Anxiety disorders affect nearly one-third of American adolescents between 13 and 18 years old. Research shows that untreated teens with anxiety disorders are at greater risk for poor school performance, addictions and substance abuse, and poor social interactions (NIMH, ADA ).
In our high-tech, high-stress culture, something is keeping our children from getting what they need for healthy development. What is it, and what can we do about it?
To find out, I spoke with Gloria DeGaetano, founder and CEO of the Parent Coaching Institute (PCI) in Seattle and the author of Screen Smarts and Parenting Well in a Media Age (DeGaetano & Bander, 1996; DeGaetano, 2004). She pointed out that “at different ages and stages, children and teens need a variety of things for healthy development,” explaining that there’s lots of information out there online, but much of it is contradictory and confusing, especially about screen time.
DeGaetano’s work in the PCI is informed by the latest research in brain development. Beyond all the apps and videos, she says, “the child needs the parent more than anything else for healthy development. It’s the relationship that is primary. When the parent is in a relationship with the child, then the parent is responding to the child and will supply what the child needs because they’re attentive to the child.” As UCLA psychiatrist and brain researcher Dan Siegel has found, children need that essential connection and bond of trust to develop a sense of security, identity, and empathy (Siegal & Hartzell, 2003).
In addition to the essential bond of relationship, Gloria DeGaetano says, “There are three major pieces for healthy brain, body, and mind development: 1) exercise—movement in the sensory world, 2) literacy development, and 3) critical thinking.”
Language is essential for our brains to develop the capacity for critical thinking. Otherwise, she says, “the child is going to be impaired. And every hour a child is on the screen is an hour they’re not reading a book.”
She emphasizes “the huge difference in brain development if they were actually reading. The national time with screens is four hours a day. Where would kids be,” she asks, “if they were reading four hours a day?”
DeGaetano says that the time needed for healthy cognitive development is “being displaced by screen time, and it’s a fundamental problem in our society.” Children need to develop a sense of identity, a sense of competence, a sense of learning about themselves, she explains, “and you don’t know how far you’re damaging the child, because if they don’t get what they need as a learner and a reader, they will get what they need in a different way. They will get their needs met for feelings of competence through gaming rather than through reading.”
Reducing screen time is challenging for parents, she admits, because many children are “already habituated. The parent starts nagging, and they start crying, and parenting becomes hell on earth, rather than the precious joy it was meant to be.” So what’s a parent to do?
Finding solutions is difficult because “there’s always convoluted information for parents out there.” Different websites tell parents, “‘Oh, yes, be careful, you ought to be concerned but not too much, it doesn’t matter.’” But it does.
Ultimately, DeGaetano says, “parents need to make a critical decision: Are they going to focus on what’s best for their child and make some hard choices around boundaries with screen time?” She says, “I totally empathize, it’s really unprecedented and really difficult to be a parent in this age. We’re not going to get anywhere by shaming parents in this, and a lot of parent educators are doing this.”
She admits that “It’s so difficult because the technology is being pushed on everyone, so it’s hard to sort it out. But I say go within yourself and know what is best for you and your child.”
Encouraging parents to begin with small steps, she says, “I can absolutely guarantee that any time they reduce screen time that it’s going to be easier to get there. Even 15 minutes less a day of screen time would be helpful. We know the research in changing habits. The smallest step can really lead to really significant changes over time.” (Clear, 2018).
“Having books and consulting is helpful,” DeGaetano says, “but I truly believe that one-on-one coaching can support the long-term sustainable changes parents truly want to see.” She’s seen how after only three months of coaching, parents create healthier patterns for themselves and their families—“they see tremendous changes, and they walk away with a media plan for their family that is contextual, personalized, and unique to their own needs and supportive of their children.”
As an example, DeGaetano says, she was coaching the mother of a 16-year-old boy who was “at her wit’s end” about her son’s immersion in video games last summer. This boy—we’ll call him Pete—“was very savvy, and he hacked through any kind of screen protection. (He wants to be a cybersecurity person.) He could spend until two or three in the morning playing video games and then sleep until two or three in the afternoon.”
In coaching with Gloria, his mother “came up with a brilliant idea to engage her pediatrician to support her in this. She said, ‘I am concerned about his health.’ So at the next health checkup, the pediatrician, a mom who’s also concerned about this issue, said, ‘You know what, you’re getting out of shape, and your blood pressure is high, and you have to get more exercise.’” So Pete began going to the gym, and that started him doing other things with his friends, and then pretty soon, he could at least be talked to about setting boundaries on screen time.
Pete began developing a stronger sense of agency. When his mother refused to spend $2,000 on an online SAT preparation course, he took the initiative and got three friends together to study for the SAT at the local library.
DeGaetano refers to Pete’s progression as the “snowball effect,” a small change that impacts other parts of the system, creating positive momentum for sustainable, positive outcomes.
Creating this positive momentum and empowering young people to take the initiative could reverse a disturbing trend—the alarming rise in an external locus of control (LOC) among our young people, who feel that powerful others or a quirk of fate controls their lives (Twenge et al., 2004). Feeling helpless and dependent upon external authorities, these young people have poorer health and high levels of anxiety and depression, while those with an internal LOC get better grades, cope more effectively with stress, and are mentally and physically healthier (Chorpita, 2001, Peterson, 1979; Peterson & Stunkard, 1989; Twenge, 2000; Twenge et al., 2004).
By taking small, incremental steps and building positive momentum, parents can develop patterns of strength and agency, drawing upon their own inner wisdom to help their children overcome screen addiction, develop a stronger internal locus of control, and lead healthier, more successful lives.
This post is for informational purposes and should not substitute for psychotherapy with a qualified professional.
Statistics from Anxiety and Depression Association of America https://adaa.org/about-adaa/press-room/facts-statistics National Institutes of Mental Health https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/any-anxiety-disorder.shtml
Chorpita, B. F. (2001). Control and the development of negative emotion. In. M. W. Vasey & M. R. Dadds (Eds.), The developmental psychopathology of anxiety (pp. 112-142). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Clear, J. (2018). Atomic habits: An easy and proven way to build good habits and break bad ones. New York, NY: Penguin Random House.
DeGaetano, G. (2004). Parenting well in a media age. Fawnskin, CA: Personhood Press.
DeGaetano, G & Bander, K (1996). Screen smarts: A family guide to media literacy. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.
Peterson, C. (1979). Uncontrollability and self-blame in depression: Investigation of the paradox in a college population. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 88, 620-624.
Peterson, C. & Stunkard, A. J. (1989). Personal control and health promotion. Social Science & Medicine, 28, 819-828.
Twenge, J. M. (2000). The age of anxiety? Birth cohort change in anxiety and neuroticism, 1952-1993. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79, 1007-1021.
Twenge, J. M., Zhang, L., & Im, C. (2004). It’s beyond my control: A cross-temporal meta-analysis of increasing externality in locus of control, 1960-2002. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 8, 308-319.
Siegel, D. & Hartzell, M. (2003). Parenting from the inside out. New York, N: Penguin Putnam