Better Living

The Addictive Qualities of Digital Stress

Games and social media trigger excitement and fear in a way that can alter a child's brain
BY Melanie Hempe TIMEApril 30, 2022 PRINT

Mindfulness and meditation may be growing in popularity, but so is their opposite—digital distraction.

Our kids spend more time on screens than sleeping.

The lack of sleep along with the risks of online predators and pornography are the most obvious problems with our current teen screen culture. But another big problem often gets overlooked—chronic stress. This stress can affect your children’s development, rob them of wonderful opportunities, and even change their personality. It is also a significant contributor to rising rates of anxiety, depression, and teen suicide.

What We Think Is Relaxing Is Not

When my oldest son began gaming three to five hours a day, I knew he was wasting time.

I didn’t know that, while he was climbing the leaderboard in his game, his stress hormones were climbing to new levels too. His adrenal glands were being prompted to release a surge of adrenaline and cortisol—resulting in high blood pressure, an increased heart rate, and a boost of energy to fight, in this case, a virtual enemy.

I missed all the signs of toxic stress; he was irritable, stayed up all night,  had angry outbursts, and was easily depressed. I even noticed stains on his pants from wiping his sweaty hands during game play.

I thought gaming was what he did to relieve stress. I thought he deserved a break from his homework; he was a straight A student and needed downtime. Even when we got to the point where we felt like we were losing him, it never crossed my mind that the stress from his gaming was hurting him on both a mental and physical level. It was a game, so how could it be stressful?

I now know that gaming (as well as social media use) is one of the least relaxing downtime activities a child can do. The stress it causes will wreak havoc on a developing brain, and can even change a teen’s adult life. This is the underlying reason that this new cultural norm—a video game and a smartphone in the lap of every child—has made childhood today the most anxiety-filled stage of development.

Social media may not always be violent in the same way that video games are, but the fear of being left out, or suffering a social “death,” also triggers the biochemical stress responses. In fact, due to the importance of relationships in our lives, the fear of a social death can be even more stressful, leading to anxiety and despair.

Everything New Is Fun

The job of every video game and social media platform is to keep their users hooked. The job of every parent is to make sure your child isn’t one of those captured.

The persuasive design elements in games and social media—rewards, upgrades, comments, likes, and hearts—are similar to those used to addict gamblers at the casino. That fact is relatively easy to understand. What is harder to grasp are the additional factors used in these platforms to keep our kids hooked—novelty and fear.

Humans crave novelty: a seemingly benign element that everyone loves. All games have constant novelty, new levels, new skins, new music, new worlds, etc. Feel-good chemicals like serotonin and dopamine are activated by new developments in the game. The more excitement, the more dopamine is released. The novelty hook is a sure winner for the game designers, but if that doesn’t keep your child’s eyes glued to the screen, fear will.

Gaming Is Life or Death to the Revved-Up Brain

The element of fear is just around the corner in every game, even the E-rated ones. Why? Because game designers know that the fear of dying produces more adrenaline, and keeps the player engaged.

If a child is playing a nonviolent game, he may have to avoid falling down a hole or lava pit, kick a turtle, or dodge a fireball—all before the timer runs out. If he is playing a violent game, like Fortnite, he must fight for his life to stay alive and in the game. Both games are thrilling and stressful all at the same time.

Parents struggle to understand the ramifications of this fear factor. For an adult, the threat of losing a character in a game is trivial. For a child, these virtual deaths are lifelike. When there are threats to his character’s life, the brain’s amygdala sounds an alarm that danger is ahead. This activates a series of survival responses, putting the brain in a state of high alert. Because the brain can’t tell the difference between a real physical threat and a virtual one, the fight-or-flight response system kicks in, releasing a cascade of chemicals. This spike in adrenaline and cortisol triggers physiological changes—rapid breathing, increased pulse, and release of glucose—to prepare the body to react to danger. Focus narrows and long-term executive function skills are displaced by heightened responses to immediate stimuli.

This stress state also keeps the child from fully accessing the thinking part of his brain: his frontal cortex. After all, who needs to worry about eating dinner or doing homework when your “life” is on the line? The more he plays, the more stressed he becomes. When the body’s stress system is always on, there is no relief from biochemical surges, and the vicious cycle continues.  This chronic stress state wears out both body and mind; and the younger the brain, the more damaging the effects.

Stress in His Virtual Life Equals Stress in His Real Life

Overusing this fight-or-flight system through repeated interactive screenplay results in this pathway becoming faster and stronger. This is how playing video games actually shapes the structure of the brain. Like a tire track in wet cement, over time this stress pathway hardens into a rut that becomes the preferred route when other triggers occur in the real world.

Once the stress pathway becomes the path of least resistance, it is easily activated when real-life threats happen too. Your child may overreact with a stress response for a trivial reason because that route has become his default mode when provoked. Maybe he throws something in anger or says something vicious. Remember his impulse control skills are not yet honed, but his fight-or-flight response is. Parents usually don’t notice the problem until the stress signs are more pronounced. You may notice relationship conflicts, lying, a lower attention span for academic work, inability to focus, and more aggressive behavior in real-life play. Parents may get therapists involved because their child is acting out in school.

Doing anything when you are stressed is difficult. Teens under chronic stress—due to too much game time and not enough sleep—will not reach their academic potential. Screen stress can make it more difficult to plan ahead, solve problems, have empathy, or review the consequences of their actions.

Living in this chronic stress state hinders a child’s ability to make and keep friends because a chronically-stressed child is no fun to be around. Parents may put their child on medications, or try to reason with their gamer. Some parents think their child will outgrow the problem. But the best solution for this chronic stress is to remove the source and allow the brain to reset.

The Game Becomes His New Family

All that time invested in the virtual world makes it harder for a child to walk away. Children feel anxious when they try, which causes even more stress.

When children spend time building a sense of belonging in the virtual world, they become comfortable with these shallow online relationships and with their chronic state of stress. The real world feels awkward and uncomfortable.

Meanwhile, the opportunity cost has become significant, possibly as great as the toll that this stress is taking on a child’s mind and body. This chronic stress state keeps your child from exploring healthy interests and hobbies that must be discovered during adolescence. This time in life is critical because the brain and body are going through crucial phases of development. But the biggest loss is the detachment from his relationship with his family.

What About Moderation?

Moderation works for non-stressful screens like a family movie or schoolwork. But moderation does not work for toxic stress-producing interactive screen activities.

When your child plays 30 minutes a day—or does anything for 30 minutes a day—he is building a strong habit. Even brief daily exposure will stimulate and strengthen the stress pathway. Stress effects are cumulative and ingrained, meaning that your child’s brain doesn’t get a clean slate every morning to start over.

Games are designed to hook the player, so 30 minutes—or even one hour—a day will never be enough. Eventually, you will be arguing with your teenager when he won’t leave the game to come to dinner or go to soccer practice. You will wish you had never let him start.

Drop the Screen to Relieve the Stress

There is much debate over best practices for managing stressful screens. Therapists, other parents, the neighbor next door—all offer opinions. However, when you consider the brain science of how chronic stress is changing our kids’ brains and making them suffer, the answer is simple: remove the stimulant so the brain can reset and heal.

Is this easy? No. The best solutions are rarely easy or popular. But it works, and many families are finding that their kids are thriving without video games and social media. Playing video games is not a mandatory or a healthy activity for kids.

The most successful resets occur when parents boldly eliminate toxic screen use—video games and social media—from their child’s digital diet. Focus on real-life activities that require movement and exposure to nature, a natural healer of stress. Parents can reinforce life skills, non-tech hobbies, and in-person relationships. When they do, they will begin to get their child back.

These countercultural parents understand that relationships are a natural safeguard against the dangers of toxic stress. When children experience free play with others off-line, they are healthier and even smarter. When teens spend in-person time with friends, they are more calm and less anxious. When more time is spent with their family, they enjoy a deeper sense of attachment and happiness. It is not a guarantee, but you are increasing the odds of having happier and healthier kids when toxic screens are removed.

Community calms us; isolation stresses us. Teach your kids how to keep a few good friends and enjoy building in-person relationships. This is the life your kids are craving. As your child grows in confidence and purpose, your whole family will be happier. This stress-free life will bring calm and peace to your home. When you join the ranks of those parents who choose to take the road less traveled, and hit the pause button on the video games, you will finally get your lost child back, and rediscover what you both were missing all along.

You won’t regret it.

This article was first published in Radiant Life Magazine.

Melanie Hempe, BSN, is the founder of ScreenStrong, an organization that empowers parents to keep the benefits of screen media for kids while empowering parents to delay screens that can be toxic—like video games and smartphones. The ScreenStrong solution promotes a strong parenting style that proactively replaces harmful screen use with healthy activities, life skill development, and family connection.
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