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Ask The Expert: Technology and Our Children’s Mental Health

Laura Hammock

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September 28, 2021

Former police officer, School Counsellor, Chaplain Assistant, father of three children. Matthew Tjow, certified Trauma-Focused CBT & Art Therapist with a Degree in Counselling, wears several hats but they share a common thread – a passion to work with and help young people.

As a police officer, he organized and conducted activities and programs for at-risk youth groups. As an educator, he helped student leaders develop their leadership skills and today, as a School Counselor, he provides guidance, advice and support to students, parents and the school community at large.

We talk to Matthew about his thoughts on technology and its impact on our children’s mental health.

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In your professional opinion, how much technology is “too much” for a child?

There have been a number of studies published recently by medical and mental health professionals about the effects of smart devices on our children. Of note, the recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) is to “limit media to 1 hour or less per day of high-quality programing”(1) for children aged between two to five years old, and avoiding screens for children below two years old.


For older children and teenagers, I believe it is about balance, knowing your child and what they are using the screen for (researching for a project, creating music, watching shows, gaming etc) – i.e. not all screen time is the same and the nitty gritty of how many minutes spent on the screen is not that important.


It is always healthier for our kids (and adults alike) to go out and get some sun, read a book, and have meaningful face-to-face conversations. For children between the age of 1 to 3 years old, in particular, their language development grows in leaps and bounds, and research has shown that our children learn best when they are being engaged and interacting with us.


How does excessive screen time affect our children’s mental health?

A US study conducted in 2017 showed that young people with increased time spent in front of smart devices are more likely to report mental health issues (e.g. depression and suicide), in comparison with those that spent more time on “non-screen activities”. (2)


Crucially, excessive screen time (or screen time just before bed) also contributes to sleeping difficulties due to the “blue light effect” that disrupts their circadian rhythm and chronic neck and back pain from poor posture. This lack of sleep, in turn, results in a decrease in ability to regulate emotions… the very next day! 

What do you advise parents with regards to managing their children’s screen time?

Personally, I would want to see if my children have mastered (the willingness to do them without complaining) some life skills before giving them a smart device. This includes: 

  1. Waking up on their own with an alarm;
  2. Making their bed;
  3. Practicing acceptable personal hygiene;
  4. Have the ability to carry a decent conversation with an adult;
  5. Knows how to cook a meal.


If they are able to demonstrate a sense of responsibility, it would be unreasonable of me to assume that they are unable to handle a smart device. It is also a good starting point, as a parent, to teach them what it means to self-regulate their screen time. We cannot (and must not) assume that children will know how to self-regulate the moment we hand them a smart device!


If there’s any takeaway from this Q&A, it is this:

- Set out boundaries/rules for screen time

This could include, for example, banning the use of smart devices during meals and designated family time. Here, I would also encourage parents to think about what constitutes family time and how to make it fun! In my household, we have family game nights and it is an activity that everyone looks forward to.

- Be a good digital role model!

Children are our mirrors - they reflect how we behave and conduct ourselves. If we, as parents, are “consumed” by our smart devices, our children will see this as a norm and model their behavior after us. It is easy to imagine the confusion (and irony) to lecture our children about screen time when they see us constantly glued to our smart devices. This also breeds distrust and develops incongruence to their belief systems.


What are the signs of screen addiction in children?


One of the key signs is that the child will not be able to self-regulate their “screen usage”. This includes showing disinterest in other daily activities or displaying signs of “withdrawal” symptoms, such as anger or frustration, when they are told to put away their smart devices.


Another tell-tale sign: when the child cannot deal with the notion that there is a limit imposed on their screen time.


How would you deal with a patient who shows signs of technology/internet addiction?

I will take a gradual process to “wean” the child off the reliance on smart devices. Some steps in this process include:

  1. Ensuring devices are charged outside the bedroom, especially during bedtime.
  2. Turn off notifications or, better yet, uninstall social media apps on the phone
  3. Designate a day in the week as “No Screen Day” and do activities outside of home such as running, swimming or visiting the museum.

Join our next masterclass


Find out why technology is so addictive and how excessive tech use can lead to poor mental health and disruptive sleep in Dr. Els van der Helm's next masterclass on Detox From Tech: How to unplug for a happier, healthier you! You'll also learn how to free yourself from these hooks with realistic goals, rules, and boundaries.

All registrants will receive a recording of the masterclass, a handout and more!

Register for your timeslot here.

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References:

1. Media and Young Minds. PEDIATRICS Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics: https://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/138/5/e20162591 (Retrieved on 22 September 2021)


2. Jean M. Twenge, Thomas E. Joiner, Megan L. Rogers, Gabrielle N. Martin. Increases in Depressive Symptoms, Suicide-Related Outcomes, and Suicide Rates Among U.S. Adolescents After 2010 and Links to Increased New Media Screen Time. Clinical Psychological Science, 2017: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/2167702617723376 (Retrieved on 22 September 2021)


3. Common Sense Media. Be a Role Model: Find a Healthy Balance with Media and Technology: https://www.commonsensemedia.org/blog/be-a-role-model-find-a-healthy-balance-with-media-and-technology (Retrieved on 22 September 2021)



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