Shaped by Screens

Screens. Social media. Suicide. The S’s of potential adolescent self-destruction. In a world of ubiquitous screens, local experts advise parents on how to protect their children from the warped reality of a cyber world kids may not be equipped to handle.

Marian Boteler sets a serving bowl in the middle of her kitchen table. Already laid out are four sets of forks and napkins, soon to be used by her husband and children. The smell of freshly made chicken and pasta signals dinnertime for Annie, 12, and Jimbo, 10. Before finding her spot alongside dad Knox, Annie powers off her device and puts it on the counter.

“The rules are established around here, so there’s little bickering when it comes time to put devices away,” Boteler shares when asked about Annie’s lack of squabbling and dramatic huffing that can sometimes accompany a tween’s angst over non-screen time. “Every family is different, but it’s important to have your own rules, the non-negotiables, if you will.” For Boteler, lower and intermediate school counselor at St. Paul’s Episcopal School, some of these include no screens at bedtime or dinnertime and, for now, no social media. “I do not think social media is meant for adolescents or tweens,” she explains, “but I don’t know when the right time is. As the children get older, the rules and conversations will change. The world is constantly evolving.”

New World, New Problems

As smart devices seep into and pervade homes and schools, questions about usage guidelines and possible detrimental effects on children are on the rise. The smartphone emerged in the mid-2000s and early 2010s, and in the beginning, these devices were marketed to adults, the sector that already purchased landlines and mobile phones. With the seismic shift to adolescent use, however, studies now abound regarding the implications of the saturation to younger and younger kids.

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And the numbers are shocking. According to research compiled by Delaney Ruston and her team, the makers of the documentary “Screenagers” and the “Away for the Day” campaign against smartphones in schools, the average age that a child receives a smartphone is 10.3 years old. These children average three to five hours in front of screens each day, separate from in-school use.

The time children 8 and younger spend on mobile devices has tripled in the last four years.
according to a 2017 CNN story

But the average recommended age for children to receive a smartphone is 14 or eighth grade. Many Silicon Valley executives — most notably Microsoft founder Bill Gates — openly enforce this regulation in their own homes. The nationally recognized “Wait Until 8th” pledge campaign is built upon multiple credible and extensive research studies and raises awareness for parents to hold out on gifting smartphones to preteens and younger children.

Timing, both in age and duration of screen usage, is critical to the maturation of the adolescent brain. A recent study from the National Institute of Health shows that children who spend more than seven hours per day in front of screens have a premature thinning of the cortex, which is the area that processes the information registered from the five senses. Not only does screen time impact brain development, it can easily become addictive.

Leigh Hurley, MA, LPC, is a mother and private practice counselor at Hurley Counseling, LLC, in Mobile and Fairhope, and one of her areas of expertise is navigating the digital age. “In adolescents, the brain is rapidly developing,” Hurley explains. “The frontal lobe is the slowest to develop, and it doesn’t stop developing until a person is around 25 years of age. Amongst other things, the frontal lobe is the locus of impulse control.”

Not all usage is created equal!

Setting time limits is not a perfect solution, because not all content is created equal. An hour spent learning a language is not the same as an hour spent on Snapchat. So make sure that you limit your child’s screen time without limiting their opportunities.

The urge to phone-check is something Jennifer Joiner, middle and high school math teacher at Mobile Christian School, has seen. “They’re addicts. They have to have their phones on them,” she says. “Even if [the students] are supposed to be using their iPads for an assignment, I would say a lot of the time, they’re not using it for that purpose. And they know how to swipe that screen back and forth to get off whatever app they were on and back to what they were supposed to be doing.”

More than Meets the Eye

While having the world at your fingertips feels like a positive, like anything else, there can be too much of a good thing. Excessive screen time has been tied to cyberbullying and mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression.

An article from Time magazine titled, “We Need to Talk About Kids and Smartphones,” connected countless statistical dots from multiple scholarly and scientific resources that show there may be mental health consequences of adolescent actions. A 2016 survey from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that of 17,000 children, 13 percent had experienced at least one depressive episode in their lifetime, compared to 8 percent in 2010. While this could be linked to multiple factors, screens no doubt play a role.

Reports like this place particular emphasis on one specific demographic — teenage girls. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the suicide rate for teenage girls has reached a 40-year high. Online exposure is thought to be a factor.

“Social media puts so much pressure on our young girls,” says Joiner, mom of three, including a teenage daughter. “When you have 13 year olds contouring on a YouTube video or on Instagram, it’s just not realistic. And when these children, especially girls, go through puberty, they’re not going to be a size zero all the time. I think that’s where it does lead to anxiety and depression.”

A 2016 survey found that of 17,000 children, 13% had experienced at least one depressive episode in their lifetime, compared to 8% in 2010. – Survey from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

To compound matters, the likelihood of involvement in cyberbullying situations increases the younger the child is and the more hours he or she spends on social media. The Cyberbullying Research Center revealed that nearly 25 percent of children have experienced cyberbullying, and nearly 17 percent have acted as a bully themselves. Sometimes the bullying may be as subtle as being kicked out of a group text. “They don’t know how to react to that,” Boteler says.

And intentional or not, social apps like Snapchat can lead to sadness. “Sometimes my feelings are hurt when I’m left out, or if I see a bunch of my friends together on Snap Map,” reports the child of one MB reader.

“Ultimately,” says Boteler, “it’s just another layer of trying to navigate friendships,” the complexity of which is something children may not be equipped to handle on their own.

Time to Screen

The common saying that “they watch your every move” was coined with sound reason. “The first thing I say to parents is ‘check yourself,’” Hurley says. “What are you modeling for your child? You can’t request of your kids what you don’t model.”

Kristi Bush, a mother and the owner of KNB Communications and administrator of the Crack the Code community media organization, spends her days speaking to parents, children and educators about the implications of social media. When she began her services, she exclusively spoke on the positives of the platforms but soon changed her ways because she found that parents were also sorely uninformed about the negatives.

“I very quickly realized that I was doing a disservice to my parents and my educators because what I continue to see happening is parents are sticking their heads in the sand, not really wanting to acknowledge what is going on,” Bush says.

Judge Carmen E. Bosch, of the 28th Judicial Circuit of Alabama serving youth in Baldwin County, mirrors that sentiment. Working with cases involving children, she sees firsthand the effects of media misuse and the life-altering damage it can cause. She recounts presiding over hearings regarding privacy issues and the mishandling of personal information, leading to court cases and charges that no child should endure.

“I think that parents may give their children more privacy than they actually need where technology is concerned,” Bosch says. “Electronic contact is still contact, and parents need to know who is having contact with their children.” Kids are inherently trusting, and they don’t always realize people could be misrepresenting themselves online.

Apple has a new feature for iOS 12!
The new feature lets you know how much time you and your kids spend on apps, websites and more. This way, you can make more informed decisions about how you use your devices and set limits if you’d like to.

Restricting communication and device use is an essential suggestion that counselors, educators, scientific organizations and parents alike can agree on. Although children are well-versed in navigating devices — they know how to clear a search history, browse privately and use social media to search things in ways they believe can’t be tracked — staying aware of their usage, followers, searches and applications is the most realistic and reliable way to understand how adolescents are interacting with technology and social media.

“No child, no teenager, ever needs unrestricted devices,” Bush says. “If a parent elects to give a child a computer or a phone, we then have to do our due diligence to protect our children by sitting down and setting age-appropriate guidelines, by really looking at the apps that children are on, by really doing some deep investigation.”

That translates to doing random phone checks, following your children on social media, knowing their credentials and logging on to check in from their perspective, and enforcing any regulations that you feel should be put in place to keep your child safe. And, most importantly, doing so constantly.

“This can’t be a one-time conversation,” Hurley says. “It requires a lot of awkward conversations and exhausting efforts. It’s constant.”

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