Today’s Family: Screen time and mental health

My daughter would stay in her room for hours and sometimes days at a time. I’d slip food under the door and supply her with water to keep her hydrated. I’d poke my head in every so often to make sure she was still in there and offer a trip for ice cream. My daughter is an extreme introvert and a normal teenager.

How do you know the difference between introverted, normal adolescent behavior and mental health problems that need to be addressed?

Everyone may face mood changes and emotional highs and lows in life but the primary thing to look for that may signify a concern is that the person is crying for no apparent reason, multiple times a day, and for at least two weeks in a row. There is not only a loss of interest in participating in activities, but a profound loss of joy in really anything that formerly made the person feel good.

Feelings of sadness are so overwhelming that even everyday tasks seem impossible and life looks hopeless. Crying in the face of upset is normal and even encouraged to help your child express and let out what they are feeling. Crying when you offer to buy your child two pairs of the shoes they like instead of one is not. Also, a sign to note is when you ask them what’s going on and they have no idea which is distinctly different than they don’t want to tell you.

Moodiness and irritability are natural signs of adolescence. Even lack of motivation and inspiration plagues us all from time to time. Sleeping for extremely long periods of time is necessary for healthy development and to recharge. Ask yourself if there’s a reason for this irritability. Could it be lack of sleep, poor nutrition, too much homework, peer pressure, growth spurts, hormones raging? Who wouldn’t be cranky and want to isolate?

But if there is no apparent reason for them to have a change in personality, or the response does not seem warranted in the situation and it’s persistent, then you need to look closer at what’s going on. I needed to let my daughter have down time and plenty of it in order to be her best academically and socially.

Overtime, given the direction, kids will figure out what they need to get the job done. Extreme introverts use up all their people energy in the course of their school day so when they get home, they need to unwind and recharge before hitting the books for homework again. Otherwise, they are probably useless. A 30-minute nap and a snack or 30-minutes of a favorite TV show is not slacking.

Loss of energy is a symptom of being overworked, overscheduled, and overwhelmed. Be very careful to not label this as depression or anxiety. A good night's rest or a weekend of sleep does the body and brain good. Change in appetite resulting in a change in weight is something to take note of and perhaps in follow up with the family physician.

Use of technology can definitely influence mental health. Recreational screen time — social media such as Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat — causes young people to compare themselves to their peers leading to negative self-judgements, cyberbullying, missing out on opportunities to spend time with friends and family, physical activity, and quality sleep. Take note of what is being watched on TV and online. The content of what they are watching and when they watch it may tell you something. I can’t urge enough the need for screen time use guidelines and enforcement.

The most important takeaway here is not to assign a label to the mood if what is simply needed is to learn life and coping skills and take a break from screens. Medications treat symptoms and are not always the answer especially for young brains that are not fully developed until age 25. Counseling should look at and treat the cause. Depressive, anxious, and hyperactive behaviors are in general, symptoms of something else. Talk to the young people in your life and find out what’s really going on. Sometimes they just need a place to be heard, validated and acknowledged.

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About Kim Engstrom

Kim Engstrom is a certified mental health counselor and mother of two located in Kennett Square. Online Counseling and Walk and Talk Therapy now available. For questions or more information on this topic visit www.KimEngstrom.com or Facebook at Kim Engstrom and KE Counseling Services. A complimentary 30-minute discovery call or in office meeting is available to all first-time clients to discuss your family goals.

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