Connecting with kids during the summer



By Rhett McKenzie | MAMFC, LPC, NCC


Well, parents—summer break is now upon us! For some, it is a welcomed relief from the rigorous activities that a busy school schedule creates; while for others, it can be the root of even more stress, as parents now have the task of figuring out how to keep their children entertained for two and a half months.

In today’s age, many of us have grown dependent on the “built-in babysitter” that almost everyone has access to in their home: electronics! While electronics can serve a good purpose, as parents, many of us have come to rely too heavily on screen technologies when it comes to entertaining our children. If not monitored closely, this over-reliance can lead to addictive behaviors and can affect our children in a harmful manner.

Over the past few years, very alarming research has been reported related to the dangerous effects that electronics have on a child’s brain. Dr. Peter Whybrow, Director of Neuroscience at UCLA, refers to screen technologies as “electronic cocaine.”

Researchers in China say that screens have become the “digital heroin”(1) because they have the same addictive effects on a child’s brain as drugs. During recent studies through brain imagining, data has been released explaining that screen technologies have a dramatic effect on a part of the brain called the frontal cortex(1). 

One of the jobs of the frontal cortex is to control executive functions such as logic/reasoning, problem solving, morals/values, and impulse control. It can be easy for a child to become addicted to screen technology because of the dopamine (one of our feel-good chemicals) release that occurs during the engagement of screen technology and the hyper-arousal it can cause.

There is a reason that many tech-cautious parents are technical designers and engineers. Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple Inc., was a notoriously low-tech parent. Today, Silicon Valley tech executives and engineers enroll their kids in no-tech Waldorf Schools. Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page attended non-technical Montessori Schools, as did Amazon creator Jeff Bezos and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales(1).

If the creators of screen technology are taking measures to distance their own children from technology, this should be an indication of just how much of an issue screen technology can be. And sadly, the addictive qualities of screen technologies are only part of the problem.

Since the iPhone was introduced in the year 2007, levels of anxiety and depression in children and adolescents have increased exponentially(2). Today, there is a growing number of kids who report feelings of anxiety, depression, loneliness, and low self-worth(2).

Researchers are finding that children are receiving iPhones (or other screen technologies), which give them access to almost every aspect of their peers’ lives via social media avenues. Children are constantly bombarded with lies from society of what they should look like, how they should dress, act, and believe in order for society to accept them.

Not only does this kind of social media pressure produce great anxiety and create unrealistic expectation and ideals, but it also leads to a higher level of depression due to not being able to live up to expressed societal expectations.

This pressure can also create more opportunities for bullying—in a time before social media, if someone was bullied, they were able to leave the bully at school(2). Now, cyberbullying on social media is present 24-7, with no way of escape. It isn’t surprising then, with this kind of pressure and expectation, that we have seen a great increase in anxiety, depression, self-harm, and suicide among children today.  

The research concerning the correlation of increased anxiety and depression in children/adolescents, along with the addictive nature of screen technologies, can seem very overwhelming. The good news is that there is additional research out there that shows what it takes to help a child become a happy and healthy adult.

Studies that have been done over the past decade affirm that there is a link between children who receive affection from their parents and their happiness and overall health(3). Every person has a chemical in their brains called oxytocin. When released, this chemical is what makes us feel connected and bonded to another person.

There are various ways that oxytocin can be released, like when we have pleasant interaction, physical contact, and laughter with others. Research even shows that when people hug for 20 seconds or longer, this same kind of chemical release occurs(4).

A common theme exists here: oxytocin is often released when it involves engaging others. A 2013 study conducted by UCLA reported that unconditional love and affection from a parent can make a child more emotionally happy and less anxious(3). The reason for this is because the brain releases oxytocin during acts of affection, which also helps increase the child’s sense of trust and security.

When a child feels safe and secure in relationship with a parent, as a result of connecting through affection given, children are shown to have higher self-esteem, improved academic performance, better parent-child communication, and fewer psychological and behavioral problems.

The summer break actually presents parents with an opportunity, not a burden. Not only does it give us the chance to “detox” our children from screen technology, but it also provides opportunities to make and strengthen connections with our children. Summer provides freedom to go on vacations together, to find new “adventures” around town to participate in together, and chances to invest emotionally in our children, which can carry over for generations to come. 

What scripture told us first, and what science is now confirming, is this: children need loving affection from parents in order to have happier and healthier lives. “Children are a gift from the Lord; they are a reward from Him. Children born to a young man are like arrows in a warrior’s hands.” (Psalm 127:3–4, NLT).  

Just like the “warrior” or hunter who spends a great deal of hands-on time aiming his arrows so they accurately hit the mark, so must we as parents invest in intimate time with our children to help them hit the mark of emotional health.

Rhett McKenzie is a Licensed Professional Counselor with Pathways Professional Counseling, serving in the Birmingham area.