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Digital Stress Is Hurting Our Kids

Games and Social Media Trigger Excitement and Fear in a Way that can Alter a Child’s Brain

Mindfulness may be growing in popularity, but so is the opposite trend – digital distraction. And stress caused by digital distraction is hurting our kids.


Our kids spend more time on screens than they do sleeping. The 2019 Common Sense Media Census found that American kids spend a lot of time online, with ‘teens viewing about seven and a half hours (7:22) daily — not including the use of screens at school or for homework.’ The lack of sleep, along with the risks of online predators and pornography, are the most obvious problems with teen screen culture. But, another big problem that often gets overlooked is chronic stress. 


Many popular forms of entertainment technology promote a stress response in a child’s body and brain. Repeated exposure can affect your child’s development and even change their personality. It is also a significant contributing factor to the rising rates of anxiety, depression, and teen suicide in youth today. Digital stress hurts kids both physically and emotionally.


Why Screen Media is Not Relaxing


What we think is relaxing is not.


When my oldest son began gaming three to five hours a day, I knew he was wasting time. What I didn’t know was that while he was climbing the leaderboard in his game, his stress hormones were climbing to new levels, too. His adrenal glands were being prompted to release a surge of adrenaline and cortisol-resulting in high blood pressure, an increased heart rate, and a boost of energy to fight, in this case, a virtual enemy. 


In a study published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, the stressful effects of video games were assessed by various physiological, psychological, and biochemical parameters, and the results showed a significant increase in the physiological and psychological markers of stress. Video games cause stress and this stress hurts kids.


I had missed all the signs of toxic stress in my son. He was irritable, stayed up all night, had angry outbursts, and was easily depressed. I even noticed stains on his pants from where he had wiped his sweaty hands during the game. 


I thought gaming was what he did to relieve stress and I thought he deserved a break from his homework. After all, he was a straight ‘A’ student. Didn’t he need downtime?


Even when we got to the point where we felt like we were losing him, it never crossed my mind that the stress from his gaming was hurting him both physically and mentally. It was a game, so how could it be stressful?


Gaming and Social Media Use Wreak Havoc on the Developing Brain


I now know that gaming (as well as social media use) is one of the least relaxing downtime activities. The stress it causes will wreak havoc on the developing brain, leading to issues that last well into adulthood. 


This is the underlying reason that our new cultural norm of putting video games and smartphones in the laps of every child, has made childhood today the most anxiety-filled stage of development.


Social media may not be violent in the same way video games are, but the fear of being left out, shamed, or suffering social ‘death’ also triggers the biochemical stress responses. In fact, due to the importance of relationships in our lives, the fear of social death can be even more stressful than an intense game, leading to anxiety and despair.


Novelty is Addictive


Everything new is fun.


The job of every video game and social media platform is to keep users online. The job of every parent is to make sure your child isn’t one of those hooked.


The persuasive design elements used in games and social media platforms – rewards, upgrades, leaderboards comments, likes, and hearts – are similar to those used to addict gamblers at casinos. This idea is relatively easy to understand. What is harder to recognize are the additional techniques used by designers to keep our kids hooked – novelty and fear.


Humans crave novelty (the quality of being new, original or unusual), a seemingly benign element that everyone loves. All games are designed to constantly offer novel experiences: new levels, new skins, new music, new worlds, etc. Feel-good chemicals like serotonin and dopamine are activated by new developments in the game. The more excitement there is, the more dopamine gets released. Offering novelty is a sure winner for game designers, but if that doesn’t keep your child’s eyes glued to the screen, fear will.


Fear Keeps a Player Engaged

Gaming is life or death to the revved-up brain.


The element of fear is just around the corner in every game, even the E-rated ones. Why? Because game designers know that the fear of dying produces adrenaline, and keeps the player engaged.


If a child is playing a nonviolent game, he may have to jump over a turtle, dodge a fireball, or avoid falling down a hole or lava pit – all before the timer runs out. If he is playing a violent game, like Fortnite, he must fight for his life to stay alive and in the game. Both types of games are thrilling and stressful at the same time.


Parents struggle to understand the ramifications of this fear factor. For an adult, the threat of losing a character in a game is trivial. For a child, it is everything. These virtual deaths are lifelike. When there are threats to a character’s life, the brain’s amygdala sounds an alarm that danger is ahead. This activates a series of survival responses, putting the brain in a state of high alert. Because the brain can’t tell the difference between a real physical threat and a virtual one, the fight-or-flight response system kicks in, releasing a cascade of chemicals. This spike in adrenaline and cortisol triggers physiological changes like rapid breathing, increased pulse, and a release of glucose to prepare the body to react to danger. Focus narrows and a heightened response to immediate stimuli displaces executive function.


This stress state also keeps the child from fully accessing the thinking part of his brain: his frontal cortex. After all, who needs to worry about eating dinner or doing homework when your life’s on the line? The more a child plays, the more stressed he becomes. When the body’s stress system is always on, there is no relief from biochemical surges and the vicious cycle continues.  This chronic stress state wears out both body and mind; and the younger the brain, the more damaging the effects.


Stress in Virtual Life Equals Stress in Real Life and This Stress Hurts Our Kids


Overusing this fight-or-flight system through repeated interactive screenplay results in the stress release pathway becoming faster and stronger. This is how playing video games actually shapes the structure of the brain. Like a tire track in wet cement, over time this stress pathway hardens into a rut that becomes the preferred route when other triggers occur in the real world.


Once the stress pathway becomes the path of least resistance, real-life threats access it easily. Your child may overreact with a stress response for a trivial reason because that route has become his default mode when provoked. 


Maybe he throws something in anger or says something vicious. Remember his impulse control skills are not yet honed, but his fight-or-flight response is. 


Parents usually don’t notice the problem until the stress signs are more pronounced. You may notice relationship conflicts, lying, a lower attention span for academic work, an inability to focus, and more aggressive behaviors in real-life play. Parents may get therapists involved because their child is acting out in school.


Doing anything when you are stressed is difficult. Teens under chronic stress, due to too much game time and not enough sleep, will not reach their academic potential. Screen stress can make it more difficult to plan ahead, solve problems, have empathy, or think through the consequences of actions.


Living in this chronic stress state hinders a child’s ability to make and keep friends because a chronically-stressed child is no fun to be around. Parents may put their child on medication or try to reason with their gamer. Some parents think their child will outgrow the problem. But, the best solution to the problem of chronic stress is to remove the source and allow the brain to reset.


Digital Media Changes A Child’s Relationships

The game becomes his new family.


All the time a child invests in the virtual world makes it hard to walk away. Children feel anxious when they try, which causes even more stress.


When children spend time building a sense of belonging in the virtual world, their shallow online relationships and chronic state of stress become normalized. The real world then feels awkward and uncomfortable.


Meanwhile, the opportunity cost has become significant, possibly as great as the toll that this stress is taking on a child’s mind and body. 


The chronic stress state keeps your child from discovering healthy interests and hobbies during adolescence. This time in life is critical because the brain and body are going through crucial phases of development. The brain is strengthening well-used pathways and pruning those left unused. 


But the biggest loss is the detachment from his relationship with his family.


Moderation Doesn’t Work When It Comes To Toxic Screen Use

Moderation works for non-stressful screen activities like family movies or schoolwork. But moderation does not work for toxic, stress-producing interactive screen use.


When your child plays a video game or scrolls through a  social media account for 30 minutes a day, he is building a strong habit. Even brief daily exposure will stimulate and strengthen the stress pathway. Stress effects are cumulative and ingrained, meaning that your child’s brain doesn’t get a clean slate every morning to start over.


Games are designed to hook the player, so 30 minutes, or even one hour a day, will never be enough. Eventually, you will be arguing with your teenager when he won’t leave the game to come to dinner or she won’t put down her Smartphone to get ready for soccer practice. You’ll wish you’d never introduced video games or smartphones in the first place.


Drop the Screen to Relieve the Stress


There is much debate over best practices for managing stressful screens. Therapists, other parents, and even the neighbor next door, all offer opinions. However, when you consider the brain science of how chronic stress is changing our kids’ brains and making them suffer, the answer is simple: remove the stimulant so the brain can reset and heal.


Is this easy? 


No. The best solutions are rarely easy or popular. But it works, and many families are finding that their kids are thriving without video games and social media. Playing video games is not a mandatory or a healthy activity for kids, nor is constantly viewing a selection of carefully curated photos and videos of others.


The most successful resets occur when parents boldly eliminate toxic screen use – video games and social media – from their child’s digital diet. Focus on real-life activities that require movement and exposure to nature, natural remedies for stress. 


Parents should encourage the development of life skills, non-tech hobbies, and in-person relationships. When they do, they’ll begin to get their child back.


Don’t Be Afraid to be a Countercultural Parent


Countercultural parents understand that relationships are a natural safeguard against the dangers of toxic stress. When children experience free play with others off-line, they are healthier and even smarter. Teens that spend in-person time with friends are more calm and less anxious. When kids spend time with their families, they enjoy a deeper sense of attachment and happiness. There are no guarantees, but when you remove toxic screens, you increase the odds of having happier and healthier kids.


Community Calms Us While Isolation Stresses Us Out. Teach your kids how to keep a few good friends and enjoy building in-person relationships. This is the life your kids are craving. 


As your child grows in confidence and purpose, your whole family will be happier. This stress-free life will bring calm and peace to your home. When you join the ranks of those parents who choose to take the road less traveled, and hit the pause button on the video games and delay the introduction of smartphones, you will finally get your lost child back and rediscover what you both were missing all along.


You won’t regret it.