A teen boy using his computer in bed. (Photo: Pixabay)

One in six U.S. youth aged 6-17 experience a mental health disorder each year — and half of all mental health conditions begin by age 14. These staggering statistics should make us pause and think about best mental health practices for school-age children.

What has infiltrated our culture that so brutally impacts the development and well-being of our children and youth? I’m not a psychiatrist nor a researcher; however, through observation I would say excessive screen time is a key factor. 

On average, children ages 8-12 in the United States spend 4-6 hours a day watching or using screens, and teens spend up to 9 hours, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. If on average a child spends 6 hours a day in front of a screen for entertainment, whether it’s social media, gaming, or watching videos, how much time is left for activities that bring health? Is the screen “entertainment” a positive impact for the child’s development? 

Here’s a gut check for parents and a tough question to ask yourself: Are you allowing a device to raise your child? 

Recently, I visited a family with three children who are under the age of 8. Upon my arrival, all three children were carrying a device. I’m sure the mom said she wanted to visit with her friend so “get your tablet and stay occupied.” In our conversation, she half-heartedly shared how much she relied on the devices to keep her kids occupied. 

Shortly after our visit began, the youngest child climbed up and stood on the kitchen island, and between glances at her device, yelled for more cereal. The mom chuckled, “I don’t know why she does that” and got up to get her more cereal.  Hmm! Perhaps what she’s watching, whether it’s a cartoon or kid movie, has taught her that this is approved behavior. When the mom returned to me, she leaned in and whispered, “All three of my kids have been diagnosed with some form of mental illness,” implying that she was free from culpability in their behavior. 

Is it remotely possible that these children are not developing as they should because their “parent” is a screen? 

A girl looks into her laptop while wearing headphones. (Photo by Thomas Park of Unsplash.com)

The content children watch does impact their behavior and mental health. More children are experiencing lower grades, sleep deprivation, poor self-image, and weight problems than at any time in the past. I was alarmed to discover that suicide is the second-leading cause of death among teenagers.

Several years ago, I interacted with a suicidal youth in the foster care system. She agreed to leave her phone with me and stay with a friend of mine for 72 hours. My friend and the youth spent time outside working in the yard, taking walks, cooking together, and playing games. After 72 hours, the girl could not believe the difference in her mental health and well-being. 

Creating a screen time plan

Hours of social media, viewing videos of fake lifestyles, and listening to unhealthy conversations had drastically changed this teen’s mental state. The cause of her mental illness was constantly in her hands. We deleted unnecessary applications from her phone and created a screen time plan, relationship boundaries, and positive lifestyle activities. 

This whole concept may be an epiphany for some, but I feel the need to share again: allowing your children to spend hours of screen time is harming their well-being and negatively influencing their development. 

You may think I don’t understand the need for technology in each family’s life or that I  misunderstand mental illness. My family and I rely on technology daily. Furthermore, I know mental illness exists from many causes and in different forms from mild to extreme. I’ve had friends, loved ones, and acquaintances who’ve experienced mental unhealthiness. 

During a season I recognized that my own screen time was affecting my mental health and I avoided all screens for a month. What a difference it made in my life! I walked and read more, and started a daily practice of writing in a calendar what I was grateful for that day. Looking over my year of gratitude brings me great joy and positively affects my outlook. 

Secondary influencer has entered children’s lives

Taking a preventative approach to thwart the juggernaut that is changing the development of your children and home takes courage. Often we throw up our hands and say, “I don’t know what has happened to them or when they became so depressed.” Without notice, a secondary influencer has entered your home and your children’s lives. Now children are modeling the voices, actions, and content from their screen time by emulating others’ behaviors, communication, and messaging.

Although screen time is here to stay and can offer many positives, think of ways to eliminate a few hours each day. Evaluate how you are allowing screen time to affect your own well-being (and serving as a poor model for your children), then develop a screen time plan for your family.

Familiarize yourself with what is captivating your child’s time. Often overlooked are the advertisement pop-ups, which influence choices. Encourage activities such as sports, music, art, hobbies, and things that do not involve screens. Lastly, discover family fun opportunities within our community: the zoo, parks and recreation, outdoor concerts, Boys and Girls Club, lakes and rivers, fishing, and hiking. Plan ahead for healthy activities and see what local monthly events are available in Springfield

Initially, a family screen-time plan may receive pushback from family members; however, the long-term results are worth it. When my children were home, I had a basket that held all of our devices until after we’d had quality family time. Even when their friends came over, they too placed their phones into the basket. It wasn’t just for the children; we, as parents, had to abide by the rule too.

We discovered how much fun we could have together by having face-to-face time. 

If you incorporate a family screen time plan, I’d like to hear from you. Detox your home from unnecessary influencers and see if your and your family’s mental health improves.

Julie Higgins

Julie G. Higgins is a Springfield entrepreneur and a partner in Higgins Business Consulting. Her mantra is: “Teach with your life.” Follow her on Twitter: @julieGhiggins or email her at: juliehigg@yahoo.com More by Julie Higgins