I was reading a very helpful little book this past week written by children's ministry leader, tech guru and entrepreneur Matt McKee... Parent Chat - The Technology Talk for Every Family. Matt's book is especially useful for parents of school age entering a time when kids begin to demand access to smartphones and tablets that are becoming ever more central to the social world of "tweens" and young teens with each passing year. He shares great ideas for setting up a plan proactively to protect kids from the adverse effects of technology. I encourage parents, as well as pastors and children's/family ministry leaders to check out the book "before the horse leaves the barn," as is too often the case by the time the kids turn up in my office.
Outside of questions related to diagnosis,prognosis and medication, I probably get more questions as a child psychiatrist from parents seeking guidance as to how to limit their child's exposure to technology. In particular, I get lots of questions around managing the behavioral responses from kids when their use of electronic devices starts intruding upon academic performance, family life and sleep.
Well-meaning parents often experience blowback from kids served by a practice like ours entirely out of proportion to any restrictions they seek to impose on technology. I'd like to share five possible explanations for the extreme emotional reactions kids with common mental health conditions often manifest when parents limit access to smartphones, computers, tablets and gaming systems.
- Electronics often serve as a social lifeline for kids with anxiety. A number of years ago, our practice participated in a treatment study involving kids with anxiety or depression. I began to consider how technology might be useful in ministry with kids with anxiety when I came across a profile of a kid enrolled in our study with Social Anxiety Disorder who had 609 Facebook "friends." We had another kid with social anxiety in the study who was sending 13,000 texts/month while managing to use zero minutes of talk time. Children or teens with social anxiety often struggle greatly to answer the phone, arrange "play dates" or to request services over the phone...ordering a pizza, or asking a classmate about a homework assignment.
- Texting and messaging technology frequently helps level the playing field for kids who struggle with social communication. Kids with autism, Asperger's Disorder and other social communication disorders frequently struggle with language pragmatics...interpreting cues from body language, facial expression, tone and inflection of voice. Texting and messaging tends to minimize their social disadvantages relative to peers because many non-verbal components of communication are off the table. Texting and messaging also offer the advantage of giving kids who are awkward in social situations more time to consider their responses than they experience when face to face with peers.
- Electronics often represent the principal coping mechanism for kids who struggle with obsessive thinking. Children and teens with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (characterized by the presence of unpleasant, intrusive, repetitive thoughts) often seek out nearly continuous mental stimulation in order to distract themselves from their mental distress. They'll often cope reasonably well during the school day because of the nearly non-stop cognitive stimulation from listening to teachers, taking notes, completing work and interacting with peers. They often experience the most distress during down time at home, during vacations or at bedtime when they have less activity to distract them from their intrusive thoughts. Their tablets and smartphones are often used to fill every available moment of inactivity.
I had an opportunity to experience this firsthand during a home visit this past week with a kid I've seen for years with severe OCD. The child needed to use the bathroom partway through the visit, and after a period of fifteen or so minutes elapsed, the father thought he needed to intervene when he noticed that the iPad also went to the bathroom. The child's profanity-laced tirade that ensued when the father tried to take the iPad away was qualitatively different than anything I'd ever seen in our office before, and persisted for at least thirty minutes afterward. Kids who haven't identified and mastered other strategies to distract themselves from or block out their obsessive thoughts often become extremely dependent upon technology as a coping mechanism.
- Electronics are a primary escape for kids with academic difficulties. Imagine yourself going to a job every day where you struggle to meet the expectations in your assigned role and find yourselves surrounded by peers who are frequently commended in public for meeting or exceeding expectations. Imagine that your family participates in and receives a written copy of your quarterly performance reviews. Imagine that after spending your day at this job for which you feel incompetent or inadequate, you're expected to do two or three hours of work each night that reminds you of all the negative thoughts and feelings you harbored about yourself all day long. Wouldn't you try to find an escape? Video games, YouTube, texting and social media represent that escape every night for kids with academic or social difficulties in school.
- Gaming represents an opportunity to achieve mastery for kids who aren't especially gifted athletically, academically or artistically. Kids with common mental health conditions are more likely to experience academic difficulties. They are less likely to have the motor coordination to be successful athletically compared to their peers. They may lack the fine motor coordination to excel as an artist or as a musician. Where do they hang their hat and experience success when compared to their peers? A disproportionate number of patients I've had who struggled to control the time they spent in gaming are kids for whom gaming represents the only area of their lives where they regularly outperform their peers. I also have far more patients who are gamers with unrealistic expectations of making their avocation into a profession than I have athletes who are convinced their future lies in the NBA or the NFL. Kids will react with unforeseen anger and hostility when parents try to limit access to the one activity from which they obtain a sense of competence and self-confidence.
I'm not saying that parents should back down in the face of extreme emotional reactions from their kids when they seek to place limits on access to smartphones, tablets, gaming systems and other forms of electronics. I am suggesting that parents consider why their child's reactions to being parented in their use of technology are so extreme and to consider how they might address the "why" that fuels their child's apparent addiction to their electronic toys.
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