Screentime and Mental Health Summit

This last week, I had the opportunity to attend the Screentime and Mental Health Summit, hosted by Bright and Quirky. It was a series of ~45 minute long video interviews from various screentime experts (although some of them I would describe as 'experts') about the impacts of mental health on screentime. They were for the most part very good, and outlined a few really good ideas about how to manage screentime with youth. While this site is primarily focused around tabletop gaming and mental health, I do feel like online gaming does fit into the scope of things, and overall this hit on some pretty key concepts that I feel like most parents should understand. So, with no further ado, let's jump into the big takeaways.

Takeaway 1:

There's still a lot of bad, old ideas from the neuroscience people, likening screentime to rat studies- specifically the archaic ones where they put a rat in a cage with a dopamine button and a food button, and found that the rat would overdose on drugs and starve to death. Missing from this discourse was the fact that in said studies, the rat was effectively in solitary confinement, and if you apply the study to humans in solitary, I imagine the results would be the same if you gave them an infinite supply of drugs. These studies were used to highlight how videogames and screens are absolutely addictive and turn kids into screentime addicts, promoting the idea of special camps that remove screentime. Very often, said talks were by older people who weren't familiar with some of the positive community building that can occur online (one stated she wasn't familiar with Discord), and relied on a chemical dependency model to align with a behavioral problem.

I found these talks to be offensive, to the point of making me ill. Normally, I'm of the opinion that these speakers shouldn't be given a platform to espouse outdated ideas, or that they should be challenged, but I understand why you don't want to put someone on the defensive. I think what was more harmful was when, on the same day, there was an autistic speaker who had a much more nuanced view of videogames, and the comments absolutely leaned towards parents praising the neurochemical model speaker's talk. So, there's still a lot of work to be done, and unfortunately an alarmist, reductionist take doesn't help address the nuance in problematic screentime.

Takeaway 2: Now we get to the good stuff. Really key was the idea of forming a relationship with your child. Lead by example- if kids see you on your screen all the time, disregarding them to check work emails, you're setting a bad example. Build trust with your kid. Learn the fight triggers, think about the power dynamics, and don't escalate things in the moment to create a power struggle. Instead, wait till after they're away from screentime to discuss, in a good space, what they're getting out of it. Discuss how they can optimize the good, let them highlight how it makes them feel, what the benefits are, and what they want to work on. Scaffold that by giving them plenty of opportunities to self direct their own screentime, with a lot of  alternatives. If your kid is having some problematic screentime use, there's probably some other stuff behind it that they're not telling you, so you yelling at them to get off the tablet is effectively you telling them that the thing keeping them from burnout is bad. Instead, highlighting how they can have agency over their screentime and fight against any addictive pieces is really important.

Takeaway 2: Self determination theory is huge. Self determination theory states that people are happiest when they have: Competency/mastery (I/e being skilled at something, able to be good at it), autonomy (agency and control over what they do), and relatedness (feeling a connection with others.) Videogaming can be really good at this. But it's important to make sure there's places in your kid's life where they get to feel that in other arenas. There was something called the CARE model I really liked, which stood for Competency (achievement, gaining an identity as someone who is good at X), Autonomy (self agency, choice in how they do things, a sense of control), Relatedness (a sense of community and people they can connect with), and Escapism (Just having fun, escapaing from something stressful.) Learning how to optimize all of these things with screentime, while not going overboard or limiting things can be really good, and it's best taught both by example and providing alternatives that meet those needs. A lot of parents take away screentime without giving kids anything else to do, and not having a trusting relationship to discuss things that might be causing their children stress. This does not build trust or the ability to self regulate as adults when faced with stressful things (and it's legal to buy alcohol/pot.) So looking at the whole child and their ability to self determine their own screentime is huge. Empowering them to use screentime in a way that works for them, not the other way around, is how you create good digital citizens.

Takeaway 3: Nuance is important. A teen playing minecraft after school with some of her school friends is probably a pretty good social experience. A teen girl scrolling instagram at 2am and looking at skinny girls talking about how they stay skinny is not great. A teen hanging out with a bunch of random people they met online and joking about killing the jews, then learning about the great replacement theory is really not great. So understanding what your kids are doing with screentime, and helping them gain the agency to control that, and guide them towards the things that help them and away from the things that don't is important. But, again, that goes back to relationship. If your kid trusts you enough to be open about what they're doing online, that's the basis of how you guide your kids to successful healthy screentime use.

Takeaway 4: Social media is a dangerous landscape. There was a talk by a police officer who worked as a school resource officer about sextortion. The amount of adult material kids are exposed to, the amount of sextortion, the amount of exposure to right wing ideology, and the culture around commoditizing sex is rampant with youth. Talk to your kids about that, and be really proactive about warning kids about sextortion, as both teen girls and boys have scams (often perpetrated by groups in foreign countries) that target them. Again, the relationship with your kids is really important to cultivate, as social media use is rampant and if you're trying to block your kids from using it, they'll probably find ways around that. Kids are really smart, but they're also really vulnerable.

Takeaway 5: Autistics need understanding, but still have human needs. Autistics really benefit a lot from screentime for a lot of reasons. It can be a good way to self regulate after a long day of masking at school. It can provide them with opportunities to feed their autism is a really cool way (Minecraft being a really cool example of this.) It can help build healthy neurodivergent community and scaffold social skills development. (I've done talks on this in the past.) Transition is rough, but routine is important. But a lot of the time, if autistic kids are left to use tech, something that helps them self regulate, in an unregulated way, they'll get to a point where it gets problematic. A lot of autistic adults may express frustration later in their life that they wish they had made more of an effort to socialize more, get more hobbies, and do things other than screentime, but it's the only thing they knew how to do and got stuck in that rut. Building that relationship and self determination is critical, as with any other child. Also, understand that when an autistic child is in burnout, videogaming alone may be a pathway to healing. Be gentle and understanding, as if someone broke their leg, staying off it is the first step to healing. After it's a bit better, then you can focus on physical therapy. Not before, otherwise you'll rebreak it.

Takeaway 6: A healthy relationship with screentime is possible. It requires work and understanding and guidance. Talking with your kids and building that relationship is important. Helping them build self determination is important. Leading by example is important. Providing alternative fun paths is important. Being able to model self determination by playing games with them is really important- i/e highlighting that if a kid is trying to self regulate by playing Minecraft, but skeletons keep on killing them and frustrating them instead, recommending they switch to creative mode for a bit can be really useful and shows that you understand what's going on and can help them build that metacognition about gaming. Being open about your own experience with screens is important, maybe discussing what works for you and what you'd like to improve.

Takeaway 7: There's a mental health crisis. Screentime can be supportive, or can make things worse. Parents are in crisis as well. COVID and lockdowns had a tremendous impact on everyone's wellbeing. Patience, self care, vulnerability, and radical kindness are really important. Understanding that sometimes kids are barely holding on, same as you, is really important, and the way we make things better is, as adults, modeling that it's ok to make mistakes, but focus on making the kid feel safe with you and ok to open up as they need to. This can be hard with teens who are fairly programmed to get snippy to their parents, who clearly do not understand anything, but that's when they need that trust the most. So, be gentle with yourself and your kids. We're all stuck in this mess together, and the only way to get out of it is together.

Something unrelated to the talk that I recently experienced was the importance of building alternative community when parents fail. I recently was invited to join a queer neurodivergent discord group full of queer gamers in their 20s and 30s, and a common theme was lack of trust in parents. I read accounts of trans autistics in their 20s, coming out to their parents, and met with a blanket assumption that because they were disabled, they weren't able to make healthy choices. I read accounts of young adults losing their housing and having to couch surf. Hell, when I was a teen, I saw that in my own social group when a friend was outed to his parents. Self determined gaming communities, in all of these cases, provided a safe space to exist. So, for all the moralizing about how screentime is this addictive monster, it regularly provides a safe haven for marginalized youth, and that is something that can not be ignored.

Hope you get some good insight out of this. Overall, I really want to thank Bright and Quirky for putting this event on, as for the most part, the messages were amazing, and focused on some really kind, healthy parenting that the kids of today desperately need.