What you need to know about screens, teens, balance and 'digital nutrition'

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"Don't sleep with your phone. Spending time late at night or first thing in the mornings is counterproductive." Photo: Gettly Images.
"Don't sleep with your phone. Spending time late at night or first thing in the mornings is counterproductive." Photo: Gettly Images.

Dayne Williams is an Educational Psychologist practicing in Cape Town, South Africa. Here he shares his thoughts on teenagers' addiction to screens and the search for digital balance.

Over my years in private practice, I have spoken to many parents who have struggled with the relationship their child has with screens.

Often seen as a convenient way to keep the kids busy, more and more research is identifying potential links between screen use and learning barriers such as inattention.

Personally, and like most current parents, I had been brought up with technology that looked very different from the current crop of digital gadgets.

By the time many young parents today received their first phone they were in high school or beyond. If we had polyphonic ringtones or a phone with flashing colourful lights we were on the cutting edge of technology.

Read: How parents can help their children deal with scary media

Today, millennials experience a vastly different reality and one in which media has a far greater influence on aspects such as learning, behaviour and the cultivation of worldviews and values.

While we are all facing a greater dependency on screens, children and adolescents engage with this content during a period of critical development and increased peer pressure.

Millennials have grown up with the internet and, by extension, their cell phones, as a part of their everyday realities. Their cellphones are used to communicate, to access learning material (particularly during lockdown), to plan social events, to express their identities and perhaps most common to us all, to escape difficult feelings.

If you find that last one hard to believe consider for a moment your tendencies to reach for your phone in an awkward or frustrating situation like waiting in line at your local supermarket.

My experience as a psychologist, although anecdotal, suggests that even millennials reach a line where they identify a greater need for digital balance in their lives.

Shifting from 'screen addiction' and 'digital detoxes'

Several phrases get mentioned frequently when discussing the relationship between teens and their screens. 'Screen addiction' is one and the other is 'digital detox'.

I find both of these problematic for different reasons but in short, the language we use has a big influence on our perceptions. Using the term addiction can be a label difficult to escape from, digital detox on the other hand implies something which is harmful and requires a period of abstinence to return to normality.

The idea is to restrict yourself to varying degrees from using technology to break the compulsive need to always be 'connected'.

The 5:2 digital diet is the most common example of this, in which two days a week are set aside to be offline and connected to other aspects of life such as friends, family and nature. I must admit I find this idea quite alluring but does it work in practice? No doubt that it may for many and that is fantastic.

However, I have worked with many teenagers who find this impossible to stick to and rather than bringing balance to their lives it injects an added layer of anxiety. The reality is that technology is here to stay and not all screen time is equal. Rather we need to carefully consider what we watch and moderate how much time we spend doing it.

Also read: What can I do to cut screen time without the tantrums? 

A move to digital nutrition

In my work, I align myself with the work of Jocelyn Brewer, an Australian-based cyberpsychologist who is the founder of digital nutrition.

Brewer's approach is that it is far better to assess how we use technology and make small sustainable changes to bring balance, rather than eliminate technology use. In my practice, I have worked with many students with varying degrees of success.

However, what constitutes success and what makes us more likely to succeed is a conversation for another day. I am asked frequently what can be done and the answer will vary from child to child.

However, I do believe that a few small intentional acts can lead to big changes.

Top tips 

Here are a few suggestions that I have found helpful to discuss with my patients and that may, at very least offer up some food for thought.

1. Cut the notifications. They represent the metaphorical chain. Do we need to see every time our post is commented on or liked? More times than not the answer is no.

2. Not all online activities are created equal. Choose online activities that enrich your life.

3. Digital declutter: follow people or topics that inspire and motivate you, remove those who don't.

4. Be intentional about which apps you spend time on. Some examples of apps that add value presently: A Gratitude Journal, Headspace (for mindfulness), Stava (for exercise), Udemy & Ted (for knowledge and wisdom).

5. Screen-free Tuesdays. Unplug for a couple of hours each week with the family and take turns to plan the evening's activity. Listen to an audiobook or podcast, go for a walk, play a board game.

6. Don't sleep with your phone. Spending time late at night or first thing in the mornings is counterproductive. As a family commit to charging your phones away from the bedrooms.

7. Spend time with yourself. Nighttime can be the most challenging time to stay away from mindless, online scrolling. Grab a book, put on some music and make a solid bedtime routine that you can look forward to and that doesn't require Netflix, social media or gaming.


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