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I am from the generation that had a landline phone in my bedroom at 15. I would talk on the phone to my friends for 59 minutes and then hang up, and call them back – anything over an hour and we would be charged.

Speaking on the phone to friends helped me feel connected to the world around me. Where it felt impossible to talk to my parents, I could glean all of the knowledge and wisdom from my friends!

Fast forward a few years to 2007; the year of the iPhone and the year my son was born. The world was already starting to become a much different place, and by the time my daughter came along nearly 5 years later, she once thought it was possible to swipe on any type of glass. Later on, she admitted that she didn’t actually know how to turn off her phone.

The fact of the matter is that we are living in a digital revolution. And it’s important that we, as parents, understand how to navigate the ever-changing landscape we find ourselves in. A landscape where we all have devices in our back pockets, where we are always “on”, and where we are always connected to our friends, wider circles, and 24-hour news cycles.

What the Statistics Say

The sad thing is that the statistics show that young people today are lonelier than previous generations. A YouGov poll taken in the autumn of 2020 found that 69% of adolescents felt alone “Often” and “Sometimes”.

These feelings of loneliness can have a negative effect on our mental health, which can lead to more complex challenges like anxiety and depression.

A study in 2016 showed that half of the teens interviewed felt they were addicted to their phones. Other research has shown a clear connection between digital addiction and loneliness – this is sometimes referred to as “phoneliness”.

Screen Addiction and Dopamine

In my book, Talking to Children About Mental Health, I mention a story about some young people who came to school after the weekend. One explained that he and his brother had spent two days playing video games. They had barely eaten, hardly slept, and even soiled themselves.

This turned out to be part of a wider issue of neglect that social services were called to be involved in, but this story illustrates that screen addiction is a real thing that our young people experience.

So what makes screens so addictive? Dopamine.

Dopamine is the happy hormone in our brain, and our bodies get hits of dopamine when we play video games and when we scroll through our phones. Think about all the thumbs up, love hearts, positive comments, and rewarding sounds you hear on a daily basis – it’s no wonder why we are addicted to our devices!

So if a child is playing a game on their phone or device, they are engaging in an attention-reward model. If a task is completed, a reward is given. This is what gives the child a dopamine hit.

Both adults and children crave dopamine – and all the tech companies know it. Just one more Fortnite kill, one more reel, one more funny filter on Snapchat. Over time, we become even more and more addicted.

Sometimes I even find myself getting irritated when I am scrolling Instagram and my child interrupts me. This is because they are interrupting my own reward-based experience of dopamine. On the flip side, from our children’s perspective, they can also get annoyed with us when we call them for dinner while they are in the middle of playing a video game.

Finding Balance: Is it Possible?

I don’t want to demonize technology because it is here to stay and it still brings so much joy to the world. It’s helped people find organ donors, raised billions for charities, and connected long-lost friends and family members. However, just like sugar, overindulgence can be a bad thing.

As adults with more experience, we understand this. We know that if we spend too long on our devices, we are losing out on other potentially more fulfilling opportunities. Children, however, don’t have that broader perspective – and that’s why we must help them. This is especially true now as children are granted access to their own devices at much younger ages.

When we think about finding balance, it’s important for us to remember that it’s not the technology itself that causes loneliness, but rather how we integrate it into our lives.

For example, research shows that initially social media makes us feel more connected to others and less lonely. However, there is a tipping point. Between 30 minutes and one hour screen time of tends to be ok, but beyond that we can feel lonely.

I know that for me personally, a quick catch-up at the beginning of the day, lunch, and dinner is good for me. But if I am procrastinating, bored, or experiencing low mood, it isn’t helpful to my mental health to just be aimlessly scrolling.

It’s when you are watching other people’s feed, and not actively participating, that can exacerbate feelings of loneliness.

Helping Our Children: 3 Practical Tools

So how do we begin to guide our children through this? What can we do as parents and youth workers? Here are a few tips that can help – bearing in mind that every child is different, and only you will know what is best for your individual child.

Set clear device deadlines

This strategy is so much easier to manage if your child is below the age of 10. You likely already know how long you would like your child to indulge in a sitting of Peppa Pig or The Next Step, and setting that boundary is more straightforward.

However, when we move to teens, it is less about establishing “rules” and more about having a two-way discussion on what fits well within their schedule.

For example, if your child can only speak to their best friend after 9 pm due to their friends’ schedule, and you set a deadline of “no phones past 9 pm”, this inhibits your child’s ability to communicate and socialise with the people who mean the most to them. In the long run, this is only going to breed resentment and close down communication.

Instead, try to negotiate a suitable deadline that works for everyone. You should also take advantage of this opportunity and discuss why these boundaries are so important. Talk about the importance of sleep and how it affects our performance at school and work. Talk about the importance of being courteous and quiet in the late evening while others are winding down. Talk about the effects of online advertising and how it makes us feel when we are exposed to too many adverts.

When we encourage our children to have their own autonomy with their devices, they will be more inclined to respect the rules. They’ll also have a better understanding of how the rules actually benefit them.

Create phone-free zones

Identifying spaces within your home where online gaming, social media, and phones are not allowed creates a sense of safety.

Personally, the phone-free zones in my household are whilst we are eating at the table. In my book, I describe no phones in bedrooms. However, it was written 2 years ago and our household rules have adapted as our children have grown and matured.

When creating a phone-free zone in your house, it’s important to reflect on your family’s routine and choose a time or place that makes the most sense for your household. No two households are the same, and what works for others may not work for you.

Find offline time together

It is so important to find time in your week to spend time with your children in real life (IRL). This involves looking each other in the eye, having a conversation, asking open-ended questions, and really listening to the answers.

You may have heard the old-fashioned phrase, “children should be seen and not heard”, but actually, I believe that our children have so much to teach us. And when we listen, we can really begin to walk in their shoes and empathise with their point of view.

Prioritizing a time where you are fully present with your child – without any devices – may feel strange at first, but it is important to persevere. Whether it’s a games night, a trip out together, or a bedtime chat – any quality time together will help to strengthen your relationship.

Watch Now: Lily-Jo Chats About Loneliness & Life Online

Final Thoughts

Implementing change can be difficult – especially if you already have some routines in place.

Before establishing any new boundaries, it’s a good idea to try some of the strategies listed above on yourself first – before introducing them to your child. Take note of any benefits that they have on you, and then when you implement them, you are able to explain with confidence exactly why these new “rules” are good for your child.

Another helpful exercise to try is to make a list of all the ways you engage with technology, taking note of the times of day when you see your children engaging with technology. You can also reflect on your own relationship with your device(s) to understand the message that is being sent to your children.

As parents, it’s also important that we accept our limitations and get help when we need it. If you are struggling with your child, know that there is no shame in reaching out for help. A good place to start is our dedicated parent’s resource here at The Lily-Jo Project.

Your child’s school can be a good source of information, as can the GP practice you are registered with.

If your child or a child in your care is experiencing any of the below symptoms, this should be an alarm bell for you to reach out for help:

  • Withdrawn
  • Angry outbursts
  • Nightmares or sleep
  • Tearier than usual

Finally, it’s important that you, as a parent, are continuing to be kind to your own mind. This involves “parenting” yourself by practising good self-care and nurturing your mind and body.

Additional Resources

If you found this article helpful, please check out the following resources on loneliness and life online:

Talking to Children About Mental Health

If you’d like to learn more about how to support the next generation of young people, check out my new book Talking to Children About Mental Health

This book is a practical guide designed to help adults understand the unique mental health challenges facing children, teenagers, and students today.

Some of the key themes covered include:

  • Anxiety and cancel culture
  • Self-esteem and self-harm in the digital world
  • Climate anxiety and global grief
  • Post-pandemic stress disorder
  • And more!

It’s suitable for parents, grandparents, teachers, youth workers and anyone in a position of care or interested in the future of mental health and supporting the next generation. 

The book is available for purchase at Amazon, Waterstones, WHSmith, and Barns & Noble

To stay up to date with the latest news and developments, give The Lily-Jo Project a follow on Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn.

About the Author: Lily-Jo

Lily-Jo is a qualified mental health counsellor, counselling supervisor, and senior coach at Unstoppable Life Coaching. She is also the founder of mental health organisation, The Lily-Jo Project, which specialises in online digital wellbeing resources for children, teens and adults of all ages. Her brand new book Talking To Children About Mental Health, focuses on the unique challenges that gen z and gen alpha are facing, and how we as adults can help them.

Catch her podcast here. Book a one to one session here. Or, stay connected by following her on Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn.

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