from your research. So that’s really great. 

Related: Sex Addiction Expert Explains Why Good Kids Get Pulled Into Porn

Tech to Watch

Kristen: Are there any upcoming technologies that are getting more popular that you want to warn parents about? I know we’ve talked about virtual reality. I’m not sure how that’s catching on. What do you think about that?

Dr. Kane: That virtual reality world is scary because of how it trips the brain. It might be one thing when you’re using that virtual reality to feel like you’re flying through the Grand Canyon. 

It’s a whole other ballgame if you’re viewing more graphic violent video games or graphic sexual images because that virtual reality actually tricks the brain into thinking you’re actually there and participating in it. 

If you’ve seen any of the videos of people wearing that and they’re supposed to walk on a ledge you can tell they’re trying to balance because their brain really thinks they’re there. 

That’s not my area of research and I’m not sure the level of dopamine stimulation of the changes, but I can tell you there’s some research done in Japan. And Japan is having some interesting social dynamics because the young people work long hours and they come home and they’re bonding to their electronic boyfriend and girlfriends. 

Related: Virtual Reality: What No One is Telling Parents

They literally have technology that memorizes their habits so that when they come home it asks how their day was, how this project went that they were working on, starts their coffee. They have a full conversation. 

Kristen: This is not a person. This is a robot.

Dr. Kane: It’s a computer. There have been a few movies about people falling in love with a robot, right? In Japan, in particular, and maybe in other countries, that’s what they’re dealing with. Young people aren’t dating and socializing. They’re going home to their robots.

Technology has amazing benefits, but when it’s out of balance, it has negative side effects. That’s what parents have to look at, whether it’s that virtual world, whether it’s a video game, whether it’s Alexa. My great grandmother would have never imagined that you walked into the house and told something to play a song or ask what the weather was. And you’re not even talking to a person. We just have to be mindful of that. 

Kristen: That could get confusing [to a small child. They can just ask Alexa for anything] and there have been some problems with that–kids getting served inappropriate content via Alexa. 

Related: Parent Alert: Worried about Alexa? 4 Tips to Protect Your Kids

Red Flags for Technology Overuse

Kristen: What are some signs for parents to be aware of that their child is on electronics for too long? How can parents gauge that? Because each kid is different. What are going to be the outward signs that would be a red flag to parents about technology use? 

Dr. Kane: The first thing I would say is that kids are different, but neurologically the brain’s wired the same. There can be genetic differences in a brain. We know some people are more susceptible to addictions than others, but foundationally brains are wired the same. So any parent needs to understand the risk factors when usage goes more than three hours.

We have a national average of about six and a half [hours] in the United States. Parents need to balance that. If we are going to stay at six and a half hours a day in usage, then what are the kids doing that helps stabilize outside the electronic world? 

[Parents] can watch for changes in behaviors like increased aggression or withdrawal. A lot of kids begin to no longer socialize. The Center for Disease Control shows that this generation prefers to spend more time alone by themselves in their bedrooms versus hanging out with friends. In the eighties the CDC said we usually went out three to four times a week. They’re saying this generation goes out on average less than one. 

So parents need to be mindful. Watch that social interaction. If they tend to only socialize via that electronic world, then that’s a red flag.

Again it’s just balance. You might have kids that are really good at texting and then really good at hanging outside and playing hide and seek or something else. There’s balance. 

If you listen to employers nowadays, they will tell you that the rising generation is brilliant, but they don’t know how to socialize and interact like the older generations. 

I’ve had CEOs say they felt the interview would have gone better if we had texted back and forth. It’s so strange. You’ve probably seen kids in a circle texting each other–not talking, texting–and they’re not texting people who are someplace else. They’re texting each other across the way!

So parents need to help kids socialize, help them understand how to have eye to eye contact and to communicate and to put the cell phones down. And if they see kids reacting very negatively and emotionally disruptive because of time in electronics or time taken away, those are red flags.

Make a Plan!

Kristen: This has all been so great. Such good information and a lot of food for thought and great specific advice for parents. Where can parents find more information?

Dr. Kane: They can find more information on my website–totumlink.com. That stands for whole in Latin. We will be posting and getting ready to release a lot of the research. We’re going to have online videos and modules in the mental health area for parents to watch. But those are coming. They’re not there yet. I also have a TEDtalk on my website.

There are also a lot of books for parents like Glow Kids and I-Gen and many others. I think using common sense we know that this isn’t quite right. And so it’s just listening to that inner voice. 

Kristen: Great! Thank you, Dr. Kane. I really appreciate that. Is there anything else you want to throw out there for parents? Any other advice for them as they try to navigate as they try to help their kids grow up in a balanced way? So that they don’t get addicted to technology?

And also if they feel like their kids are addicted to technology, what do they do? Where do they go for help?

Dr. Kane: They need to create a family media plan and they need to educate the kids about the brain. These are brilliant kids. I find when I lecture to high schools, they’re fascinated. 

One of the questions I ask at every assembly is “Do you think cell phones are addictive?” And 99.9% of the kids raise their hand. And the other thing I ask them is, “Do you think cell phones can be harmful?” In the quiz that I do electronically I usually get about 80 to 85% of kids that say yes. 

So kids know that they’re addictive. Kids know that they’re harmful. Just come up with a plan together. 

There’s been a lot of research on the qualitative level where they’ve had kids put their cell phones down or pull out of the electronic devices for several days and they’ve seen a change in the mood behaviors. So kids know. Just as a family, make some plans together.

I have teenagers tell me if I get their mom off Facebook, they’ll give up Snapchat. So where’s the example? Husbands and wives go to dinner together and they’re both on electronic devices.

Related: Parent Alert! The Surprising Results When 10 Teen Girls Did a Digital Detox

Kristen: I know, I’ve seen it. I’ve even tried to make some rules with my own adult children when we’re together. When we’re all together I suggest we put our cell phones down unless we want to share something with the family. 

The other thing that I have been doing, especially if I’m with my little grandson, who is two years old now. My daughter’s very careful about the interaction he has with devices. But if I have to do something with my phone with that little two year old nearby, I say, “Grandma needs to do X. I’m just going to answer this question and then I’m going to put it away.” 

So he knows that I’m not just lost into this hole of [electronics]. I’m doing something specific and then I will put it away. And I’m intentional about that. My ideal is that I never have to deal with my phone when I’m watching my grandson. But if I do, I try to tell him what I’m doing and then get right back to him and put that thing away. 

When I see parents lost [in their phones] and ignoring their kids and their kids are begging for their attention, it hurts my heart. 

Dr. Kane: Recently there was a photographer who did all these black and white photos of people and then he took the cell phones out of their hands. So you just see these poses. It’s an interesting presentation of how our world has changed. He had a picture of a bride and groom both sitting there on their phones and it’s their wedding day….

So as adults, what are your kids seeing in your electronic use? 

Kristen: We’ve got to model.

Dr. Kane: Second, put in a family plan. Don’t be afraid to set limits. Go back and remember we’re the parents, they’re the child. Help the kids, educate them about the neurology of their own brain. And then use social media in positive ways that unite the activities of the family instead of isolate. 

Related: 5 Easy Tricks to Manage Screen Time and Get a Happier Family, Too

That’s why I’d love us to undo my statement of we’re the most social antisocial generation. We have people connecting with people they haven’t talked to for 40 years. But it’s not like AT&T’s old slogan “Reach out and touch someone.” That was a phone call. We don’t even get phone calls these days. I’ve even had situations where I will go to call my kids and they say, “Mom text me.” But I don’t want to text them. I want to talk to them. We just have to go back. 

Kristen: Dr. Kane, thank you so much again for all of this fascinating and helpful information for parents and we’re really glad you’ve taken the time to spend with us. We’ll definitely include a link to your website and I do really encourage parents to do a family media plan.

Just spend some time to figure out how you’re going to use technology intentionally and not be used by it. Make it so the technology is enhancing your relationships, enhancing your life and not destroying your relationships.

Thank you so much for being on.

Action Items:

  • Teach your kids about their brains!
  • Create a family media plan that ALL of you follow!
  • Use screen time in positive ways that unite the family instead of isolate it.

 

 

Kristen Jenson
Kristen A. Jenson is the founder of Protect Young Minds and author of Good Pictures Bad Pictures: Porn-Proofing Today's Young Kids. Kristen enjoys speaking, writing and anything else that will help empower kids to reject pornography. Kristen earned a bachelor’s degree in English Literature, and a master’s degree in Organizational Communication. Kristen currently lives with her husband in Washington State, where she enjoys growing a vegetable garden, watching Masterpiece Theater, and taking long walks with friends who tolerate her incessant talking about you know what. Above all else, her husband and three children are her greatest treasures.

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