From Babies to Brats:
The Impact of Devices
Cell phones, iPads, game boxes, social media, tablets, computers— take a moment to seriously reflect on the implications of the time spent on those devices. And I’m not talking about the practical functions—like actual computing.
According to research done by Michigan State University Professor of Communication and Telecommunication, Information Studies and Media, Bradley Greenberg, eighth grade boys spend an average of 23 hours per week gaming. That does not take in to account the time they spend on social media communicating with their ‘friends.’
In my practice I see kids who average as much as 40 hours per week on their devices.
I’m concerned about the long-term health, development and well-being of our children and culture. In my opinion, these devices are the most powerful, ubiquitous distracting inhibitors of relationship connectedness and emotional health in the history of the planet.
As kids of the 1940’s, ‘50’s and ‘60’s, we thought nothing of heading out the front door before and after dinner to play with a football, baseball, roller skates or some other ‘device.’ Usually, if not always, such ‘distractions’ involved other kids, otherwise known as ‘friends,’ usually neighbors.
We played, quarreled, competed, talked, laughed and sometimes cried. More than anything, we belonged. We were young naïve faces whose actual physical presence was integral to our social network. We were dependent upon real people living and breathing in real time, doing real things, having real emotions and experiences. There was nothing ‘virtual’ about any of it. We did not (because we could not) text LOL; we actually laughed out loud!
If no one was available for play, we dealt with that inescapable reality—the reality of being alone in that moment—and were forced to deal with it—no matter what those feelings were. If there was no alternative for play or connection, we waited until one was. In the mean time, we managed our feelings via interacting with our family members knowing our friends would be available later.
Those days are gone for more kids and families than we can imagine, and I believe it is time to stop denying the negative implications.
PARENTS DON’T SAY “NO”
I see parents who are very reluctant to say “no” to their kids in general, and specifically find it almost impossible to get their kids away from video games. They don’t know what to do, and re afraid to stand up to their kids when they push back. Many parents are afraid when their kid has a tantrum, or forcefully says “all my friends’ parents let them have a cell phone (or other device)!”
Countless parents find setting appropriate limits and imposing real-world consequences very difficult. I believe this is reaching epidemic proportions with staggering consequences.
Pre-internet parents (otherwise known as internet immigrants) often used the TV as a babysitter, and were roundly criticized for it. Twenty-first century parents’ kids (otherwise known as internet natives) now have devices as babysitters, and as communication devices.
This is the point at which many 21st century moms and dads find it difficult to step up as parents, set a limit, and tell the kids “no, you can’t have a cell phone (or other device).” In the wake of a child’s vociferous response, which they use to get us to change our minds, the parents too frequently give in to them.
The kids want us to believe they are suffering when we say “no.” Fact is, they are struggling, not suffering. Parents need to learn the difference between the two. Just because they don’t like to hear “no” doesn’t mean they don’t NEED to hear “no!”
I believe our culture is experiencing unprecedented numbers of parents who are afraid to say “no” to their children.
When we refuse to let our kids struggle, the results can be catastrophic in the long run. Initially they become annoying spoiled brats. These brats always up the ante hoping the parent gives in. Many parents don’t know what to do, or afraid to do it, so they do give in.
Eventually, these kids who cannot hear “no” magically morph in to entitled teenagers who have a difficult time with impulses around sex, drugs and driving. Ultimately, their ability to make good decisions is sorely lacking.
These kids may develop in to entitled adolescents and young adults who proceed to express their outrage when you refuse to meet their demand for a car, designer jeans, an upgraded device or receiving “their” inheritance prior to your death!
As one twenty eight year old recovering drug addict daughter said to her parents in a family therapy session: “I can’t believe you guys are going to Europe this summer. You’re spending my inheritance!” She was not joking.
Some of this is the result of parents’ inability to, or fear of, saying “no” to their kids. Incidentally, it doesn’t help that many schools hand out tablets to every student. Schools and students are symbiotically attached to each other and to the Internet.
But that’s not all. While the kids feel entitled to have devices, and are afforded unbridled time tethered to them, another deeper, insidious problem brews: an inability to develop empathy, and incompetence to deal with, and manage their emotions.
EMOTIONAL HEALTH HAZARD
How does a steady diet of texting prevent the development of empathy? Easy. All a kid has to do is repeatedly text something hurtful, hateful, insulting, mean or otherwise derogatory. They don’t see the reaction on the face and in the voice of the recipient in real time.
Therein lies the problem. Kids cannot become compassionate, empathic individuals if they cannot experience the negative impact they have on other people in real time, face to face.
Developing empathy is a complicated process, dependent upon many variables. A significant aspect of that process is realizing in real versus virtual time that our behavior triggers reactions and emotions in others. The development of empathy and compassion is stunted when they do not see how their behavior affects others, especially when the impact is hurtful or devastating,
This occurs on Facebook frequently, and is referred to as cyber-bullying.
Devices also inhibit the ability to be alone with ones self to manage feelings. If you are sitting in the car with traffic at a standstill and begin to feel something, all you have to do is reach for your phone, check your email, and presto, your feeling is gone.
Our kids see us doing this, and copy us. It seems so natural, and happens so fast and automatically we hardly notice it.
Kids sitting alone in their bedrooms studying for a test automatically reach for the phone, tablet or Facebook as an electronic anxiety reducer. Instead of sitting with feelings and finding a way to manage them, or heaven forbid talk to a parent, they grab a device. Managing emotional states is part and parcel to learning how to be alone, how to be human. However, in order to manage feelings, the feelings must be felt.
A level below the day to day emotions lurk the existential emotional experiences: emptiness, aloneness, meaninglessness, and more. Those powerful feelings emerge in all of us. Feeling and managing them is a prerequisite to a happy life. Why? Happiness is buried beneath these powerful feelings, that’s why.
When we allow for those emotions to be experienced, we pave a path for happiness to emerge. Mastery over powerful emotions produces indescribable emotional adequacy. That is one form of happiness.
In my opinion we are producing a generation of kids who are unable to accept “no” for an answer, whose happiness is being compromised. Many are ill equipped to manage their emotions, and lack the discipline required for making good decisions, and are lacking empathy and compassion.
These kids are the next leaders of the world.
Here is a research article that might interest you:
Kwon, J., Chung, C. & Lee, J. (2011). The Effects of Escape from Self and Interpersonal Relationship on the Pathological Use of Internet Games. Community Mental Health Journal, 47:113–121
In my next post I will discuss some ways for parents to meet these challenges.
Wishing you a satisfying relationship and family,
Jim Hutt, Ph.D., MFT
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