Skip to main content

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.

Any thoughts or questions? Please comment on our Facebook page or send us an email. I think this information is meaningful and as such love to see it influence as many as possible. Please help this happen by sharing and liking on social media.


Popular posts from this blog

Read This With Your Kids!: The Invisible String

The Invisible String by Patrice Karst is an important reminder of how we are connected to those we love and care about. The Invisible String is about two children who get scared from a storm during the night and seek out connection with their mom. Their mom then shares an important lesson she learned as a child about an invisible string that connects us to those that we care about, no matter how far away they are, or if they have passed on. We can feel and send tugs on the invisible string when we need a douse of connection. While reading a book to our child is awesome as is, stopping to ask some questions can help with comprehension and the ability to personalize the story. So here are some talking points: You can ask your child if they have ever felt tugs on the invisible string? When grief is brought up, you can discuss family members and friends that you still feel connected to even after a loss. At the conclusion of the book, ask who are some people you are connect

App Review: SuperBetter

Helping kids stay mentally healthy through COVID-19

Everybody freak out! Or don’t. As some of you may have heard, there is currently a type of coronavirus (COVID-19) that is spreading rapidly and negatively impacting individuals and systems around the world. As this novel narrative plays out it is hard to guess what the future of this virus will look like or the impact it will have on our families and communities. However, it is safe to say that it will, if it has not already, impact our day-to-day functioning dramatically. Anxiety is a natural reaction to these changes and the information flooding in and especially when some, if not most, of that information is sensationalized. Children rely on us to help them navigate their physical and emotional worlds. Children will likely experience fear, frustration, and a variety of other intense emotions as the impact of the pandemic continues to be felt. The following strategies are things I think will help children maintain resilience in the face of this unique stressor. Maintain Routines