Channelling Holden Caulfield, my daughter designed this logo about five years ago, frustrated with friends who kept staring at their screens during conversations. She had a t-shirt and a tote bag to go along with it. It garnered some agreeable nods, but phones still kept winning over an actual face. TikTok had not even entered the stage yet. ‘Don’t be a phoney’ actually does contain the most simple ingredients to the TikTok cure: get off your phone and get real. But we know it’s much more complicated. In our family we went from methods of abstinence, to strict rules, to (flawed) self- control. The following ‘cure’ is intended to provide direction and concrete ideas, not set you on a guilt trip. Yet I feel that at times “healthy digital use” advice is simply an oxymoron. So I would rather step on people’s toes and relate research and suggestions that are difficult, possibly painful, but probably helpful.
The First Ingredient: Parents
Parents are at the core of the TikTok brain cure. More specifically parents and the undivided attention they pay to their children. The current generation of kids have grown up with parents texting while pushing them on a swing; parents at the supper table with screens in reach; parents’ faces reflecting the white glare of screens while their kids tried desperately to get their attention. Children are mirrors of their parents.
Excessive screen use does not start with teens and TikTok, for more and more children it starts in the crib. There is currently a large-scale study underway in Switzerland which made headline news: The disruptive effect of digital media on child development. The article discusses various behavioral and developmental problems exhibited by children who are regularly stationed in front of mobile phones. More and more young children are treated in the psychiatry clinic for issues spawned from their digital media use: very small children not wanting to eat unless there is a phone on the table; infants who will only fall asleep after watching an hour or two of videos in their crib; children exhibiting autistic traits, not talking or avoiding eye contact, because of excessive digital media consumption.
Psychologist Eva Unternäher, lead investigator of the Swipe-Study states: “Previous research shows that young children who spend a lot of time in front of the screen are more likely to show behavioral problems such as social withdrawal, sadness or anxiety, but also aggressiveness, impulsivity and hyperactivity. Reduced language development can also be the result.“
However, the article goes on to point out that even more common are the “inward-looking difficulties”. Parents who are so busy with their mobile phones that they do not even notice that they child is asking a question, who do not make eye contact because their focus is trained on the latest text, send the message to their child that their device is more important. In young infants, this parallels the ‘still face’ paradigm, where a parent plays and interacts with the baby but then suddenly stops showing emotion and stares blankly (at their screen). This triggers discomfort and distress in babies and small children. Campaigns are already running in the USA to draw attention to parental phubbing, i.e. ignoring people because of their smartphones and the effect on child well-being. The sad part of the story is that the need for attention subsides, not because the child has reached its goal of receiving attention, but because they have given up. Findings from Asia show that these children then show increased problematic digital media consumption themselves and also have lower self-esteem, more emotional difficulties and poorer relationships with their parents.
While TikTok brain is alarming, it reflects an escalation of the lack of attention and connection children and teens experience in their life in general. Twenge and Haidt wrote in their 2021 article in the New York Times, “The smartphone brought about a planetary rewiring of human interaction. As smartphones became more common, they transformed peer relationships, family relationships and the texture of daily life for everyone”.
One of parents’ central roles is thus to find ways to reconnect with their children:
- Model undivided attention. When you speak with your children, power off your phone and lay it aside. Demonstrate clearly in your actions that your child has precedence over your device.
- You provide the model for healthy media use. Children can sniff hypocrisy like bloodhounds.
- Develop a connection with your child by asking open-ended questions. Although it seems counter-intuitive, asking them about what videos they are viewing on their apps, what they find funny, weird, interesting about them helps to open up communication and trust.
- Children who feel connected to their parents are more likely to respond and respect limits to their phone or screen use.
- Take time for shared activities that do not involve screen time: cooking (even making popcorn is a good start), going for a walk, drawing, sports, thrift store cruising, going to a café, etc.
- Delay phone use for your child as long as possible. My daughter got her first phone when she turned sixteen – this almost sounds like waiting to have sex before marriage, but the wait is worth it. The longer they stay free of that tether, the more time their brain has to develop attentional pathways and the more self-control they will be able to exert.
- Focus on reducing use while replacing time spent on phones with real life activities and interactions.
- Remain patient and forgiving. TikTok Brain is a by-product of digital addiction and it will take time to establish new, healthy habits.
- Seek help from www.gamequitters.com. They offer free support to parents who would like to help their children overcome addictive technology use.
It is easy to feel that kids or teens are just having some fun with social media. However, the line between ‘healthy’ social media use (if that exists) to a mentally unhealthy behaviour is very fuzzy. For example, are you aware that anorexia and bulimia are presented by some TikTokers as a ‘life-style choice’? Consider also the ten-year longitudinal study of Chinese youth using social media for at least two hours a day: Girls who greatly increased their use over time were at higher risk for suicide as adults.
Thus, while it may be a great (and at times painful) effort to direct children and teens away from TikTok and other social media, the long-term benefit of helping them to establish healthy attention habits, real-life relationships, and a connection to the people and environment around them is tremendous.
The Second Ingredient: School
The TikTok brain cure for the school setting is old-fashioned and simple: restrict access to phones and follow through with the rules you set.
This sounds obvious. Surprisingly it is not the students who are failing the follow-through with the rules, but the adults. This Ontario teacher who commented on the TikTok brain endemic describes a scenario common in many schools:
“Another time the school administration decided that students could not use their various devices during class time. It was up to staff to enforce it. My students did not buy into this rule. I wasn’t allowed to confiscate student property for any reason as it violated their rights. I asked the Vice Principal to come in and explain the school policy. To my amazement he told the students they were free to use their devices if they felt the need. So from that point on I didn’t try to stop them.”
Canada’s record in upholding school discipline is poor: we ranked 60th out of 77 participating nations and educational districts in the OECD 2018 index of disciplinary climate. This index is based on an international survey of 600,000 15-year-old students which asked about the state of student discipline in their classes.
Enforcement of rules must come from all levels and be unequivocal. If an instructor decides to be “the cool teacher” and bends the rules to please the students, the whole effort crumbles. Some teachers may question restriction of phones and bleat the blanket counter argument: “it’s an infringement on students’ freedom” and “let’s help them make better choices”. We are well past the point of being able to make good choices. How do you allow a goldfish to make better choices in a tank of piranahs?
Educator Doug Lemov points out that, “….giving students “freedom” to use cell phones whenever they want is trading valuable and enduring freedom that accrues later for a self-destructive indulgence in the present…It’s magical thinking to propose that an epidemic that has doubled rates of mental health issues and changed every aspect of social interaction among millions of people is going to go away when a teacher says, “Guys, always use good judgment with your phones.”
Schools are experiencing a crisis in learning and attentional difficulties as well as a crisis of student mental health. The supposed role of schools is to foster learning and well-being and they cannot thus ignore the central culprit. Lemov argues this point in a most crystal clear way:
An institution with the dual purpose of fostering students’ learning and well-being cannot ignore an intruder that actively erodes a young mind’s ability to focus and sustain attention and also magnifies anxiety, loneliness, and depression. Cellphones must be turned off and put away when students walk through school doors. Period.”
Doug Lemov, author of Teach Like a Champion
What are the solutions that work in the school setting? “If you want kids to pay attention, they need to practice paying attention,” is how Dr. John S. Hutton, a pediatrician and director of the Reading and Literacy Discovery Center at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, put it in a recent Wall Street Journal article. Schools can help create the opportunity for practicing attention to learning and paying attention to each other. The following list of strategies discussed by Lemov in Take Away Their Cellphones is not just wishful thinking, but rather strategies that have been enacted and have proven effective in France, the State of Victoria in Australia as well as some school districts in Missouri, Pennsylvania, Maine, and New York:
- The single most important thing schools can do is to restrict cellphone access for large parts of the school day.
- Schools must create blocks of time when students can work in a manner that allows them to rebuild their attentional skills and experience the full value of connected social interaction.
- Students’ opportunities to socialize with one another must be protected.
- Students should not use their phones as classroom tools (for quick research or as calculators, for example), or to leave them turned on- this keeps them distracted and disconnected.
- Provide open-ended opportunities for students to interact such as chess and other games to foster connections.
- Offer high-quality extra-curriculars.
- Build students’ sense of belonging through active listening skills, keeping eye contact, responding affirmatively when other students are speaking in class etc.
These changes, although they may be resisted at first, bring about quick results as long as teachers follow through. After an initial adjustment, students adapted quickly and had a more positive learning experience.
The Third Ingredient: Getting Real
The final ingredient for the TikTok brain cure is the most abundant, yet it requires deliberate commitment to obtain. Stepping out of the vice grip of social media is only a notion if there is something better to step into. Thus the time otherwise spent on phone devotions must be filled with real life counterparts:
- Conversation – whatever version of ‘conversation’ texting and social media burps masquerade as, they are not real. True conversations require bodies, faces, voices. They require us to share the same space, to breathe the same air, to hear the silence between words, to attend to tones, to laugh out loud, to feel moved or misunderstood, to feel affirmed or comforted. Take time to engage in conversations, hone them, relish them. I find they happen most naturally when walking outside or with a hot mug in your hand.
- Boredom – the swipe of a finger on the phone kills boredom – or so many think. It actually is an abyss that spawns boredom, breeding an ever increasing feeling of dissatisfaction and ennui. Sherry Turkle observes that, “boredom is your imagination calling to you”. Thus, the best answer to “I am bored” is, “Great! Enjoy. I am curious what your mind will come up with.” Do not fill these moments with other passive digital placaters. Allow your child (or yourself) to use this time to daydream or to simply think. If necessary bring to mind Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words: “Guard well your spare moments. They are like uncut diamonds. Discard them and their value will never be known. Improve them and they will become the brightest gems in a useful life.”
- Movement – given the range of motion necessary to use phones, our bodies could technically make due with a head, palm, and thumb. It seems blatantly absurd to forego the marvel of our physical bodies for digit swiping. Get active. Walk, run, swim, exercise, play tennis, ping pong, go sledding, bike, etc. You get the idea. One of the best side effects is that physical activity increases dopamine release, which acts as a natural mood lifter.
- Creation – cruising social media is the antithesis of creating. My daughter refers to social media as ‘creative suicide’. She noted that university students who are glued to their screens rarely seem to actually do anything of interest, they just watch others. Get creative. Use your hands for crafts, knitting, kneading, planting, cooking, drawing, writing, anything that creates and brings ideas to life.
- Nature – training eyes on the phone, experiencing reality mainly via a digital filter, deprives the body and the mind of their most basic home – nature. Richard Louv points out that, “The more high tech our lives become, the more nature we need.” In nature all our senses are fully engaged. Spending time in nature is calming, yet it hightens the senses, having a similar effect on the brain as Ritalin. Nature stirs a feeling of wonder in us, pointing us toward a greater spiritual reality. I have never walked in the woods and come home disappointed.
- Relationship – people who give ‘likes’ or contribute to viewer count are tokens, they are not people that we are in relationship with. Surround yourself with actual people. Relationships are sustained not because we uploaded the perfect picture or said just the ‘right thing’, but because we invest time, give part of ourselves, make sacrifices, demonstrate faithfulness, share in others pain, joy, struggles, hope, and care enough to do it again. At times virtual connections can act as a surrogate, but they are not the real thing. Strive to make relationships real, because relationships are at the core of what makes us human.
I hope I did not step on too many toes. I hope that you were able to pluck some ideas that might bear fruit in your family’s life. We often seem to get the message that we are part of a ‘digital world’ now and that we simply have to adapt. And if our children’s brains grow less attentive, that is just part of the growing pains of adapting to digital life. I disagree. I think it is time to resist, to pay attention, and to re-affirm our connection to reality. This idea does ring true even to some teens, who are disenchanted with the lull of social media and the countless hours lost in a self-absorbed fog. Last weekend my daughter related how she and a group of six friends sat around the table, and each in turn deleted all social media apps to the cheers and applause of all present. There is hope that youth want a cure, want to resist, and want to pay attention.
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