I was really excited to be invited as a guest on Michael Max’s wonderful Qiological podcast. We had a really wide ranging and interesting discussion on all things adolescent – from the Chinese Medicine view of puberty, to the challenges of being a teen and to working with teenagers in the treatment room. We also focussed on possible reasons for the increase in mental/emotional health problems in teens today. Please do have a listen and share with anybody else who might be interested.
Rebecca Avern talking about teenagers on the Qiological podcast
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.’
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?
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.
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.
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.