Today’s mental health crisis is still on the rise. Here is one thing for sure to not get your kids for Christmas.
Now that black Friday and Cyber Monday are over, many of us are still searching for the perfect gift to make our kids holiday season extra special.
My wife and I have eight kids ranging in age from 18 all the way down to one. I know how difficult it can be to try to bring holiday magic and joy to each one and make this an extra special time of year. Thankfully our little kids are satisfied with just about anything we put in wrapping paper.
Teenagers on the other hand, as you know, can be a little bit more difficult to please.
Of course my mind immediately goes to technology. Wouldn’t it be great to see those big smiles for once on teenage faces, as I present them with the newest or latest gadget?
Believe me I remember how excited I was at 10 years old when my parents got us our very first Nintendo Entertainment System. It became the focus of our attention for several years afterwards if not the rest of my childhood.
With the advent of video games there was very little data about the impacts of gaming on a young developing brain. I remember shortly after receiving the gift our parents began warning us our faces would freeze from sitting too close to the TV. Or we would become mindless zombies if we played too much. Well my face didn’t freeze. I’m not a mindless zombie. They must have been wrong, right? Well a few things have changed about technology since then.
When parents ask what I do for work…
I ask them in return if they’ve ever heard of kids having anxiety these days? They of course laugh and recognize that we are currently deep in a mental health crisis.
Anxiety, depression, suicide and trauma have touched nearly every one of our lives. The CDC reported that 44% of high school students in 2021 reported they persistently felt sad or hopeless during the past year. We are now near half of high school students with diagnosable general anxiety disorder or depression.
The next question is almost inevitably…
“What is causing this mental health crisis?”
I then returned the question by asking the parents what they think is causing it. Almost every time parents intuitive reply they know the problem is smartphones.
Screen addiction affects the brain just like any other addictive substance or behavior. Recent studies and current brain scan technology help us understand how the highly addictive short term reward hormone called dopamine creates a dependence.
We know that our bodies crave the long term bonding hormone called oxytocin that is created when we are eye-to-eye, face-to-face, arm-in-arm with other human beings. Oxytocin is essential for connection and our survival.
We also know that when we interact with human beings through a screen our body does not create any oxytocin. It creates overwhelming amounts of dopamine. Dopamine production is not restricted to screen use. It is also the addictive hormone that is created when we do drugs, gamble, and look at pornography. Surprisingly gaming and pornography consumption are more than twice as addictive as hard drugs like cocaine because of how much dopamine is produced during those activities.
Despite this irrefutable evidence the most common response we hear parents say is…
“We want our child to learn how to use technology responsibly while they’re still in our home.”
This is the same erroneous argument for why some parents want to teach their kids how to drink responsibly at home, or learn to do drugs responsibly at home.
Unfortunately the research shows that almost all alcoholics and addicts were introduced to the addictive substance or behaviors during their neurologically formative teenage years.
The research bears out that when the prefrontal cortex of our brain, who’s responsibility it is to put logical thought process before emotional impulse, has had an opportunity to develop uninhibited by addictive substances and behaviors, those persons are less likely to develop addictive behaviors in their adult life. This developmental period called pruning, takes place primarily from ages 11 through 26.
That is why we have age restrictions on controlled substances, gambling, and even admission to erotic night clubs. Yet we currently don’t have any age restriction on giving our children the most addictive device yet developed by mankind, a smartphone, which gives them 24 hour access to online addictive gambling, gaming, erotic content, and access to drug dealers.
So then parents always ask…
“What is the right age to give your kids a smartphone?”
I’d like to respond with an additional question, what is the appropriate age to give your kids an addiction? What is the appropriate age to take your kids to a strip club? What is the appropriate age to give your kids cocaine? Is it 13 years old? (The average age for getting their first smartphone)
For our kids, the answer is never.
When they are old enough to get their own smartphone contract (18 years old) and pay for the service themselves. Then I know at least I have given them as much developmental room as possible for their forebrain to put logical thought process before emotional impulse and not develop screen addictions.
If my children decide to engage in addictive behaviors or substances in their adult life they are free to choose that for themselves. But in no way can I in good conscience facilitate an addiction for them.
But then the next question is always…
“How will my kids participate socially if they don’t have a smartphone?”
To which I respond with another question, how did you participate socially without a smartphone?
The answer is, a landline. We use a free Voiceover IP box that connects our router to a google voice account. No monthly contracts, no hassle, just good old home phone. They learn how to talk to people. They get the oxytocin their body craves for connection.
It’s hard at first because their friends would rather text and won’t pick up the phone. But it doesn’t take very long before they find out who their true friends are. And they develop a deeper relationship that they never could through texting.
Despite modern day misconception your child can be socially successful without a smartphone. They can participate in class without one, they can participate on sports teams without one, they can participate in friend group gatherings without one. We have so far successfully raised two high schoolers with this former methodology.
Our oldest son was student body vice president, football player, wrestler. Our daughter was on dance company, as well as Trebble choir. They both had extensive dating lives and deep meaningful friendships all without a smartphone. I dare say that it was because they didn’t have a smartphone that they have been so socially successful.
Don’t be fooled though, the bad buy is not just social media, it is also compulsive texting and the nature of having that dopamine producing device in your pocket at all times. Cell phones promise connection, but as we’ve learned can only deliver the counterfeit, addiction.
More and more as generation Z now approaches parenthood themselves, many of them are making the choice to not give their children screens. Even though they had fought tooth and nail to have screens in their teenage years. They now openly admit how destructive it was for them. They’re now not willing to repeat that mistake for their own children.
So as you were searching for the perfect gift for that young one in your life, give them the gift of freedom. Freedom from addiction. One thing for sure to not get your kids for Christmas, a smartphone.