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Parents Must Wake Up to the Dangers of Screen Addiction

March 12, 2024

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Melanie Hempe is the founder of the Charlotte, North Carolina-based organization ScreenStrong, which is aimed at preventing and reversing screen addiction in children and young people. She is also the mother of sons. One son, Adam, her eldest, developed a video game addiction, which eventually became the impetus behind ScreenStrong, and the basis of a spiel she now gives at ScreenStrong events. Her younger son, Andrew, was raised without a phone or devices, and today is a winsome college lad, who appeared totally unfazed as he stood in front of a room full of moms, good-humoredly answering their questions about pornography and OnlyFans, during a recent ScreenStrong Q & A at his former high school.

Although a nurse by profession, it is Hempe’s experience with Adam that drives her, a personal narrative that amounts to a pitch to parents to get devices and screens out of their children’s hands, to the greatest extent possible. Hempe calls picking up Adam from his freshman year of college her family’s “defining moment.” He turned to her in the car and said, “Mom, World of Warcraft has done something to me. That video game did something to me. I haven’t been to my classes. I haven’t been out of my room for over a week.” 

Adam said he hadn’t been eating, and once he returned home, he was back on the couch, playing video games, in his hoodie (“gamers are always very cold because they don’t move enough,” according to Hempe). Reasoning that he may as well join the military if he loved playing Call of Duty so much, she invited an Army recruiter to the house to talk to her son. Referring to basic training as “fourteen weeks of detox” for his video game addiction, Hempe said that Adam served for five years in the military (including one Iraq deployment), who said to her later, “‘Mom, I found myself, I found my purpose.’ And it’s a real emotional thing for me,” said Hempe, “Because that’s just what we want for all of our kids.”

She sees much of the harm from screens coinciding with the breakdown of the American family.

Hempe might be overly generous in ascribing grand teleological aims to most parents, however. At least, it’s hard to come away with warm feelings toward a great many of them after talking to her colleague, ScreenStrong medical advisor Dr. Adriana Stacey, who often co-presents with Hempe at events. Stacey is a child psychiatrist in Fayetteville, Arkansas who treats children with screen addictions. “Parents are not waking up to it,” said Stacey in a phone interview. “What’s going on is an epidemic of kids raising each other.”

Depending on which study you look at, teens spend anywhere from seven to nine hours on screens on average. According to widely-cited survey results published by Common Sense Media in 2021, teens spend an average of eight hours and thirty-nine minutes a day on entertainment screen use, with more boys relying on screens for entertainment than girls (about an hour more on average, in both teens and tweens). 

Where social media is a bigger draw for girls, video games tend to draw boys (by a ratio of about 4:1 according to the 2021 Common Sense Media survey). However, Hempe sees video games as the other side of the screen-time coin: video games are to young males what social media is to girls. Ungdata, a Norwegian national youth survey used by researchers in a study published in 2021, reported that 69 percent of boys said that it was “very important” to keep in touch with their friends through gaming, compared to only 16 percent of girls. 

ScreenStrong’s informational materials on gaming tend to assume users are male. And it’s hard to keep them down on the farm, they contend, once they’ve been introduced to interactive game play—parents are up against powerful dopamine and adrenaline hits initiated by Fortnite’s Battle Royale game mode, for example, which although cartoon violence, can, according to an American Academy of Pediatrics statement, “teach children to associate pleasure and success with their ability to cause pain and suffering to others.” These wins in a game where killing and harm are the stated objectives, bathe young, developing brains in powerful neurochemicals that they can come to crave. Moreover, young brains are not always able to distinguish between graphic virtual violence and the real thing.

There are potential national security risks in overlooking gaming as part of the fabric of everyday life for American males. Researchers around the world have become increasingly interested in the “gamification” of violence and extremism, or bringing the ethos of the online gaming world into the physical world, particularly among men. Examples of this phenomenon include lone gunmen live streaming their terror attacks, as in Christchurch, New Zealand, and in Bratislava, Slovakia, which in turn, light up message boards where users deem a mere two kills “a failure” and issue national “high scores” for such attacks.

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“The part of the brain that’s responsible for the overabundance of dopamine is also responsible for empathy,” Dr. Stacey said of the graphic content that many young people consume online. “The brain is releasing too much dopamine at once, they lose the ability to have empathy for small things. Their brain loses excitement over things, and so they’re losing empathy.” So when, for example, the horrific videos of Hamas brutality began to crop up on October 7th, “they’re not putting themselves in the shoes of the person in the videos. They’re just looking for something exciting, and then they’re scrolling on to the next thing.”

Stacey said her preferred approach to social change is the one often attributed to Mother Teresa—“If you want to bring peace to the world, go home and love your family”—and she sees much of the harm from screens coinciding with the breakdown of the American family. She describes what she calls “a very common” scenario she encounters, with kids leaving school early for home, then, when exhausted parents return from work, everyone hanging out on devices until bedtime. 

A 2019 article in the journal NeuroImage looked at the first release of cross-sectional data from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study, a longitudinal study conducted by the National Institute of Health (NIH), tracking 9-10 year olds’ brain development throughout adolescence. The NeuroImage authors looked at the effects of what they called Screen Media Activity (SMA), which included watching television, social media use, and video games. 

“The front part of their brain is thinning out. The frontal cortex is thinning out,” Hempe said at a September ScreenStrong presentation. She was referring to the ABCD study data, which suggests premature thinning of the frontal cortex. “That is the judgment center of the brain.”

Although by the admission article’s own authors, it is early days for the ABCD, analysis of the first data cohort does seem to suggest “a strong relationship to externalizing psychopathology” among young people whose brain imaging showed a relationship between SMA, and thinner and smaller orbitofrontal, hippocampi, and inferior-temporal cortexes. Put another way, the areas of the brain associated with processing rewards, punishments, and emotions—and with making sense of faces, objects, and places—appear to be underdeveloped in the kids who spend a lot of time in front of screens. And “externalizing pathology” is pretty much what it sounds like: according to the American Psychological Association, it includes “antisocial behavior, substance abuse, aggression, and interpersonally aversive and challenging disorders.” 

Their brain loses excitement over things, and so they’re losing empathy.

When I caught up with Stacey, just days after online videos of Hamas’ assault on Israeli civilians prompted Jewish schools around the country to warn parents to keep their children off of social media, she expressed surprise at this reaction on the part of school administrators. 

“It’s interesting, I thought, when that warning came out,” she said, “Because in my mind, I thought, those videos aren’t going to surprise those kids. At all. Like, they’re playing shooting video games all the time. They’re constantly watching violence on the internet.”

For Stacey, the proliferation of torture porn as the horrors of October 7 unfolded, bolstered her overall contention about young people and devices. “They don’t need to be on those platforms anyway,” she said. “There’s all kinds of horrible stuff out there. There’s people abusing women, making TikToks about it, and people beating up little boys. There’s all kinds of horrible videos out there. TikTok has gotten too big for the company itself to actually cull through everything before it comes out there.”

In her experience talking to kids, said Stacey, they are used to seeing graphic content, and the October 7th videos would have been for many simply a novelty as they searched for another brain chemical fix.

It sounds dire, but Hempe and Stacey say they are not interested in fear mongering, and the parents in attendance as I spoke to Stacey in a suburb of Charlotte, North Carolina, on a brisk early October day, appeared duly concerned about the risks devices pose to their children, and ready to take action. 

We were at Covenant School, a K-12 private Christian school ensconced within a sun-dappled, landscaped campus that more closely resembles a small liberal arts college.Sunlight flooded the event space, which included a well-appointed chapel in which a small group of people could be seen praying over someone as I entered that morning. High ceilings upheld by large glass windows overlooked manicured lawns. As the well-heeled, predominantly white and female audience ambled out at the end of the day’s ScreenStrong session, I asked Stacey whether she was concerned about getting her message out to more diverse audiences. A month earlier, I had seen Hempe give an abbreviated version of the ScreenStrong presentation to the annual meeting of the Washington, D.C. chapter of Eagle Forum, the conservative organization founded by Phyllis Schlafly, where the average attendee could best be described as “a genteel woman of a certain age.”

Stacey is aware that ScreenStrong’s early appeal has been fairly homogeneous, and she would like its message to be more widely available. “It does seem like the majority of the people that attend these things, the bigger ones, are from a religious background, Christian background,” she said. But if ScreenStrong’s message is as urgent as it contends, a broad audience share matters: the 2021 Common Sense Media survey found that Black and Hispanic/Latino young people use screen media more than their white peers. When usage is broken out by income, kids from lower-income families use the most screen media of anyone (a difference of three hours between tweens from high and low-income families, and two hours for teens).

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Stacey worries about kids in the lower socioeconomic neighborhoods, who she sees getting less positive interaction with adults, which increases the risks they encounter online. She said she has reached out to schools in lower income areas about giving the ScreenStrong presentation, but the concern was parents’ ability to attend. “When are you going to do it?” she said. “During the day they’re at work, on the weekends, they have other things going on, and at night, a lot of times they’re exhausted from being at work all day. So trying to figure out how to make that work has really been hard.” Even a shortened version of the ScreenStrong modules, she said, would barely scratch the surface. We had been at Covenant School nearly an entire school day, “and there’s still so much we didn’t cover,” Stacey said. 

“We talk a lot in our material about parents being coaches and using the coaching analogy,” Hempe said to me at Eagle Forum. “And I don’t want social media coaching my kids, and I don’t want video games, and I don’t want peers coaching my kids. I need to be the coach.”

Stacey mentions inequality in economic and educational attainment. “I think what’s going to happen is we’re going to have the haves and the have nots. And the ‘haves’ are going to be the ones that don’t have the social media, and the phones, because their parents have gotten the education, and then the ‘have-nots’ are going to be the ones who lack that education, and they’re going to still be dependent on these devices and it’s going to further this educational gap between socioeconomic levels.”

But the ScreenStrong solution is about more than waking parents up to the real dangers of social media and screen time more generally.

Hempe acknowledges that asking parents to take devices away from their kids is radical. She knows she is asking parents to do something difficult. But amid culture clashes over school curricula and congressional debates over Big Tech, one important stakeholder’s responsibility is often overlooked. Children may belong to parents and not schools, as the slogan says, but there is usually little mention of what responsibilities the parents then have to their children in a confusing, fast-changing world.

“There’s no pill for it,” she said, “There’s no complicated plan of attack,” when it comes to fighting back against the negative influences young people face online. But there is an alternative. “You have to spend time with your kids,” she said. “The most successful solutions in many, many areas of life are the most simple.” 

Author Jonathan Haidt spoke with Hempe in preparation for his new book, The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness, out this month. Two things they discussed were rewards and tradition. “We want our rewards that we give our kids to be things that we value,” she said, in opposition to offering screen time as a reward for behavior or accomplishment. Likewise, traditions help anchor a family by conferring a sense of identity. In both instances, parents are conveying to their children what is most important to them.

Hempe likens parenting in the digital age to coaching a team through a difficult season. In such cases, she said, a “back to basics” approach is usually best. “I don’t want social media coaching my kids,” she said. Young people want to feel they belong somewhere, she said. “The whole reason they’re on social media is because they can’t figure out where they belong.”