I recently listened to a Diane Rehm Show broadcast on NPR, during which experts in child development and digital media discussed the latest research on how digital technology affects children’s lives. They described large studies showing the use patterns of children in the U.S. ages 8 to 18. Researchers found teens engage with electronic devices on average for nine hours each day outside of school and homework. One expert observed that today’s children spend more time interacting with screens than they do in any other activity, including attending school and sleeping.
None of this will come as a surprise unless you have been off the grid for the last couple of decades, but here’s what may give you a moment’s pause: At least one of these experts said it was inappropriate or impossible to limit anyone’s screen time, given the pervasiveness of digital devices and their everyday usefulness. I have encountered this sense of passivity or powerlessness in some of my clients and even professional colleagues, and I hope you will join me in refuting this misconception.
Here’s an example from my practice. I work with young adults who have failed to launch because of combinations of mental health, developmental, learning and social constraints. One such young man, “Jason,” typically looked exhausted and entirely disengaged when I arrived at his home in the mid-afternoons. He rejected 99% of my ideas for activities, yet always wanted me to return the next week. His sleeping/waking pattern was flipped, and he stayed up until 4-6 a.m. playing video games. Our 2 p.m. session was in the midst of his sleep cycle. He also showed signs of depression and anxiety, for which he was seeing a doctor. Jason said he was bored, but refused opportunities to do activities. He lived in an occupational desert and had no social life at all. His mother was extremely worried.
After evaluating, I met with Jason, his mom and his psychiatrist to share my recommendations, which included: 1) Take the prescribed antidepressant regularly (I would provide the pill sorter box and Mom would encourage/structure taking the pills) and 2) Get Jason’s day/night pattern fixed. After a few weeks of success with No. 1, Jason was smiling a bit and more open to activities. I even got to help him pass his driver’s permit exam. No. 2 remained elusive for several months, until Jason and his mom finally agreed to try making the electronics unavailable at night. We planned for them to lock all of the devices in a safe in the garage at 10 p.m.
Wow, it was like a miracle! Jason not only smiled more readily, he also initiated conversations, started doing volunteer work that he loves and even mentioned starting community college courses again. Is this rocket science? No. It’s just a better balance and timing of occupations, combined with needed medication. What did it require? A persistent OT and courageous parent and son who finally took control of the useful, yet habit-forming technology that dominated Jason’s life. Does Jason have more challenges ahead? Sure, but at least he can begin to approach them in the light of day, joining with the wider community in occupations of value to himself and others. Video gaming remains a part of his life, but it is not the only thing he does.
As the experts on occupational quality and balance, we need to teach and guide people so digital devices enhance their occupational lives and do not entrap by becoming obsessive-compulsive habits. We can teach people to evaluate their activities and make good, conscious choices for healthy and satisfying occupational diets.
If you’d like to view research on this topic, go to: https://www.commonsensemedia.org/research/the-common-sense-census-media-use-by-tweens-and-teens