Dr. Mike Brooks is a psychologist and the co-author of Tech Generation: Raising Balanced Kids in a Hyper-Connected World with Dr. Jon Lasser. He took time to speak with me about his practice and about screen time, the internet, and parenting.
Tech Generation was published in 2018, though Dr. Brooks wrote about the impact of video games on children in his dissertation. He addressed a pervasive concern but worked to debunk the idea that “playing Space Invaders makes kids violent.”
Dr. Brooks shared that screens can be a “lifeline” for some children. For instance, some children on the autism spectrum who struggle with making friends in person often use screens to build and maintain friendships, though many parents are understandably concerned about their screen time. He pointed out, though, that new technology has always been a concern; Socrates thought that writing was bad for us. He shared with me an article about this very idea. At the same time, though, “moral panic about our screens is spread through our screens … which proves screens can spread fear and cause harm.” He described FOSH, “fear of screen harm,” though research does not indicate that “typical use” of screens causes harm.
Another problem when discussing screen harm is attributing correlation to causation: Dr. Brooks noted that people are quick to point out anecdotal stories, such as a child “started playing Fortnite and then bombed all their classes.” But what else was going on when the change occurred? Maybe that child started playing Fortnite to cope with their parents’ separation, which also led to lower interest in school. “The reason they are doing this is often a symptom of an underlying problem.”
Although there is not an easy solution or answer about screens, Dr. Brooks noted that balance is key. He noted that kids might lose sleep because they stay up late on the screens, which would mean that the screen time is contributing to the problem of sleep deprivation. Kids might also experience cyber-bullying, “which causes problems because bullying causes problems,” or “FOMO” from seeing “curated lives” on social media. He sees screen time like a well-balanced diet: we can eat a wide mix of foods and still be healthy. “Use good judgment, don’t lose a bunch of sleep over it, … and a lot of it will come out in the wash.”
Within the field of psychology, there is debate about “screen addiction.” I asked Dr. Brooks about this, and he noted that screens do not have the same addictive effect as substances, though games like Call of Duty offer “variable ratio reinforcement schedules” with loot boxes, which is similar to gambling, which can be behaviorally addictive. You can also see this with continued checking of social media: “Who commented on my post? How many likes/shares have I gotten?” Dr. Brooks pointed out, “It’s a type of negative reinforcement. It’s not that we feel so good when we check these things, it is more that it feels uncomfortable or bad if we don’t check.” But is the screen use an addiction itself, or is it a symptom of underlying depression? In addition, the percent of people who exhibit some severe addictive behavior surrounding screen activities is much lower than for other addictive substances or activities. Although screen use can be problematic, overall well-being is not significantly impacted by screen use.
Since writing the book, Dr. Brooks noticed another concern. He shared, “I’m more worried these days … about misinformation spreads.” When it comes to misinformation, “our access to information has increased exponentially, but unfortunately our access to misinformation has increased concurrently.” Fact checking sometimes is not enough. Dr. Brooks quipped, “You can always find an ‘expert’ to say the moon is made out of green cheese.” Dr. Brooks pointed out that “We did not evolve to live in the world where we now live. … For our tribal, hunter-gatherer ancestors, there was just no such thing [as ‘fake news’.” Basically, “we didn’t evolve to discern truth; we evolved to survive.” By emphasizing relationships, our impulse is to trust the people in our circle rather than to question and fact check.
Dr. Brooks shared, “I’m worried that the news is so negative, that people are so focused on the negative, they’re missing out on the bigger picture of positives in our world, … that our worries and stresses are causing our own problems.” He pointed out that many parents are spending more time with their kids than in previous generations and are showing more concern for their kids’ well-being, which has caused parents to put pressure on themselves to be the “perfect” parent. Kids pick up on parental stress. In addition, colleges have gotten more competitive – “You can’t get a semester of Bs in high school and expect to get into many top-tier colleges.” Of course kids are more anxious when faced with this increased pressure! “Everyone wants to point the smoking gun at screens … but there’s a lot of things that have gone on.” We have to make sure we are not blaming screens and overlooking other factors. Although screen use can cause issues, Dr. Brooks points out that the anxiety around screens is not proportionate to the severity of the issues caused by screens.
Dr. Brooks is currently working on another book and starting a podcast that are both more broadly about improving well-being and life satisfaction in this complicated world. He noted, though, that “I keep getting distracted by Twitter!”
Learn more about healthy screen use, Dr. Brooks’s practice, and research about technology on his blog.