For decades, the Volunteer Center in Torrance has run a popular community-service program for South Bay, Long Beach and harbor-area teens. A couple of years ago, staff began noticing that teens seemed less able to focus on and complete service projects. Parents, teachers and others in the community also saw changes in teens. They wondered why.
President/CEO Sara Myers, who joined the organization in 2015, spearheaded an effort to find out as part of a community-needs assessment. Interviews with community leaders and a survey of hospital assessments and other research pointed to mental health as the issue. One survey reported that one in four middle schoolers in L.A. County had thought about ending their lives in the past 365 days. “It shocked me how prevalent it is,” Myers says.
The Volunteer Center conducted focus groups with parents and caregivers, mental health professionals, faith communities and teens, asking them to prioritize factors contributing to the crisis. “Across the board they had the same top two,” says Myers. “Number one was screen time and social media addiction, and number two was the culture of perfection – this constant drive to get into the best colleges, be perfect at all costs, and look good on social media and in life.”
Many parents and organizations are concerned about screen time and social media, but the Volunteer Center encourages a new perspective. “Everyone is concerned about what the children are viewing on the screen,” Myers says, but parental controls that protect against predators and suggestive content won’t do enough to protect kids’ mental health. “The real issue is what families are missing out on off the screens.”
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Parents check their phones, on average, every six minutes. Children are on screens six to nine hours a day – not including their use for school or homework. “That’s a full-time job,” says Myers. Meanwhile, they are maintaining the same level of after-school activities, sports and jobs as previous generations.
What gets squeezed out? Sleep, primarily, but also exercise and in-person connection to family and friends. All are factors that help kids deal with stress and protect against depression and the risk of suicide.
To begin to address this issue, Myers says parents should get a handle on their own screen-centric behavior. “You need to walk the walk before you start broaching it with your kids,” she says. “I think many parents will find how hard it is.”
The Volunteer Center is focusing on “compassionate baby steps:”
Put screens to bed: Myers says some kids are getting as little as 2-4 hours of sleep a night. Don’t trust them to leave their devices turned off. Put them out of reach until morning.
Screen-free supper: At least once a week, put everyone’s devices in another room and have a family talk over dinner.
Car talk: Kids used to open up in the car – until screens took over. “On the way to or home from school, ask your kids to put their screens down in the car,” Myers says. “That’s a great time to reconnect.”
When you talk to the kids about these changes, explain, in an age-appropriate way, the link to mental health. Then create a family contract with your particular guidelines. “Allow them to be a part of the process so that everyone has buy-in,” Myers advises.
In the fall, the Volunteer Center will launch a program designed to help teens balance screen time and talk about emotions. A program for parents will follow. Meanwhile, Myers refers families to the continually updated resources at www.volcenter.org/helpful-resources, as well as the organization’s monthly e-newsletter and social media.
“Our original mission was to help families serve others together,” Myers says. “This crisis, and the chronic busyness, means there aren’t a lot of families with time, motivation, energy and wherewithal to serve others. I don’t want to see a generation without empathy for themselves and others. So, let’s put down the screens and start reconnecting.”