A few months back, I spent the afternoon at the park with a dear friend and his nine-year-old twin boys. While Brad and I savored a day away from our computers and phones, his boys became more anxious as the afternoon progressed, punctuating our walk with choruses of “I’m bored!”
Why did three hours of sunshine without ipads, phones, or video games prove so difficult for two nine-year-olds? My diagnosis: anxiety due to technology withdrawal with a co-occuring diagnosis of nervous system overload due to social engagement! In other words, trading in their phones for each other caused these two a major meltdown.
Unlike in my generation – and likely yours, if you’re reading this article – kids today do not know what the world looked like without 24/7 access to technology. This access to technology impacts how the human nervous system evolves. Today’s younger generations think, act, and communicate much differently than in the past.
I have noticed two instances of this that I find disturbing: kids are losing their accents and their affects. Their accents are becoming less pronounced because they’re spending less time having in-person conversations. Their affects (the ability to express a range of emotions through voice and facial expressions) are likewise minimized because they’re engaged with technology and not mirroring the emotions of those they’re talking to. I often find it difficult to know if a kid is excited or disappointed because their emotions seem flat.
Technology is moving us from human beings to human “doings”, and it is no surprise that studies are finding that increased technology and social media use correlate with higher levels of anxiety and other psychological issues. This study showed that an increase in social media use was linked to a greater likelihood of developing an anxiety disorder.
But smartphones aren’t going anywhere. As life moves faster and faster, it’s up to us to help our children create face-to-face connections and the skills for authentic social interaction.
The Social Engagement System
Stephen Porges, PhD, is a world-renowned neuroscientist known for his expertise in trauma, connection, and social engagement. He developed the polyvagal theory. I promise not to get too science-y on you, but bear with me – it will all make sense soon! Dr. Porges’ research focuses on the vagus nerve, which connects the brain to the body and controls the heart, lungs, and digestive tract. The vagus nerve helps regulate our sense of safety and danger.
The polyvagal theory illustrates how our feelings are related to how we experience the voices and faces around us. A melodic voice, a gentle tone, and a friendly face can alter our emotional state. Dr. Porges’ theory shows us how safe connection in humans is needed for well-being and survival, and how experiencing connection is our purpose in life. Without connection, our brains and bodies deteriorate.
What makes humans unique to other mammals is what Dr. Porges refers to as the social engagement system. The social engagement system allows us to sense safety from another human being via facial expressions, voice, intonation and proximity. This is why sometimes just the presence of the right person can make you feel safe and at ease.
So how does all of this relate to technology and anxiety? Consider this: anxiety is caused by (feeling) a lack of safety within our own systems. Our bodies require cues of safety to regulate themselves, and these cues come from social engagement. Social engagement requires eye contact and face-to-face interaction, which isn’t possible when the first point of contact in a social interaction is a text message, a phone call, or Facetime. The energy exchange between two people cannot be replicated in these formats.
Without this energy exchange, our bodies default back to their more primitive systems of functioning. In this more primitive system our “fight, flight, or freeze” systems are dominant, leaving us hypervigilant and sensing danger when danger is not present. In turn, we operate in a more stressful state, produce more stress hormones, more anxiety, and ultimately more disease.
So how do we help our children gain and maintain these skills in this fast-paced world that is moving at lightning speed?
1. Create a Technology Log
I don’t recommend pulling all technology from your child and going “cold turkey”. This will likely increase their anxiety. Instead, I invite you to help your child get curious about their technology habits. Collaboratively create a technology log for two weeks. In a small notebook, record the times when they most crave technology, the emotions that you observe in them, and how they report feeling at the time.
Do you notice any patterns? For instance, do you/they notice a connection between using Facebook and feeling anxious or depressed? What are their feelings and thoughts after using Instagram or TikTok? Are they more negative? Does your child want to eat – even if not hungry – after social media use?
2. Make One Small Change Each Week
Once you and your child identify patterns, see if you can collaboratively make one small change a week. For example, if your child has social media notifications on, see if they can tolerate turning them off and only checking social media at specific times during the day..…and that’s it!
Once you have their commitment to limiting social media contact use, encourage them to see what it would be like to reach out to a friend to do an activity with whom they normally do not share face-to-face contact. Help them to experiment,and ask how face-to-face interaction feels compared to texting and online socializing.
Once your child is on board with a technology plan, a fun experiment could be to have your child lead the charge in taking a technology vacation with friends. Perhaps your child plans a fun day with friends and creates a campaign around this idea: “Say No To Technology for 6 Hours.”
3. Practice ‘Orienting’
Another way to help your child curb your technology habit is an exercise called orienting. You can make a game out of it for you and your child. Try this exercise in different situations when you see your child reaching to check their phone.
First, help them look around and notice their surroundings. Then, invite your child to notice all the objects that are a single color in the environment. This helps bring them into the present. Ask questions such as, “Does your urge to look at your phone lessen when you are present?” This is a great tool for creating social engagement and teaches your kids the experience and power of being present.
Social media and technology have a significant influence on our emotional well-being and it is our responsibility as parents and influencers to encourage face-to-face connection. Like any skill set, the more we practice it, the easier it gets. By limiting technology use and providing a platform that encourages safety between humans, we help build emotional resilience and emotional regulation. In turn, this is how we reduce anxiety induced by technology. Remember, children – and adults – do “as they see” more often than they do “as they’re told.”