Kids and phones: a cause of mental health problems or a storm in a teacup?

Kids and phones: a cause of mental health problems or a storm in a teacup?

If there is one thing that parents of pre-teens and teenagers are likely to struggle with it is knowing how to manage their child’s phone use.  And looking for science to help clarify whether or not kids’ phone usage really is something to worry about, can create further confusion.  One study will find a supposedly definite link between time spent on social media and mental health problems, whilst another claims the exact opposite. 

So, how can parents navigate their way through this minefield?  And how can the ancient wisdom of Chinese medicine help with such a modern phenomenon?

Children are unique

One person’s medicine is another’s poison, as the old saying goes.  Just as with everything else in life, each child will have a different capacity to cope with technology and the online world.  Rather than making blanket rules about the number of hours kids should be allowed to spend on their various devices each day, it can be more helpful to observe the individual. 

  • What is triggering a child to use her device?

Does she use it to deflect from emotions that she finds challenging, such as anger or anxiety?  Disconnecting with an emotion by doing something on a phone or other device, does not mean the emotion will go away. Strong emotions create imbalances of qi that can cause physical symptoms.

  • What is she doing when she is on her device?

Many children use their devices for really positive ends, for example, connecting with others to fight a cause, creative pursuits or keeping abreast of important world events.  Others use their devices only to play violent games, or to try to find validation from others on social media that they are not getting in their ‘real’ life, for example. 

  • What is her mood like when she comes off her device?

If a child is regularly grumpy, angry or agitated when she comes off her device, it is a sign that she is either too reliant upon it, has been on it too long or whatever she is doing on it is having a negative effect on her qi

  • Has technology replaced other activities in the child’s life?

Whilst technology is going to be a central and important part of our children’s lives, whether we like it or not, it is not usually health-promoting if this is to the exclusion of other activities.  Extremes of anything are rarely beneficial, whereas balance and variety usually are. I often use the American psychologist Dan Siegel’s idea of the Healthy Mind Platter, as a way of explaining to older kids and teenagers the importance of having variety in their activities (https://www.drdansiegel.com/resources/healthy_mind_platter/)

What are the energetic effects of time spent on screens?

Overstimulation

At the very heart of Chinese medicine philosophy is the concept of yin and yang.  To maintain health, there needs to be balance between these two poles.  Yin corresponds to rest and yang corresponds to activity.  Over a twenty-four period, there will be a constant flux between this duality of yin and yang.  Night time is predominantly yin and day time is predominantly yang.  To grow and remain healthy, children and teenagers need a balance of yin (restful) and yang (active) elements to their day.

Even though they don’t involve physical movement, most activities that kids and teens do on their devices are yang in nature.  Repeatedly checking social media or playing adrenalizing video games tend to agitate and stimulate a child’s qi.  Children often go on their devices to ‘relax’ and ‘switch off’ yet, ironically, it can have the opposite effect.  It may be that the child’s body can relax but often their mind becomes more stimulated.  If a child’s day consists of mental stimulation at school, and then mental (and often emotional) stimulation at home on screens, then the balance of yin and yang will go awry.  

Agitation

Chinese medicine describes the Heart (by which we mean the energetic function of the Heart channel) as responsible for the overall state of the emotions.  The Heart is also the part of us which is most affected by strong or prolonged emotions.  In particular, Heart qi will only thrive when the emotions are peaceful, quiet and calm.    

One of the common effects of a child getting a phone, is that it becomes much harder for her to achieve this necessary calm state.  A part of the child’s psyche, whatever else she may be doing, is tuned in to whatever happens to be going on at that moment with her friends. This is usually being played out on a Whatsapp group or Instagram or similar.  The drive to be accepted and become part of a tribe that is typical of this age makes it very hard for the child to ignore the chat of the moment.  She is never able to enter a truly relaxed state because she is agitated or slightly hyped-up by the constant contact. Even if the contact is positive, kind and friendly, it will often still have this effect. 

Of course, enabling contact and communication with friends is a benefit of having a phone.  Kids no longer have to fight to use the landline with other family members to make social arrangements.  But, when it prevents them from ever tuning out or switching off, constant engagement with people online can create agitation and be a cause of imbalance, particularly in the mental-emotional realm.  

Stagnation

While time spent on devices may agitate the mind, it tends to cause stagnation in the body purely by virtue of the fact that it means the child is usually stationary for long periods of time.  Movement is even more important for kids than it is for adults.  Their very nature is yang, which needs expression in the form of movement.  From the Chinese medicine perspective, stagnation of qi can be involved in a wide variety of health problems from headaches and gut problems to depression.  

Yang rising to the head

The natural direction of yang is to rise upwards, like heat or the flames of a fire.  The tendency for this in children is even greater than it is in adults.  Too many activities that encourage this upward movement to become even greater can become problematic.  They can mean that a child becomes out of kilter, with too much energy stuck in her head and not enough in her body.  Symptoms that may arise as a result of this may include insomnia or headaches.  

So, are there any rules of thumb?

Our job as parents is to help guide our children so that the use of technology remains a positive in their life rather than becoming something that makes them ill or unhappy.  Just as we would not dream of letting our child run into the sea on their own before learning to swim, kids need some ‘training’ on how to learn to be safe on devices.  

Is technology preventing your child from having a balance of different activities in their daily life?

If a child is spending the vast majority of her time on devices, it is very unlikely to be health-promoting.  If she is spending some time on devices, as well as seeing friends in person, doing some physical activity, having true ‘downtime’, relating to family and, crucially, getting enough sleep, it is probably nothing to worry about. 

Is your child retreating into the online world as a way of avoiding something difficult in the real world?

If a child connects with people online because she is too anxious to meet up with them face-to-face, then her social anxiety needs to be addressed.  If she is turning to a device every time she feels angry instead of expressing her anger, it will not help her to learn how to manage emotions in a health-giving way. 

Is your child regularly grumpy or agitated when she comes off her screens?

If so, it is probably worth reviewing whether what she is doing on a screen is promoting balance in her body and mind.  Or it could be that the time she is spending on a screen is too much for her (remembering that what is fine for one child might be too much for another). 

Is your child finding it increasingly difficult to be calm, present and peaceful?

If so, it may be because she is too ‘hooked in’ to whatever is going on in her online world.  This can prevent a child from being able to enjoy being in the moment, taking note of how they feel or what is going on around them.  Although children may, on the surface, be furious when a parent imposes limits on their device usage, deep down they may even be grateful for it!  Whilst phones themselves are not addictive, platforms like Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram leverage the very same neural circuitry used by slot machines and cocaine to keep us using their products as often as possible.  (If you don’t believe me, have a look at this TedX talk ‘Cell phones, dopamine and development’ by Dr Barbara Jennings.)

So, if it is possible to draw any firm conclusions at all, one may be that it is probably not helpful to say categorically that ‘phones and technology are all bad’ or, equally to say that they are ‘really nothing to worry about’.  When used in the right way, and to the right degree, phones can add useful dimensions to a child’s life and increase her happiness.  When used in the wrong way, or to an excessive degree, phone usage can contribute to a child’s ill health or unhappiness. The key is to look at each individual child and ask which is true for them.  

Rebecca Avern

I have been practising acupuncture for 15 years. As well as practising in Oxford, I am both a senior lecturer and clinical supervisor at the College of Integrated Chinese Medicine (www.cicm.org.uk) which is the biggest acupuncture training centre in Europe. I have treated both adults and children and whilst the benefits of acupuncture for adults are well-known and well-documented, fewer people are aware of how it can benefit children. I decided that I wanted more children to experience the benefits of acupuncture, and so decided to set up The Panda Clinic. I have to admit to having another motivation - I love being around children and derive great satisfaction when I see children recover from ill health. I am mother to 2 primary school age children. As well as being an experienced acupuncturist, as a parent I have a good understanding of the stress and anxiety that an ill child can induce. I will always do my best to communicate with the parent(s) of a child I am treating as thoroughly and clearly as I can.