Is Technology the New Candy?

How ‘Junk Tech’ Can Impact Kids’ Mental Health
I recently caught my children sneaking candy. I usually have candy hidden somewhere in the house, and on occasion will let them have a package of skittles, chocolate, or licorice. I have strict rules regarding candy. I only allow it on the weekends when I know that they can have a later bedtime, have more opportunities to play and burn off their energy, and are not required to be on their best behavior in school. When I started finding the empty wrappers hidden throughout the house, I was concerned about their health and feared they were developing an addictive cycle with sugar. Most of the parents that I know feel the same way as I do about candy and nutrition in general. We want to give our kids the healthiest food options for them so that their bodies develop in the best way that they can. As we observe the aftermaths of the “sugar high” and the “sugar crash” we know that giving them these treats consistently would wreak serious havoc on their bodies, brains, and behaviors. As parents who care about their growing bodies and brains we hide the junk food, model healthy eating, and provide nourishing meals for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Candy becomes something to enjoy on holidays, parties, or an occasional weekend. While many parents would shudder at the idea of giving their kids a bucket of candy and letting them eat it for every meal with no restrictions, many parents today are allowing their young children to use technology without rules, limits, or restrictions.

Is technology like candy?

As parents we are all learning to navigate how to help our kids develop a healthy relationship with technology, we often feel as if we are navigating in uncharted waters. However, there is enough research available to us now (Children and Screens, 2023) to guide our children in how to appropriately use their technology to maximize brain development. Dr. Shimi Kang uses the candy analogy for technology often and recently spoke in a webinar on the developing brain and screen time (Children and Screens, 2023). She provided great insights on how technology affects the developing brain. As Kang describes it, we can compare “a healthy tech diet” to a healthy plate of food (Kang, 2020, pg. 239). There are certain aspects of technology that are not good for our brains. These aspects are highly addictive, release hits of dopamine like drugs, and can ultimately be harmful for the developing brain. She describes this aspect of technology as “junk tech” (Kang, 2020,p.239). “Junk tech” includes gaming, tiktok videos, and comparative scrolling on social media. This “junk tech” is toxic for the brain and leads to addiction, fear of missing out, social comparisons, and bullying (Kang, 2020).

So why is “junk tech” so bad for kids?

Mindlessly scrolling on TikTok, Facebook and Instagram is a common practice for many adults I know. In fact, I often find myself going down a rabbit hole of suggested posts on Instagram and wonder what happened to the last hour of my life. Looking around us, it is clear to see that the majority of adults spend their free time checking their social media feeds, clicking on articles that pop up, and chasing never-ending content designed to keep them looking at their phones. Most of the adults I know that do this are fine; they are not struggling with severe depression or anxiety and are able to manage and cope with everyday life stressors. If all the adults I know are fine, how can this kind of engagement with technology be so bad for children?

Because of their ages, their underdeveloped brain, and their stages of development, mindless time on phones can negatively impact the brain development of a child. It can also interfere with their ability to form meaningful relationships with peers, and in some cases can lead to severe anxiety and depression. For adolescents and children, the time on screens has risen drastically in the last 10 years and this has negatively impacted several areas of their lives that are crucial for overall mental well-being (Children and Screens, 2023). These include lack of free play, loss of sleep, loss of exercise, and loss of face to face relational interactions (Kang, 2020). Not only is “junk tech” preventing the daily activities that contribute to healthy brain development for children and adolescents, but it is also leading to a more stressed generation of children than ever before. Because our kids’ brains are not fully developed in the prefrontal cortex until the age of 25, they lack the ability to reason or rationalize through situations (Jay, 2021). “Junk tech” such as social media and gaming can cause the child brain to perceive their environment as threatening; thus stimulating a cortisol release in their bodies. While this release is helpful in life-threatening situations, it is not good for the body if it continues to release on a frequent basis. The after-effects of this cortisol release can include an increase in anxiety, difficulty controlling feelings, fighting with parents and siblings, or an increased use of the technology as a way to help them to escape (Kang, 2020).

Is there a solution?

Kang (Children and Screens, 2023) provides several helpful tips for parents struggling with placing limits on technology. She advises parents to eliminate or limit the use of “junk tech”, just like you would limit their intake of junk food. Kang (2020) also suggests using the creative aspects of technology together as a family, such as graphic design, music making, photography and coding. When using technology for connection with others, do not rely on social media, but rather face to face connection such as facetime or video chat. Also, before you provide your child with a smartphone, make sure that they are developmentally ready to responsibly use it. Here are some indicators that show that you should hold off on purchasing your child a smartphone (Children and Screens, 2023):

  • They struggle with peer relationships
  • Already struggle with anxiety
  • Have difficulty feeling included
  • Are not good with time management
  • Lack the ability to self-regulate

Kang (2020) suggests that once a child demonstrate an ability to manage the above things, you can slowly start introducing them to smartphone technology, but with limits and family rules. If you have already introduced a smartphone to your children and you think it is impacting them in a negative way, it is never too late for new rules and boundaries. In fact, the great thing about our brains is that neural patterns can change over time, and can become healthier patterns once we introduce healthier ways of living (Jay, 2021). If you’re struggling with your child and think they might have an addiction to technology, please contact a licensed professional for help.

References:

  • Children and Screens. (2023, April 17). The social brain on screens [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vWuDXtCtPa8
  • Jay, M. (2021). The defining decade: Why your twenties matter- and how to make the most of them now. New York, NY: Hachette Book Group, Inc.
  • Kang, S.K. (2020). The tech solution: Creating healthy habits for kids growing up in a digital world. Penguin, Canada: Penguin Random House.
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About the Author

Dr. Amy Quinn is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist specializing in treating teen and young adults dealing with bipolar disorder, depression and anxiety. As the executive director of Fountain 33 Foundation, she is responsible for philanthropy in areas of mental health prevention, intervention and evaluation. She is certificated in Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, a specialized treatment for trauma. She lives with her husband, three children and two dogs in Naples, Florida.