There is a simple, free way to improve mental health: put down the phone, and do something else.Jean M Twenge
In a 2019 research study of tweens (8-12 year olds) and teenagers Common Sense Media uncovered an astonishing data point: on average, the amount of daily screen use by teenagers is 7 hours and 22 minutes.(https://www.commonsensemedia.org/Media-use-by-tweens-and-teens-2019-infographic) Even more sobering is the fact that the survey did not take into account any screen use for school or homework. In other words, roughly one half of the waking moments of our teenagers lives are spent glued to a screen, perhaps more.
How have our teenagers been conditioned to spend so much time on devices? I think the answer is simple, and perhaps a little painful to admit. Our kids are dependent on their devices because we have conditioned them to be dependent on them.
For example, there are research studies suggesting a connection between daily screen time and the decline of mental health in our country. Jean Twenge has written a helpful book called iGen (https://www.amazon.com/iGen-Super-Connected-Rebellious-Happy-Adulthood/dp/1501151983) which looks at such research data to help give readers a reference point for understanding, leading, and parenting this generation of young people. I would direct you to chapter 4 of her book for an in depth look at the data and how she interprets what she is seeing.
In short, this generation of teenagers is the most connected generation to ever walk the earth, yet they are simultaneously drowning in isolation. Social media drives the comparison game, which ironically happens in isolation — teenagers spend hours alone at home wishing they compared to the highlight reel of their peers, all the while heaping on anxiety, hopelessness, and despair.
For the health of our teenagers, and for our own health, it is time to put down our devices and do something else.
More is caught by our children in watching us live our lives than is learned through formal teaching moments. The reality is that our children are not the only ones suffering and drowning at the mercy of the content on our screens. Every single week I speak to young parents who are increasingly overwhelmed by the prospect of living in an overstimulated, social media driven world. In short, we as parents need to model healthy habits for our families when it comes to devices. Healthy habits begin with us.
Yet sometimes starting something new is the hardest part. So what are some ways we can free ourselves more of our devices, and actively engage with one another in the home? Here are a few simple ideas:
Create no phone zones in your house
I was at the table with some coworkers the other day when a phone lit up with a text message notification. In a moment, all of us who heard the buzz looked to see what phone was lit up. It was in this simple moment that I remembered the value of creating time away from our devices.
When my phone is in the other room I am suddenly more attentive to what is happening right in front of me. It’s as if not seeing seeing my phone, or even feeling it in my pocket suddenly frees up mental space and capacity for being present with my family and friends.
An easy way to put this into practice is to intentionally create no phone zones in your home. For some, this will be best instituted as a block of time each evening when everyone is fully present. The best place to start with this principle is the dinner table. Try it this week! Put the phones down at dinnertime and see what natural conversations arise as you connect with one another.
Create healthy physical habits
Simply put, if you are engaged in physical activity you will not be glued to your screen. Additionally, engaging in physical activity with others breeds togetherness and community that you will not find on a screen. Even if you are listening to music on a run, the physical act of moving will free your mind.
I am no scientist, but I know that the chemicals released in your body and brain during physical activity are good for your mind and soul. Creating healthy physical habits then provides double the benefits — you are actively taking time away from an activity that is being shown to contribute to a decrease in mental health an replacing it with an activity that has benefits for your mental health.
Lean into the creative spontaneity of your children
Our three year old is, without a doubt, the most creative person in our house. I have learned that the moments when I lean into her creative spontaneity are often those that give the most gratification afterwards. Perhaps the creative spontaneity of our children is exactly what we need to rid ourselves of our slavery to our devices.
Playing tea with the stuffed animals? Sign me up! Going on a bear hunt? Let’s go! Playing doctor to “heal” different injuries on dolls? Sounds good to me!
Chances are your teenagers live a different kind of spontaneous than my three year old. However the principal still remains the same. Every moment we spend actively engaged in the imaginary world of our children is a moment spent away from our devices, and every moment we spend intentionally present with our teenagers is a moment that far outweighs anything that could be on that little screen.
Let’s practice being people who are free from the obsession with our screens. Our health depends on it, as well as our children’s health.