Seduced by screens: Kids need their parents and some experts advise fasting to reset the brain

Experts are using MRIs to look at brains and finding similarities between people addicted to drugs or alcohol and those who play a lot of video games. So when it comes to teaching kids boundaries and rules in this digital age, where do we draw the line?

A Q&A with Dr. Simon Trepel, a licensed child psychiatrist who practises in Winnipeg

A generation ago, kids played outside for about 18 hours a week. Now they average around seven hours per week outdoors, researchers say. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

Facebook. Twitter. Snapchat. Instagram. Email. YouTube. Video games. Pinterest. Texting.

The list of things we can do online today goes on and on and while some have made our lives easier, many inventions have arguably hurt our society.

Experts are using MRIs to look at brains and finding similarities between people addicted to drugs or alcohol and those who play a lot of video games.

So when it comes to teaching kids boundaries and rules in this digital age, where do we draw the line?

Winnipeg child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr. Simon Trepel says parents need to lead by example.

He spoke with Marcy Markusa, host of CBC Manitoba's Information Radio.

Marcy: When parents are worried their kids are having problems, that they're addicted to devices, they will often say, "Put that thing down and get outside." Is that what they should be doing?

Dr. Simon Trepel: Well, I think it's a really good place to start. Our generation was outside for about 18 hours a week, back 20 years or 30 years ago.

Kids nowadays actually average around seven hours per week outside, acting within nature and playing sports and things like that.

Some kids can find a balance between screen time and being involved in other activities, but others might prefer the device over everything else, and that's when parents need to worry, says Dr. Simon Trepel. (CBC)

It's a good start but it's not really specific enough. Kids need other choices about what to do. They require a lot more structure today than before, so feedback from parents about what those other things are they can be doing.

Offer them other activities that aren't based on the screen or better yet, do things with them.

Of course, when we went outside, everybody else was outside, too. So nobody had to tell us what to do because we made up games and it was a different time entirely.

Now you've got to Snapchat your friends to say, "Hey, let's meet outside" because no one else is going to be there.

What is the most common thing you hear from parents in terms of concerns?

Parents have a lot of concerns and I think they have a lot of right to have concerns because kids' and teens' brains aren't quite fully developed so they're going to naturally run into problems in complex environments like social media.

But the most common worry parents have is around "Is my kid addicted? They're on these devices all the time and they seem to prefer them over other activities."

Sometimes social networks can be very valuable. How do you know where to draw the line between what's valuable and what is, maybe, addiction or something to worry about?

You have to start looking at other parts of the kid's life. So, is it interfering with other activities they enjoyed before they had screens? Is it interfering with things like sleep? Are you worried about who they're talking to online — are they being bullied, taken advantage of?

They have access to all sorts of things that kids and teens aren't always prepared for as far as maturity wise. So things like sexting and pornography are also available, really, at their fingertips.

Do you hear from the teens themselves about their concerns around using their devices?

This really speaks to the divide in the generations. Nowadays it's very difficult to convince kids and teens that there's a problem.

My son was doing some homework the other day and he had a laptop open, he had some music playing and he had a game going on his smartphone at the same time. I tried to speak to him, because of course I'm an expert in these areas, about the dangers. He had a really difficult time [relating], saying, "Well this is what works for me."

It's hard to convince kids who are enjoying these activities that it's having a negative impact. Sometimes you don't see the negative impact for six or 12 months of this behaviour and by then it becomes very difficult to correct.

That is a very stressful statement. So what should you watch for so those six to 12 months don't pass before it's a bigger problem?

Victoria Dunckley [a Los Angeles-based child psychiatrist and author] did some really cool research in this area and she described something called electronic screen syndrome. This is a situation where being overstimulated with screens and electronic devices all day can actually overstimulate the frontal lobes.

If you want to reverse these behaviours in your family, you've got to start with yourself and your own behaviour. Be a good role model for your kids.- Dr. Simon Trepel

The frontal lobes are like the CEOs of our brain. They're the ones making all these important decisions.

It's where our judgment takes place. This is where things like controlling impulses, regulating mood and sleep all take place, and there's mounting evidence that after several months of chronic screen exposure, we can start to see these frontal lobes not work as well. So kids will have more difficulties with regulating emotions, with their sleep.

Victoria Dunckley recommends having two to four weeks of complete screen fasting to reset the brain so these hormones and these other chemicals in the brain can kind of reset back to sort of factory settings.

When you're watching your kids, is it possible for them to go through periods where they're using the devices more often and then get off them, or do you have to create a brand new lifestyle for them?

It's different for every kid, every family. 

Some families have a really nice balance between face-to-face interactions and on-screen and off-screen activities. And we know that off-screen activities have a better chance of creating happiness for your kids than on-screen activities.

There's some really nice studies being done on that. But generally speaking, it really depends on the kid.

Some kids have a bit more of an addictive personality and those kids need to be monitored a little more closely with limits set and incentives created so they won't be on there.

What does addictive personality mean? What do you look for?

Somebody that's sort of drawn almost constantly to that device to the exclusion of everything else.

Some kids can find that balance — they might be enrolled in sports or arts or crafts or doing school work. But some kids might prefer the device over everything else and that's when we start to worry about some of these problems.

What about parents' behaviour? A lot of us will go home and grab the screen. That's how we're relaxing, too, in front of our Facebook or whatever.

Most of us haven't grown up with these devices from the get-go but we know that parents are actually on these screens for eight to 10 hours a day on average, as well, on and off.

And we also know that parents' behaviour is the single most important factor in kids' behaviour. So the reality of it is, the changes in your family — I don't want to go all Ghandi on you, but you have to be the change you wish to see.

If you want to reverse these behaviours in your family, you've got to start with yourself and your own behaviour. Be a good role model for your kids.

A few simple ways to be that change:

  • Be more involved with your kids. Interact with their life.
  • Share experiences with them.
  • Playing board games and other activities is much better than just telling them to get off their devices. 
  • Don't sleep with your phone in the same room.
  • Have meals without phones, all the time.

With files from Sam Samson