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It’s my honor to have Dr. Tim Johanson on the podcast this month.  This is one interview I need to memorize as much as possible because Dr. Johanson compelling medical reasons why technology should be a huge concern to us as parents.  Find out more about:

  • What is really happening in your child’s brain when he or she is playing video games like Fortnite
  • The relationship between increased screen time and decreased school performance
  • The potential of your child to become addicted to video games
  • Why social media is so unhealthy for girls
  • The ideal amount of screen time kids should get

I think this is such an important message, so as you scroll down, you’ll find the transcript of our conversation.  

Dr. Tim Johanson is a clinical associate professor at the University of Arizona Department of Pediatrics and College of Medicine.  His clinical practice focuses on kids with behavioral challenges.  He is the co-author along with Michael Anderson of a terrific parenting book, GIST: The Essence of Raising Life Ready Kids.   

Q:  How has technology hijacked the life readiness of the kids that you are seeing?

A:  I think technology has really changed things for kids, from a standpoint of how they are growing up and what they’re exposed to.  They are missing out on a lot of nature and a lot of play, on a lot of creativity. They’re sitting in front of screens and just absorbing things that are thrown at them rather than interacting in ways that are constructive to their maturation. It’s getting to a critical level now – where iit used to be we just complained about teenagers all the time and how much video gaming they were doing.  Now it’s not uncommon now for me to walk into an exam room in my clinic and find a six month old on a tablet. They’re just sitting there, dazed in front of that, and I’m just thinking to myself, “If this parent just was face to face and interactive and reading a book, just doing something that’s more than this child absorbing digital images.” What’s the potential for that child compared to if they were just allowed to spend hours on screens?

Q: Give us some reasons why we should be cautious with our screens?

A: I spend a lot of time telling parents, especially with kids under two that they should be completely off screens. Zero time on screens. I unpack a lot of the research on what screen time is doing to the brains of developing children and the dangers that we really don’t know how this is going to play out it 20 or 30 years.

Q: Unpack one of those for us.

A: Digital screen time really affects attention and focus for kids. It overstimulates part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens. Some people call it the pleasure center, some people call it the addiction center, it’s really just two sides of one coin. When kids are spending a tremendous amount of time on screens that part of the brain gets stimulated through a neurotransmitter called dopamine. What happens over time is that the brain says, this is just too much, and it starts to downregulate dopamine receptors and dopamine secretions. For kids to get this same amount of stimulation they have to up the ante with the screens to more stimulating activities and more time so that they can feel that sense of pleasure. I describe that to the parents and a lot of them will look at me and say, well no wonder my kids addicted to this screen. I said, yes there is a neurobiological reason for that. It’s not just, this is so fun you can’t take your eyes of it. There are actually chemical issues, biochemical issues in the brain that are happening to kids that spend a lot of time on hyper stimulating screens.

Q: Kids might be doing something very benign with screens, but that can be a problem too.

A: That’s correct, and what we don’t know is what is the long term ramification of this because it’s a relatively new phenomenon. It’s really just been in the last ten, fifteen years that younger kids have gotten into excessive amounts of screen time. The more a child spends on screens the poorer their school performance is. We also know that ADHD has been diagnosed at a rate 42% higher than it was just ten years ago. When I see a profound change like that I say, what is really happening in the culture, in the society that’s different now than ten, fifteen years ago. One of the biggest answers is screen time.

Q: We can see immediately the consequences of being on a screen too long, yet most parents don’t do anything until they get that wake up call.

A: I think it’s pretty clear, in fact, I have a eight question survey about childhood screen addiction that I use quite often in my clinic. Especially if I’m seeing kids with behavior issues or school performance issues. When the parents fill that out and they have seven out of eight answers yes, I think that is really a powerful tool that is helpful for me to really make the point that your child is bordering or even into addiction tendencies on screens. Not that all kids get addicted to screens, that’s not my point, but we do know that about 40% of kids, if allowed unregulated, unmonitored will develop addiction to screens will affect their life, their school, their relationships. I think it’s really important for parents to understand that and in that context, I tell parents technology is a privilege for your child, not a right. Unfortunately a lot of parents think that technology is so prevalent, kids now in early elementary school are getting smartphones, they believe or are starting to believe and I think it has been advertised and marketed beautifully that everybody deserves, has the right to technology. Parents need to be in control of that, especially earlier in a child’s life so that they can learn self regulation, so that kid can learn where does technology really fit into my life. Is it everything or is it a tool to be used in life to learn and to connect and to be networked?

Q: Speak to the videogame problem.

A: Kids really lose perspective, again this is a neurobiological phenomenon in an area in the brain called the prefrontal cortex which has to do with context and importance and relevance. We now know through research that kids who are playing first person shooter games on video games, that part of the brain loses oxygen during the actual playing of the game. So we have two things happening at the same time, we have this fix, this feeling, this dopamine squirt that makes us feel so full of pleasure and then we have the part of your brain that puts it into context and relevance, shutting down. So you have a kid who is really feeling good but doesn’t understand that this means nothing from a standpoint of reality and life. Yes, they could be really good at the next level of Halo or Call of Duty but it’s not going to make their future for them, I think it’s their parents role to step in, early on when technology is introduced into a child’s life and say, this is just a thing we have now on the world and we want you to learn to use it appropriately in the correct way, a way that will help you thrive in life rather than take you away from friendships, relationships, doing well in school and any other detrimental thing it causes.

Q: Speak to the social media problem.

A: I think the whole social media thing is very unfortunate because we have become a society of social media codependents. We are really in a situation now where everything we do and live and experience for whatever reason now needs to be posted so that we can get feedback on it. So we’re codependent on everybody else giving us positive feedback. In general I think of social media as antisocial media. I think in the context of social media and teenagers girls and pre-teen girls, we now know that the more time they spend on social media it exponentially increases the chance of them developing depression as a teenager. I think it’s because we live in a comparative culture and social media has just taken that to hyperspace now. Instead of being happy with who you were created to be and what our particular gifts and talents are, we’re trying to compare ourselves to everybody else.  As you know, whether you’re a teenager or adult almost everything is posted as the best case scenario in a particular family. Whether it’s grandparents or parents or the child, in all these pictures when you look at how happy everybody else in the world is and you’re not, which is really not true anyways, not everybody else in the world is that happy. It creates this sense of, boy I’m falling in life, I’m not happy, I’m not satisfied. Everyone is having such a great time and doing so well and succeeding in so many ways and here I am, just living in my little bubble. It’s really unfortunate that social media was named that because it’s really taking us away from true connection and deep connection. It’s all superficial and comparative connection which is unfortunate.

Q: Give us a healthy technology plan for a child from birth.

A: The first thing I would recommend is fall in love with your newborn baby. I see parents over worrying about things of the future. I think it’s so important for parents to fall head over heels in love with this precious child that they’ve been given and blessed with. That’s the first thing and then in the context of technology understand that you need to train up that child in the way that they should go.  The primary job of parents is to train up their kid and get them ready for life. Everything else is really secondary. Yes the froufrou lovey rocking chair scene, all those things are important but the real important job of parenting is to raise your kids up to be ready to launch into the real world and fend for themselves. In the context of technology, that’s going to hinder them gaining that maturation and ability to fend for themselves. Technology’s important, it’s here to stay, we can’t ignore it, we can’t put our head in the sand, but it needs to be put in the right context. The parents really need to do that early on. So the plan for that child in the newborn check, absolutely no screens for the first two years. I don’t want you to have that screen, that TV, that tablet, anything in front of your child’s face. I want you to be there, the siblings to be there, the grandparents be there and I want you to roll on the floor and play around and go on walks and see nature. Just bond in those first two years before ever introducing a screen to a child. As the kid gets older parents need to be very weary of are there signs of addiction that have started to make sure they can intervene and step in.

Q: Talk about screens and sleep.

A: Technology does not belong in the bedroom. Whether that’s a television or gaming device or nintendo or even a cell phone, screens need to be out of the bedroom.  I make that very clear to my pre-teen and teenage parents. Especially for teenagers, studies have shown that 80 to 85% of teenagers are sleep deprived. Only 10% of kids get consistent sleep from 8 to 9 hours a night in the teenage years. When you’re sleep deprived, you know how you feel. If you have kids, we’ve had little kids running around, they’re all grown up now, but when you’re tired nothing makes sense to you.  You can’t think straight, you can barely function, your efficiency’s bad, you’re tired.  You lose attention and focus. There are many kids at school who are falling asleep at their desks.  They can’t even pay attention to what the teacher is trying to teach because they’re sleep deprived and a lot of it goes back to the issue of technology. I’ve been to a lot of medical conferences in my life and the most interesting ones in the last five years were really pediatric psychiatrist conferences and I recall one where they spent an entire day on sleep issues and children.  This is a five day conference, that’s a lot of time on sleep. They had a sleep specialist come in and he went through all the research about technology and sleep and the bottom line recommendation in that conference is that kids should be off screens two hours before the desired time of sleep. You just know that there’s tens of thousands of kids that are just sitting on their cell phones until two in the morning or playing video games in their bed until two in the morning and their parents are wondering why they have to drag them out of bed in the morning. Or that their chronically irritable and tired or cranky and not doing well in school, well look at the root causes and go upstream and then solve the issue.

Q: Do you have other comments before we close?

A: I think that technology is a great thing in many ways but it’s a two edged sword and what we’re finding out now is that the sword edge being used is particularly detrimental.  It’s really the parents that have to be part of this picture.  You can’t just hand a cell phone to an eight year old and expect them to handle it. The issue of pornography, the first exposure to pornography in our country is 11 years old. That to me is so sad to imagine an 11 year old who may not even be entering puberty yet, having that imagery in their brain the rest of life.  They can’t get rid of that. It will affect them and relationships and how they view sexuality and everything.  That’s just one issue that’s detrimental, there’s a lot of other ones too.




Arlene Pellicane

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