By: Dr. Natasha Burgert
When your kid breaks her arm, the treatment plan is straightforward. ER visit, X-ray, cast. When your son has an ear infection, it’s easy to see the diagnosis. Pain control, antibiotics. When your child has a mental health condition, however, the path to healing is not nearly as clear.
It’s hard to see physical symptoms like abdominal pain, headaches, and weight loss as a manifestation of chemical imbalance in a place we cannot see. Even after we confirm that a child is suffering from depression or anxiety, for example, treatment plans are often elusive. Therapy, mindfulness. More therapy, academic help. New therapist, medication. Self-discovery, time?
While families are trying to understand a child’s mental health condition, searching for the correct care plan, and working through the recovery process, there is one action that should be crystal clear.
GET RID OF THE SMARTPHONE.
Evidence and practical experience suggest removing the smartphone has the ability to augment therapy, speed healing, and reduce risk. But parents get nervous, often visibly upset, when I suggest taking away their child’s smartphone as a practical step towards mental wellness. They tell me that taking the phone away will make their child even more sad or angry. They don’t want to make things worse. They don’t want their kids to be mad at them. They really need to be able to reach them after school.
I’ve heard it all, and I get it. I am compassionate to those feelings. But, our role as parents in time of crisis is to provide leadership and boundaries that will protect our children no matter the cost.
I’VE SEEN SMARTPHONE ACCESS EXACERBATE MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES IN 2 WAYS.
First, smartphones may be the direct cause of the condition. Smartphones harbor a multi-platform channel where direct bullying and shaming can occur 24 hours a day. Young people do not have the brain development necessary to correctly interpret what they read online. They are influenced by what they see on their smartphones. They cope by flocking to others via social media who are sharing the same life experience; only to find strangers whose “advice” is to cut themselves, shut friends out, quit school, or find a gun.
Secondly, smartphones can be a barrier to the cure. Sleep deprivation, worsening grades, "brain hacking", virtual gunplay; all these things create addictive and antagonistic layers to an already complicated situation. More importantly, the phone becomes something to bury into, to camouflage themselves and avoid the friends and family who are needed for recovery. It will always be easier to engage with strangers than it is to have hard conversations with a therapist or your mom. So rather than face the hard work, smartphones become a place to hide.
IF YOUR CHILD IS STRUGGLING WITH MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES, CONSIDER THESE:
- Trade the smartphone for a flip phone. Continue the access and connection to trustworthy friends and family with a simpler tool. These phones are cheap and easy to find. They limit the extraneous wifi connectivity found at friends’ houses and public places. Plus, they allow you to more frequently hear your child’s voice, a much more important indicator of stress than a shallow/fake text may be.
- If you are unable to physically take the smartphone, strip it. Delete social media apps. Take off safari. Change the wifi password. Limit the hours of cellular service through your service provider. Do whatever you need to do to limit access while your child is in crisis. Think they can get around all this?? You bet they can. See #1.
- Once your child is in a healthier place, reevaluate your family’s goals for health, and how the smartphone fits into that plan. Keep hold of access privileges. Limit hours. Make boundaries, and keep them. Lock down social media and frequently check posts, and whom they are following. Then watch your child’s behavior carefully as access is regained, and move quickly if you see mood regression or change.
Respect your child’s mental health needs with the same compassion and authority you would a broken arm or ear infection. Seek help. Find treatment. Reduce risk. Don’t be afraid to take away the smartphone. There is no piece of glass and metal and plastic that is worth their lives.