There are many documented reasons why excessive screen time may be harmful for children. Those most commonly cited are its negative impact on sleep and its contribution to rising obesity levels, as well as educational and/or behavioural problems. While these are all valid issues, a far more detrimental effect is rarely mentioned.
When children spend a lot of time on screens, they miss the opportunity to go inwards and find out how they are feeling. A bus journey that might have been spent gazing out of the window and noticing how they feel, may now be spent catching up with the latest posts on Instagram. Instead of sitting with feelings of anger induced by an argument with a sibling, a child now often escapes this feeling by turning straight to their phone. I have often seen teenagers pick up their device because something made them feel anxious. By turning their attention to watching YouTube videos, they can escape the discomfort that their anxious feelings cause.
Why is this such a problem? Since Socrates implored people to ‘know thyself’ and Aristotle proclaimed that ‘knowing thyself is the beginning of all wisdom’, it has become widely accepted that good mental health involves developing a certain level of self-awareness. From a Chinese medicine perspective, emotions become a cause of disease when they are prolonged, intense or repressed. When a child loses themselves online to escape a feeling of sadness, for example, the sadness does not go away. On the contrary, it will most likely fester inside them and have a negative impact on their flow of qi. This can lead to physical symptoms. But it can also create the unwelcome situation of the child not feeling content or well in themselves, but not really knowing why. This disconnection from emotions means that the spirit of the young person is no longer thriving.
It is not helpful to demonise screens. If we do that, we risk destroying rapport with our children, for whom screens are a part of the fabric of their lives. But when they become a means by which a young person avoids or detaches from the wide range of emotions that are a necessary part of being human, they begin to do real harm. As Proust said in A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, ‘We are healed of our suffering only by experiencing it to the full.’