Guest column: Are children the canaries in our cultural coal mine?

Stephanie Rae Morris and Mary Horn
Mind Springs Health

As a social species, our physical and psychological health requires a significant amount of connection with others as well as a sense of belonging.

The limbic system, the part of our brain that regulates our emotions, does so through these face-to-face connections and voice interactions; unfortunately, screen time does not provide this same benefit. Given that adults spend an average of 10 hours and children seven hours per day of screen time, we are inadvertently creating obstacles for our emotional health and well-being.

It is not just what we are doing on our smartphone and social media accounts that is the problem, but rather, what we are not doing as a result of time spent on these devices. If it is true that the brain is literally constructed by our interactions with others, then what happens to our brain when the other is often a machine?

Like the proverbial canaries in the coal mine, children are often the first to respond to the toxins in our environment. Fifty years ago, the average age of onset for depression was 29.5. It is now age 14. According to the Center for Disease the percentage of children who experience a mental-health diagnosis in a given year rose from 13 percent in 2005 to 20 percent in 2011 and the numbers have continued to rise. Suicide is identified as the second leading cause of death among children aged 12 to 17.

Current research indicates that excessive time on our devices leads to emotional imbalances. Without sufficient regulation our limbic system signals our stress response system, increasing heart rate, blood pressure and respiration.

We feel anxious, on edge. and tense. We may not sleep as deeply. The inflammation in our bodies increases, and we may have attention deficits. We may be exhausted but unable to relax, actually moving into a state of fight, flight or freeze. This mode encourages us to circle the social perimeter, feeling too uncomfortable to enter. We may see an increase in panic disorder, social and general anxiety. At times, depression and suicidal thinking may result.

Activities that encourage limbic regulation include playing team sports, moving together such as in a yoga class or dancing, playing music together, singing with others ­— or even singing with a pre-recorded song on the radio. It is no mistake that online gaming, texting and communicating on social media such as Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook are not listed. These activities do not provide us with limbic regulation.

Plato reminds us, “Everything that deceives, may be said to enchant.”

Technology has a seductive quality. In many ways, it speaks to our human vulnerabilities. Since we are wired to connect with each other, we are naturally drawn to a small device that fosters, albeit often a false fantasy, a sense of togetherness. Being free of the limitations of time and place without the work that it takes to relate to each other in person is addicting. This perpetuates an experience of seemingly instant gratification. Moreover, we now have the tools to successfully create a false persona of ourselves. We can present perfection through our edited texts, emails and finely crafted social media persona. As our spontaneity is removed, so is our authenticity.

Many professionals recommend developing a plan to manage time spent on devices. Psychiatrists at Mind Springs Health are developing guidelines for screen time usage for adolescents, and they should be published in the coming months.

Perhaps we also could prioritize time to engage in limbically regulating activities. When we are limbically connected to others, our ability to cope and thrive in an imperfect and stressful world is much greater. Much of the attention is on children and the effect that these different facets of technology are having on their well-being and development, but this toxicity is affecting us all, our children are just the first to respond, such as the canaries in a coal mine.

Stephanie Rae Morris, MA, is an expressive arts therapist and Mary Horn, MN, is a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner at Mind Springs Health 970-920-5555.