As apps, games and social media continue to grow exponentially, the mental health of our children continues to worsen. The single most important thing for our children’s mental health is the relationship they have with their parents.
In September 2008 while I was working as a counselor in a public high school in New Jersey, I began to notice an incredible rise in the number of students who were being diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). I knew something wasn’t right because ADHD is a neurological condition a person is born with, and the average age of diagnosis is eight years old. Furthermore, if a parent has a child with ADHD, it is almost impossible to not notice its symptoms by age five. Symptoms include inattentiveness, lack of focus, disorganization, and sometimes hyperactivity and impulsivity. So, what was happening? Why were all of these 14 and 15 year olds being diagnosed at later ages? How did they fall through the cracks?
It turns out, they didn’t.
As I began to research what might be happening, I stumbled across a term coined by Harvard Medical School professor Dr. John Ratey—”acquired attention deficit disorder.” Although not an official term, he used it because he estimated that roughly 70% of teens who were diagnosed with ADHD didn’t actually have it. Sure, they had the symptoms but not the neurological condition one is born with. Instead, what they had were brains that had changed from spending too much time using digital media. Yes, even back in 2008, kids were spending too much time in front of screens—7 1/2 hour per day, in fact—according to a 2008 Kaiser Family Foundation survey. This brain change is known as neuroplasticity, which I explain in detail in the first chapter of my book, Disconnected.
Since then, I have been on a crusade to help families throughout the country, lecturing nationwide, writing books, and appearing on national television as an expert guest. Fast forward to today, and there’s an awful lot more going on in our children’s lives in addition to this acquired ADHD. As apps, games, and social media continue to grow exponentially, the mental health of our children continues to worsen. Since smartphones became mainstream in 2012, a full-blown mental health epidemic has emerged among our nation’s youth.
What can we do about this? It starts with family.
Unfortunately, the average parent spends just 3½ minutes per week in meaningful conversation with their children. Additionally, physical play has decreased by 70% in recent years as kids prefer to be indoors in front of their devices and screens. Another trend I have noticed in recent years is that teenagers tend to spend nearly all of their time when they are home in their bedrooms, self-isolating from the rest of the family. None of this is good because spending time outdoors with friends leads to good mental health outcomes for our children. Additionally, when teens are alone in their bedrooms, there can’t be a “relationship” with other family members, particularly parents. The single most important thing for our children’s mental health is the relationship they have with their parents.
Here are some strategies to turn things around in your family and get back to being a healthy family again.
- Keep the phone out of the bedroom. The vast majority of teenagers in America keep their phones or tablet in their bedrooms with them at night. No wonder we have a sleep deprivation epidemic among our youth. An exhausted tween or teen simply cannot function.
- Get your kids out of their rooms and into the family room. The word bedroom starts with “bed” because that is where we sleep. The word “family room” starts with family, which is where families are supposed to spend time together. Start re-introducing your kids to the family room, or any room in your home where you can gather and have fun.
- Bring back the family dinner. Families who have dinner together, without distractions, most nights of the week, raise children that perform better academically, mentally, and socially. If this is not possible, then carve out 15 minutes a night when everyone is home, and sit around the kitchen table and talk.
- Pull the plug on your child’s phone while in the car. Here’s a perfect example: If you drive your child to school, look at the passenger seat. Your child is more than likely glued to his or her phone during the entire ride. Do away with this immediately! Believe it or not, those 5- to 10-minute rides to school are fertile ground for strengthening your relationship with your child.
- Practice what you preach. Pay attention to your own screen usage when you are at home with your children. Chances are you’re just as glued to your devices as your child is. This distracts us from being what we are meant to be—great parents.
Tom Kersting is a nationally renowned psychotherapist, author, and television contributor. He is the author of the bestselling book, Disconnected: How to Protect Your Kids From the Harmful Effects of Device Dependency and the newly-released bestseller, Raising Healthy Teenagers: Equipping Your Child to Navigate the Pitfalls and Dangers of Teen Life.