Thank you for posting this article, Elaine! I think it is relevant food for thought for both parents and professionals. I especially like that she talks about the importance of ruling out and addressing electronics in mental health assessments. In the article, Dr. Dunkerley also says, “Time and again, I’ve realized that regardless of whether there exists any “true” underlying diagnoses, successfully treating a child with mood dysregulation today requires methodically eliminating all electronics use for several weeks—an “electronics fast”—to allow the nervous system to “reset.” She goes on to say, “If done correctly, this intervention can produce deeper sleep, a brighter and more even mood, better focus and organization, and an increase in physical activity. The ability to tolerate stress improves, so meltdowns diminish in both frequency and severity. The child begins to enjoy the things they used to, is more drawn to nature, and imaginary or creative play returns. In teens and young adults, an increase in self-directed behavior is observed—the exact opposite of apathy and hopelessness.”
This presumes that the child/adolescent has things that they previously enjoyed and is not too depressed to engage in physical and/or other activities. In my experience working with youth who have problem technology use, they are often attempting to ‘treat’ symptoms of depression by being online (which does typically exacerbate the symptoms). It would be unrealistic to expect that taking the technology away would eliminate the depression. In order to enjoy the things they used to, they may need treatment for their depression including things like activation to help them get engaged with other things again. Depression impacts motivation and pleasure so it may need to be addressed directly before the child is able to return to things they used to enjoy. Her advice is also predicated on the assumption that the child has things they are interested to return to. I have worked with many clients who have said they don’t know what else to do besides play games online or use technology. Parents/caregivers not only need to be involved in limit setting and role modelling healthy technology use but they also need to help their children identify and cultivate other interests.
She continues with, “At the same time, the electronic fast reduces or eliminates the need for medication while rendering other treatments more effective. Improved sleep, more exercise, and more face-to-face contact with others compound the benefits—an upward spiral! After the fast, once the brain is reset, the parent can carefully determine how much if any electronics use the child can tolerate without symptoms returning.” I think that in moderately to severely depressed kids, removing tech may not eliminate the need for medication and may in fact increase the need for it in some cases. If technology is helping them to manage their symptoms albeit in the short term, they may need either medication and/or other coping skills to manage symptoms in the short and long term. There is also a high co-occurrence of social anxiety and social challenges (ASD) with problem technology use. Kids with social anxiety and/or social challenges often get their social needs met online because it feels easier and safer. If you take away their technology, you must help them manage their anxiety and/or learn social skills or they will not be successful with increasing their face to face contact.
So with that said, the relationship between technology use and mental health is complex and while she makes good points about the impact of technology use, I think this article is best suited for prevention and perhaps for kids with mild mental health symptoms. I think we need to be cautious about just removing tech without an assessment of psychiatric symptoms and technology use and a clear plan of how to provide support when the technology is no longer available to the child so that they will be successful and safe.