Dr. Nicole Beurkens
If you’re planning a more virtual Halloween this year, you are doing the right thing, and you are not alone. Parents (and governments) are rightfully encouraging children to stay home this Halloween due to Covid-19 concerns. This ‘Covid Halloween’ might be a disappointment for many children but a relief for others. In fact, a whole generation of kids is lying to their friends and their parents to avoid going outside – and not just on Halloween, but on many social events and celebrations they might have wanted to attend in the past.
An analysis carried out by the University of San Diego and Bryn Mawr College, revealed that there has been a decrease in participation in many social activities among adolescents of the post-millennial generation, also known as Generation Z or the iGen. They party less. They prefer not to drive, not to have an after-school job, or to date. In general, they rather sit at home than go outside, making excuses to spend weekend nights at home. What is this powerful draw keeping kids away from their friends and from a giant bag of free candy? Screens.
What is this powerful draw keeping kids away from their friends and from a giant bag of free candy? Screens.
I’ve seen this trend of isolation among tweens and teens growing in my psychology practice since the introduction of digital devices about a decade ago. And I’ve seen it even more since Covid. Parents typically come to me with a similar story: “When the weekend comes, our daughter always says that her friends are not going out and then she does not leave her room.”
Parents in this situation should be on alert. Isolation and disconnecting from the real world can lead to future physical and mental health illnesses including obesity, anxiety, inability to concentrate, depression, low self esteem, self harm, and worst of all, suicide. Jonathan Haidt, PhD, NYU stern School of Business, Social Psychologist, reports in the recent documentary “The Social Dilemma”, that the number of teenage girls in the U.S. out of 100,000 admitted to the hospital for self harm rose 62% for older teen girls and 189% for pre-teen girls compared to a decade ago (nearly triple). He saw the same pattern for suicide, with suicide up 70% for older teens and up 151% for pre-teens. Dr. Jean M. Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University, argues in a brilliant article in The Atlantic, that the generation born in the era of the internet and smartphones is on the brink of a mental-health crisis.
Also, spending too much time without face-to-face interaction with peers also harms children’s ability to develop social skills and the ability to negotiate, the very bases of social interaction.
Every child is different, and not every reason for not wanting to go out is invalid, especially during the pandemic. A child might be afraid of a bully, of contracting the coronavirus, of scary Halloween masks, or they may have a phobia. For the child afraid of Covid or monsters, a virtual Halloween is absolutely fine. Buy a bag of candy to share at home, throw on Ghostbusters and enjoy an evening at home together as a family.
For parents who detect an ongoing fear, phobia, or anxiety around interaction with their peers or leaving the house, my advice is to seek the help of a professional to help them investigate the cause and the best procedure to follow.
But if the cause for not leaving the house is not Covid or fear-based and your child has developed entrenched screen-related habits, what should you as a parent do?
Here are my 7 tips to help parents intervene when their child starts preferring screen time over “real time”
1. Prioritize social life over social media.
Only allow the use of screens after your child has gone out with friends or participated in group activities like sports.
2. Limit the use of screens to common areas of the house.
This prevents your child from isolating themselves in their room and it promotes interaction with other members of the family.
3. Set a good example.
The old saying that children will do what you do, not what you say, is just as true in regards to the use of technology. If you set a time restriction on when to use social networks, for example no screens an hour before bedtime, you should also adopt that behavior.
4. Schedule family time.
It is important that siblings play together and interact with their relatives of various ages if possible. Rescue traditional family games like Uno, Jenga, and Connect Four that are easy to learn but still challenging enough to entertain older kids.
5. Make sure children do not use screens as an “emotional pacifier”.
Children increasingly turn to digital devices the second boredom or other negative emotions like sadness or fear set in. Research shows that boredom is not only not negative, it is key to learning and creativity. And running away from sadness and fear does not give children the opportunity to deal with those emotions in a healthy way.
6. Get physical exercise.
Not only will it force your child off screens, research shows that kids who get exercise, and play sports in particular, are less likely to get 13 types of cancer, are less likely to get fat, less likely to have mental health problems, and more likely to have better academic achievement, attend college, have a successful career, and personal development.
7. Limit the hours in front of the screen firmly. Let a parental control app like Qustodio help you. It makes sticking to the rules much more consistent and saves unnecessary discussions about when screen time is up.
So while this Halloween it is indeed best stay indoors and avoid social contact this year, it is important that you know what is motivating your child to stay indoors – the pandemic or the draw of screens.
- Extended Adolescence: When 25 Is the New 18 (Scientific American)
- Why The Social Dilemma is the most important documentary of our times (The Independent)
- Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation? (The Atlantic)
- Let Children Be Bored Again (The New York Times)
- Youth Sports Facts : Benefits of Physical Activity (The Aspen Institute)
Further reading on online safety and digital wellbeing:
- For Every Hour of Screen-time, One Hour of Fresh Air (Mobile Free Life)
- Is Problematic Smartphone Use (PSU) Making Your Child Unhappy? (Maria Guerrero, Psychologist)
- Does your child have a digital addiction? (Maria Guerrero, Psychologist)
- Is Heavy Screen Time Rewiring How Your Children Think and Learn? (Dr. Nicole Beurkens)