An American professor of psychology, Harvey Milkman who teaches part of each year at Reykjavik University, showed during his dissertation two decades ago that drugs and alcohol give children’s brains different types of stimuli depending on the child’s biology.
Children who want a rush, Milkman argued, are going to find that through substance abuse or shoplifting or violence. Children who are anxious are going to use substances (like alcohol) to calm themselves down and lose the inhibitions that are a consequence of their anxiety.
The brilliance of what Iceland implemented was a nationwide effort to substitute natural highs and other ways of changing brain chemistry through real experiences that could compete with the synthetic highs found in drugs (and maybe even cellphones).
It worked in Iceland. From 1998 to 2016 the rate of teens who reported being drunk in the past month dropped from 42 percent to 5 percent. Cannabis use dropped from 17 percent to 7 percent, and cigarette use declined from 23 percent to 3 percent. Much of this change is attributed to providing young people with lots and lots (and lots) of opportunities to stay engaged with each other, to participate in arts and sports activities, and to have safe spaces after school to hang out.
The entire system is incentivized with subsidies and tax breaks for parents. While there is no word on whether these programs are being threatened by cell phone use (do heavy cell phone users avoid the programs?) it would appear that at least part of the solution to our children’s cell phone addiction is to offer them equally stimulating and socially engaging opportunities to do things that produce the same brain rewards as eight hours staring at a small blue screen.
Third, how about we rethink smartphones at school?
I was just in the UK and many of their educational institutions don’t allow phones in the classroom. I used to think that phones could be a great teaching aid, empowering students to access information and mental health supports and to connect with global issues, but I’m rethinking my position on that as cell phone use gets completely out of control. Too much of a good thing, like chocolate, has its downsides.
Maybe it’s time schools created cell-free zones, just as many corporations have done the same so workers are less distracted by constant interruptions. Of course, the inevitable parent will complain about the inability to reach their child at a moment’s notice. Maybe it’s time schools spoke back to these overprotective parents, pointing out that they are harming their children and threatening their psychosocial development. On this issue, we know the harm is real.
Fourth, and finally, as parents we have to exercise our ability to influence our kids.
As a parent to five children, I know it’s tough to do, but it is possible. Let’s be clear, in most households it’s the adults buying their children the devices and giving them all the access the kids want.
We let them take their devices to bed. We pay for the data packages. We buy the games or top up their accounts. We basically buy them bags of crack and then say, “Please, self-regulate.” Before we beat up on Apple for designing these wicked devices, maybe we as parents have to put the brakes on financing our kids’ addictions in the first place.
Over the years, as I’ve studied resilience, I’ve been reminded by children over and over again that they actually appreciate structure and reasonable consequences. They like routines and expectations that they can meet. They want genuine attachments and large networks of social relations. And like those kids in Iceland, they want opportunities to show others their talents, to be pushed out of their comfort zones and try new things, to be active physically and intellectually. These are all things we, as parents, have stopped providing our kids.