Smartphones don’t calm kids down!: Why digital media use may not be doing what you think it does for your kids
I regularly hear from parents that smartphones or other digital media devices can help their children calm. Using these devices can do a lot of things for a child- but calming is not one of them! Digital media is designed with the specific intent of holding attention and creating reward. They are exciting. This is a big part of why kids enjoy them so much and why they seem to be so addictive. Use of digital media like smartphone apps or console video games will influence a child’s behaviour and in some ways make behaviour more difficult to manage once following use.
Emotion and arousal are two key factors influencing children's behaviours- especially the challenging ones. Emotion refers to a series of responses in our bodies and brains that help us move towards things that are good or away from things that are bad for us or our species. The late Jaak Panksepp, who was a brilliant neuroscientist, identified the primary emotional states expressed by humans as rage, fear, lust, care, panic/grief, and play. These are more commonly categorized into fear, happiness, sadness, anger and disgust.
Arousal refers to the level of activation of our nervous system. A metaphor to explain the difference between emotion and arousal would be to consider arousal to be the engine and emotion to be the steering wheel. Positive activities like stimulating games, joking with friends, or rough housing can all build arousal in the nervous system. Negatives like arguments with parents, shouting, and worry also rev this internal engine. Arousal helps us engage more energetically and intensely with our environments. This is super important to help us get the most out of things like active play, sports, sexuality and, fingers crossed we don't use this one, fighting off a predator.
Emotion determines the focus of this energy. If a child has a revved up internal engine while happy they will make a great play companion. If a child has a revved up engine and is nervous about school they are going to have a hard time getting out that door. Similarly, if the arousal is low- some emotions can be easier to manage. A child with low arousal and fear of school will still feel uncomfortable but wont fight to avoid it with the same intensity.
Activities on digital media- such as those found on smartphones, tablets, vide game consoles or computers, are designed to stimulate. Electronic devices rev the engine up! Kids look calm during this process as that building energy is fully occupied in their activity on the device. They are not calming though- they are getting more excited and this grows with increased duration of use and when the activity is more intense.
What does this mean for parents? It means that if children appear to be struggling with regulating emotion, digital media use will make it more challenging for them as it will intensify the experience of that emotion.
Have lots of fights getting kids out the door to school? Probably a good idea to limit digital media use or stop it completely in the mornings. Kids end up fighting with each other whilst playing Fortnight? Perhaps shortening the amount of time they are on the device will help them from spinning out when that energy is set loose on their siblings.
Kids struggling at bedtime? Spazzing at the dinner table? Feeling cranky and on edge after media use? Changing the timing and nature of digital media use can influence the all of these emotional events for positive or negative depending on how we use it.
I believe we can use digital media as a way to build children’s capacity to manage their arousal systems. By decreasing the intensity and duration of exposure and increasing the frequency we can help them have more opportunities to rev up with use and then practice calming. This typically looks like giving a child three ten minute sessions on a device with calming time between as opposed to one 30 minute continuous episode.
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