Unplugging For Mental Health: Kids, Teens, and Technology

I know… I am a therapist that advocates for the usage of Online Therapy/TeleMental Health. So, it probably seems a little self-destructive to advocate unplugging electronics. However, hear me out. It is possible to have a balance.

Like any activity, when done in moderation, access to technology isn’t that bad. However, I am seeing more and more evidence of problems with the use (and abuse of technology) in our children and families. I’ve had multiple clients where the use of phones, video games, and TV has interfered with the child’s ability to function in society.

As parents, we need to recognize that a child’s inability to regulate usage of their electronics is a serious problem.

In my opinion, we are on the cusp of a pretty significant crisis with families and children.

Here is why….


Hopefully, no parent would give their child ready access to alcohol, drugs, or gambling (because it is against the law in the US), but essentially, unfettered access to electronics can have the same impact.

Why? Because of Dopamine.

Dopamine is the chemical in your brain that is responsible for “seeking” according to Dr. Barbara Jennings. When we look for something and find it, our brain releases dopamine (which feels good).

If regulated and in moderation, the dopamine release is nothing to worry about. However, if unregulated, it can quickly morph into an addiction.

Dr. Edward Spector states that evidence from brain scans shows similarities in between the brains of someone addicted to substances (alcohol/drugs) and someone addicted to technology.

Anyone that has dealt with addiction knows it is a nasty battle. People’s brains tell them that they need the object of the addiction. That “object” takes precedence over sleep, food, and human interaction. Sound familiar?

Increased Mental Disorders

Over the last few decades, teen anxiety and depression has increased a whopping 70%.

Access to the Internet and social medical causes teen anxiety and depression to increase, while lowering self-esteem. In addition, distressing content is readily accessible to impressionable young minds. The popular show, “13 Reasons Why,” in which the antagonist commits suicide, was credited with an increase in the suicide rates of young people.

In her book, The Teenage Brain Doctor Frances Jensen states that adolescents frequently access stressful, inappropriate, and even dangerous content when left to their own devices; leading to “copy cat” behavior.

The reason that “13 Reasons Why” is so dangerous is because, according to Jensen, research shows adolescents don’t judge whether or not to do things based on the risk, they choose to do things based on the perceived reward. Basically, looking “cool” trumps safety and good judgement.

Lack of Coping Strategies and Social Interaction

According to Simon Sinek, before the technology explosion, people were forced to turn to each other for support and comfort in distressing situations. We relied on our friends and family. Now, people admit that they don’t build strong, meaningful connections.

Whenever significant stress shows up, young people turn to things like cell phones and video games because they don’t build strong, meaningful connections with friends.

Video games, social media, and cell phones have permitted people to be closer than ever before. So, instead of Johnny working things out with Billy after they had a Fortnight Squabble, they just find other people to play with. This deprives then of the opportunity to learn valuable conflict resolution skills and to build long-lasting present friendships. .

Lack of Sleep

It is not uncommon that people use their phones right before bed and have access to their phones throughout the night. However, the research on the amount of interference that technology is having with our kids is disturbing to say he least.

Dr. Frances Jensen reports that 12-14 year olds that have trouble sleeping are 2.5 times more likely to report suicidal thoughts. The Journal Of Youth And Adolescence reported that children sleeping less than 7 hours per night were more likely to display delinquent behaviors than children sleeping 8-10 hours.

Sleep deprivation can cause a myriad of health problems including obesity, inattention, irritability, and impulsivity to name a few.

What Can Be Done….

1. Set Limits

The Earlier The Better

Although I know it is easy to park the 5 year old in front of the IPad, resist the temptation. By setting early limits, you are teaching your child to regulate their use of technology that will carry through into their adolescence and adulthood.

The key to successful limits are having alternatives. It is important that you have things for young children to do to occupy themselves. Legos, coloring, etc are great alternatives. Yes, I know those can get messy, but mess seems like a small prince to pay for healthy brains.

Later Isn’t Too Late

You are probably going to experience some resistance to setting the limit, but you still need to do it anyway. Your house, your rules. It is important to give a rationale as to the reason for the limit. Although your child isn’t entitled to an explanation, you will find it a much better relationship-builder if you give them a kid-centered rationale .

How Much?

The American Academy of Pediatrics has specific recommendations:

  • Under 18 Months: No Screen Time
  • 18-24 Months: Maybe introducing them to high quality programming where parents watch together and explain to them what they are seeing
  • 2-5 Years: 1 Hour Per Day
  • 6 And Older: No specific Recommendations, but recommends limiting to not interfere with physical activity, sleep, and social interaction.

For me, I tell my parents that the limits depend on the family culture. However, I can tell you, in my family, my kids have the following equation:

For every hour they spend engaging, playing, exercising, etc. with others (real human connection), they get 50% screen time. So, if my 13 year old spends an hour with me or his father, he gets 30 minutes of screen time .

2. No-Phone Zones

Every family, house, etc should have designated No-Phone zones. This means that there is no technology allowed. In my family, our zone is the dining room table, which we used to eat as a family at least 2 times per week.

I will admit, that this wasn’t super comfortable at first when we started it. However, as we got used to no longer being zombie slaves to our devices, it got better. Now, my children actually kind of look forward to it. Who knew?

3. Snoop

There are differing opinions on this. There is an ongoing debate about right to privacy for children.

I think that there is most certainly an opportunity to build trust, but you shouldn’t trust them completely. I mean after all, children can’t vote because they lack the maturity and decision making capability until they reach a certain age. And at 18, they still aren’t mature.

Make sure you have all of the user names and passwords to everything. If you are paying for any part of it, then make sure you have access. Even if you’re 17 year old has a job and pays his own cell phone, you are still paying for the electricity for him to charge it.

Our kids’ brains don’t stop developing until they are in their mid-20’s. The last thing to develop fully… Yep, executive functioning… which basically is their ability to make appropriate decisions .

I check my son’s phone at least once per month at random. Sometimes he knows, sometimes he doesn’t. However, I want to know what he is saying to other people and what other people are saying to him.

Video Games: My son plays video games online. Every once in a while, I will ask him to hand me the headphones and sit quietly while the other kids talk. A little profanity is age appropriate, but when a child drops the “F” bomb so many times that he isn’t really putting together a coherent sentence, it warrants a talk.

4. Distance Your Device

A really awesome tip that I heard was that everyone in the home should charge their phone in an area besides their bedroom. The reasoning for this is because research shows that cell phone screens mess with our internal sleep timer. Also, whenever you wake up in the middle of the night, you will have a tendency to check your phone. Buy an alarm clock instead.

5. Don’t Buy Your Kid Anything that You Don’t Know

This may be common sense, but I am saying it anyway. There is no reason that you have an iPhone 4 and your kid has the 10. There are two reasons, the first is because you need to be familiar with the tips and tricks. The second is that you are sending a message to your child that the people that work the least get the best stuff.

If your child has a job and buys it on their own, then OK. They earned it. However, either you need to make yourself an expert or your kid needs to teach you anything and everything. Again, your house.. you are likely paying for something.

6. Follow Ratings – But You Know Your Kids

Ratings on games and apps are there for a reason. However, I am guilty of letting my fairly mature 11 year old indulge in a PG-13 movie.

However, I don’t recommend anything that promotes lifelike violence until your child reaches the appropriate ages (and sometimes beyond). My reasoning for this is because these types of games (ie. Grand Theft Auto) glorify inappropriate behavior. When young impressionable minds it can desensitize them to this type of behavior. Violent behavior should be the exception, not the norm. These games normalize the behavior, which is dangerous.

7. Parental Controls Are Your Friend

With so much evolving technology, it can be challenging for parents to know how or what to do. Fortunately, the wonderful people at Internet Matters have developed a comprehensive guide to parents like you and me.

If you need a strong case for the need to control and monitor decides, I encourage you to watch this Ted Talk by James Bridle. Bridle eloquently explains how a video on YouTube can spiral out of control and traumatize your child.

8. Model Appropriate Use

We are our children’s most influential teachers and influencers. It is important that parents model appropriate use of technology with kids. The old saying “Do as I say, not as I do” doesn’t work for kids in the 21st century. They now have instant access to technology that provides them the knowledge and wisdom that used to be learned from us and in school.

When you come home from work, put the phone down, set limits with the people from work calling you, and enjoy mindful time with your family.


Like anything, use of electronics is OK in moderation. As parents, it is our job to protect and guide our children. Make sure that you are guiding them to manage their use so they will hopefully carry good habits into adulthood.

If You Still Struggle

If your child/family are unable to put the phone down, Help may Be Needed. If you are located in Florida, Georgia, or Texas you can contact me at 912-417-5085 or by filling out this form. If you live outside of these states, please still contact me. I may be able to link you to resources in your state.

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