Ep 277: Understanding Our Kids' Online World

Andy Earle: You're listening to Talking to Teens, where we speak with leading experts from a variety of disciplines about the art and science of parenting teenagers. I'm your host, Andy Earle.

We're here today with Michael Rich talking about digital wellness.

Is the use of digital media eroding connection with each other?

Are our kids getting addicted to their devices?

Is social media causing issues with body image?

Dr. Rich says, No, it's actually a little more complicated than that.

Often, the way that our teens are using digital media is a symptom of something else that's going on within them.

The answer is not simply to take away their devices, or to punish them, or to set limits on their screen time. Actually, he says screen time is irrelevant these days.

So what should we do instead?

Dr. Rich is an associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard medical school. He practices adolescent medicine at Boston's children's hospital, and he's the founder and director of the digital wellness lab and the clinic for interactive media and internet disorders.

He's also the author of the new book, the Mediatrician's Guide.

Really excited to have Dr. Rich on the show today. Thank you so much for being here.

Michael Rich: Thank you for having me.

Andy Earle: Pretty excited for your new book coming out here. Tell me a little about the story behind this. You're talking about Mediatricians in the book. Not familiar with that term. What is that?

Michael Rich: I am a mediatrician in part because I actually spent my wicked youth in the media world as a filmmaker and screenwriter before I had my midlife crisis. It took me to medical school and now I'm a pediatrician. And as I was coming up in my training was about when the American Academy of Pediatrics started to get really worried about the issue of screens in kids lives. Our kids becoming couch potatoes, watching television, and becoming fat, stupid, and violent.

And really took my knowledge from the media world into child health to really understand more than just moral panic or hysteria about this. But what really goes on? How are we all, but kids in particular, who are growing and changing and developing, how are we changed by the screens we use and how we use them both in positive and in negative ways?

And, we've really leaned hard on the negative and tried to talk about screens being toxic, but the reality is they are a part of our world. They are, in fact, an environment that kids move seamlessly in and out of so that even the concept of screen time is pretty blurred.

And the idea of limiting it is frankly obsolete because we don't use screens the way we did in the days of television. The book is called the Mediatrician's Guide: A Joyful Approach to Raising Healthy, Smart, Kind Kids in a Screen Saturated World. And it, frankly, is an owner's manual for your digital native.

It talks about the ways in which we're affected negatively, as well as positively, and then what we can do about it. So it's really divided into three sections. It's what is the problem? So what? And then now what? And it's very practical.

It's based in some fairly complex science that I speak to the reader as I speak to parents and kids when I see them for pediatric visits, which is plain, clear action steps that give them agency, give them the control over what they do and how that can affect their trajectory of their health and development.

Andy Earle: You talk in the book about digital wellness. What does that mean? How do we have more of that? It sounds good.

Michael Rich: The idea is 1st of all, acknowledging that we live in a physical digital ecosystem that is really 1 ecosystem. It's not 2 worlds. Older people think of online and offline, or virtual and real, but for young people in particular, it's all 1 environment.

And so digital wellness is an intentional state of being that is driven by a use of screens in ways that actually promote wellness and, avoid illness in the physical, mental, and social domains.

Andy Earle: And what does it look like? How do we know when we have digital wellness? Or is there a digital unwellness?

Michael Rich: We will never have digital wellness just as we will never have physical wellness, but we can approach it. And it's really about being very thoughtful about the way we use it. I talk about finding our killer Bs and those killer Bs are be mindful in our use of these very powerful tools, and in our understanding that they are displacing something else. So be mindful about what we're choosing to use our time and attention with. Be balanced between screen use and non screen use. And in fact, 1 of the things that I suggest is, instead of worrying about screen time limits, which we can't measure anyway, how about we have minimal off screen time each day? So we have times when we don't have screens at the dining room table. We don't have them at night in bed. And we don't have them for chunks of the day so that we can live our lives and interact with each other. And, best of all, bring back boredom. Why? Because boredom is where creativity and imagination happen. Not just because it creates the empty space, but because that empty space is a little uncomfortable and we want to fill it with imagining things. What if, etcetera. And, we've unfortunately gotten to a place where we instinctually or reflexively fill that empty space with whatever meme, or news, or email, or whatever is coming through.

And we don't get on elevators and look at each other or greet each other anymore. We don't get on buses and look out the window. The 1st killer B is be mindful. The 2nd is be balanced. And here, most importantly, perhaps for parents: be present. When we're staring at our phone or our laptop we are not present for our kids.

So remember your killer Bs.

Andy Earle: It's interesting because digital devices are such a tool for connecting with each other, connecting with new ideas, but yet there's such an aspect of it that really feels disconnecting. And you talk about the third killer B being present. How do those things come together? In what ways is the digital world making connection more difficult?

Michael Rich: I think that we have mistakenly traded away connectedness for connectivity.

We have near infinite connectivity on virtually any device anywhere in the world, anyone in the world, any experience, but those experiences through a screen are relatively attenuated. They're weakened compared to connecting IRL, in real life. And what's happened is we have said it's awkward to talk to this girl I might be interested in romantically or to talk to a teacher. Let me do it online. Let me do it on my smartphone. And instead of it connecting us, it actually is a wall between us. And it actually helps us feel less exposed, less vulnerable, less open, but it also doesn't give us very much back.

And so I often recommend, particularly to the young people I take care of, that if they are wanting to get together, or want to connect with someone, to think about upgrading. We all love an upgrade. I got business class, right? And upgrading means if you're thinking of tweeting, text. If you're thinking of texting, call. Better yet, video call. And if you're thinking of calling, get together in person. Even though you're worried you might say something stupid or awkward. You're also in a situation where you can read their body language, you can read their face, and you can understand when you've said something that's goofy, or hurtful, or teasing and didn't land. And you're able to correct it. And ultimately, what I say to the teenagers is, smartphones are great for connecting with people, but you can't learn to kiss with a smartphone.

Andy Earle: When you're communicating through text and digital devices, you can ask for advice on what to say next. Hey, does this sound okay? This is what I'm thinking of saying to this person. What do you think about this? And ask your friends, or ask your parents, or ask Chat GPT. Hey, can you make this sound better? It's not sounding quite how I want it to right now. Which is all maybe helpful for making sure you come across in the right way, but it's not vulnerable.

It's reducing that moment to moment connection.

Michael Rich: I would argue it's actually reducing your humanity. It becomes more manufactured. It becomes edited. It becomes overthought instead of just saying something goofy.

And if you think about it the way we tend to use the digital space and social media in particular is much the way that companies use it: we market ourselves to each other, right? We use it to show the great vacation I went on, or my new pet, or this great new outfit I wear. Instead of being genuine with each other.

And I would argue that the most meaningful, the most sustaining relationships we have with people are with those people who know our limitations, who know our fears, our concerns, our warts and all. Not despite our limitations, but in some ways, because of them. Because true relationships are the way that we complement each other, the way we complete each other rather than being with someone who is absolutely perfect in every way.

Andy Earle: You write in the book that all media are educational. What do you mean by that?

Michael Rich: We talk about educational television or educational media writ large as if it's something different. But the fact of the matter is that we are always learning. And kids in particular. Kids are soaking up the world, they are living, and learning through their experience. And for a kid, every moment is a teachable moment. As pediatricians, the kid falls off his bike and skins his knee. And as we take care of it, we talk about bike helmets. That's a teachable moment in a very practical way.

But the reality is when a kid is watching Sesame Street they are learning their letters. They are learning their numbers. And perhaps most robustly, as the research shows, they are learning about living in a diverse, and tolerant, and rich neighborhood. And all of that is learning, but they are also learning when they play Call of Duty. Or Grand Theft Auto.

In fact, it is arguable that interactive media, particularly video games are among, if not the most powerful educational technology we've yet developed, because they create an environment. They create a set of rules. You are rewarded for playing the rules and shooting somebody before they shoot you and you are punished or diminished if you make a mistake.

So it's basically a virtual environment in which you are training. We can't bestow a golden glow to Sesame Street and Mr Rogers and then say, oh, but I turn my brain off and play Call of Duty. Our brains are never turned off.

And so I think we have to realize that not only are all media educational, but all media are inherently social. Nobody can define what social media is anymore because is playing fortnight with kids around the world simultaneously a game or is that socializing?

In fact, during the pandemic lockdown, that's how kids got together. That's where they did their social emotional learning; with headsets on, yelling swear words at each other as they tried to shoot each other or not be shot. We don't even watch movies all the way through anymore, except for big tent events, like Barbie or Oppenheimer. But we actually watch when we can, and then when something else comes up we turn it off. We binge watch television shows.

Now you can do all 22 hours of all 4 seasons all at once. So we have to take a step back and be conscious about how we are using these screens. And that's what I mean about approaching digital wellness. Let's be intentional about it. Let's recognize that we are learning, recognizing that we are interacting and socializing with others, and making sure that we are aware of both the short term and the longer term implications of what we're doing.

Andy Earle: If all media are educational, then that starts to make me think, what if our kids are following someone that's saying things that are toxic or negative, or they're learning things on their devices that are hurtful or divisive? How do we confront that?

Michael Rich: One of the things I am most frequently asked is when should I give my kid a smartphone? And as outrageous as this sounds, 1st of all, we have to recognize a smartphone is a supercomputer that is over a 1, 000, 000 times more powerful than the computer that landed Apollo 11 on the moon.

It is about 99. 9% Distraction. So the 1st question is, does it have any business being in schools? What is the task at school? The task is education. That education takes 2 major forms. 1 is the didactic learning of math, English, and science, for which the smartphone is almost always a distraction, not a support. But the other piece of it, and this is the piece that is the hardest nut to crack, not only with kids, but with their parents, is the social emotional learning that occurs in school. School is the first time that a child gets to be an individual and figure out who they like, who they don't like, how they express who they like and don't like, how they get through the world, and what kind of society they build.

When a kid has a phone in his or her pocket, they're not doing that. It's Pinocchio with Jiminy cricket on his shoulder. Mom is in their head all day. How did you do on that test? Is that kid still picking on you in the playground? You should go complain to the teacher about this. Rather than letting the child figure out how to get along. And when you look at the research, there is not good evidence for having smartphones in schools at all.

And when you do think about giving your child a smartphone, first of all, determine whether it is a tool that they need. Ask them why they want to have 1. When they figure out that they have to come up with a task or a series of tasks that it can do and you feel that they can handle it responsibly and with respect for themselves and others in terms of what they are posting, you sit down and you very explicitly say to them, how you're going to use it how you're not going to use it when and where and with whom you're going to use it in these ways. Also very explicitly about the ways that they're not going to use it. And 1 of the things I will say is, if you're not ready to talk to your child about pornography, or hate sites, you're not ready to give your child a smartphone. Because they will get to those sites very easily.

And the 3rd thing you should do beyond what you should do and what you should not do is what do you the child think the consequences should be if you misuse it? Before they have the phone, they're going to say, oh, take the phone away for a week. Once they have the phone, they would never say that.

Give them some ownership of their behavior. Give them the agency to say, this is what should be. And this is what shouldn't be. So then when they do misstep sometimes, I've actually seen kids turn it over voluntarily, and certainly without much of a fuss, because they were the ones who laid out that condition.

Andy Earle: Makes me think when you're talking about mom's voice being in your head all day. A lot of times as parents we're thinking, there's lots of pros and cons to having a phone. But some of the pros are safety, and that we can get in touch with them anytime and check in, and say, how's it going, and remind them of things. But, as you're mentioning it, it actually feels like that's not really a benefit. Because they should be getting into some trouble a little bit and having to figure it out on their own and not be able to just call mom at the drop of a hat every time some problem happens. And actually it's probably good for them to be on their own a little bit and not being constantly in touch with you and having you remind them of things.

Michael Rich: And even the big issues, like school shootings and things like that. If you really think about it, a child having a phone is not going to make any difference in that. It's not going to make them safer. In fact, it may make them more vulnerable because if there's a shooter and they see someone getting on a phone, they're going to go after them.

So I think that we have to be very aware of exactly what we are hoping will happen, and and really thoughtful about these as power tools. Because I see parents see handing an iPad to a fussing 2 year old. But would you hand a chainsaw to a fussing 2 year old? It's really about understanding that these are not toys.

They are not treats. They are tools that can do great good when used thoughtfully and effectively and can do harm both in the short term and in the long term if they're used without thought.

Andy Earle: Something that I know is worrisome, especially with relation to teen girls, is how use of digital devices can affect body image. What do you think about that? How should parents be thinking about that?

Michael Rich: This is a perfect example. People are saying social media is causing girls to have body image disorders.

Okay, adolescents inherently are self conscious. That zit in the middle of their forehead is all anybody else ever sees, et cetera. It is part of the growing up process. Social media doesn't cause body image issues, but what it can do is amplify them in ways that are much faster than we had before.

It is not that we're using social media, but how we're using social media that really matters. In other words what happens if someone feels lonely, they feel inadequate, they feel maybe they don't fit in? They reach out online and they look to all these other people who are marketing themselves to the world, and they seem like everyone else is prettier, skinnier, happier, more fulfilled than I am. It's compare and despair. And it's upward social comparison.

We need to help young people take a moment and think about how they feel after using social media. Almost invariably if they think about it they will say I feel worse after I use social media. I go to it to meet a friend or to connect with somebody, et cetera. But I come out feeling like I'm a miserable person compared to everyone else. We have to be conscious that the enemy is not social media, the enemy is us.

Andy Earle: Something we used to look at in our research when I was working in academia is social norms. And we would find the strongest influence on risk behaviors among teenagers is their perceptions of what everyone else is doing, what everyone else wants them to do, and what they think is acceptable among their peer group.

And time and time again, it's a stronger factor than almost any other variable that that we can find.

Michael Rich: And it's inaccurate too. Everybody else is having sex, I'm not. Everyone else is smoking weed, I'm not. And to fit in, I'm going to have to do it.

And yet. Everybody else is, either not doing it at all or posturing that they are. I think you're absolutely right. And social media amplifies that.

Andy Earle: You were talking about how we're advertising ourself on social media and just like companies, when they see something is cool, Hey, Oh, I should advertise myself as being really environmentally conscious, really body image positive, because that's cool right now. In the same way we start to look at it and say, Oh, wow, I should advertise myself as not really not caring, and being, yeah I'm really cool, I smoke weed, because that's what kids think is cool.

Michael Rich: What's edgier gets more attention. And what is edgy when you're 14 may end up in your college application 4 years later. So edgy when you're 14, posing at a party with a beer can in your hand. At 14, they don't see that what they post goes far, goes fast, and is sticky because the edgier it is, someone's going to hold on to it and it's going to come back to haunt you.

Andy Earle: Dr. Rich, thank you so much for coming on the podcast today and talking to us about your new book, about media, and about your life. It's been really enlightening. Book is called, The Mediatrician's Guide: A Joyful Approach to Raising Healthy, Smart, Kind Kids in a Screen Saturated World. I hope people will go and pick up a copy. Where can people also go to find out any more about your work or what you're up to?

Michael Rich: Digital wellness lab dot org is the digital wellness lab at boston children's hospital, which I founded and direct.

And we are constantly doing research and educational efforts to help empower kids and their families to live well in the physical digital ecosystem. 1 of the hard parts about writing a book is it sets in stone something that's a moving target. The book is a great foundation, but go to digital wellness lab dot org for the latest findings, because we are a work in progress and we always will be.

Andy Earle: We're here today with Dr. Michael Rich talking about digital wellness for teenagers, and we're not done yet. Here's a look at what's coming up in the second half of the show.

Michael Rich: And parents push back and they say, I don't have the time to monitor my kids online behavior. But if parents have their kids usernames and passwords and can monitor their kids online behavior, those behaviors change.

Nobody who's come to us with a addiction to the screens has not had an underlying psychological issue that they were seeking to soothe themselves from.

In 1979, when I was in my film career, Francis Coppola and I were having breakfast and he said to me, we're soon going to have the devices that will allow an 8 year old girl from Ohio to be the next Mozart of cinema. And that's where we are now.

Not only is it impossible at age 16 or 17 to decide what you want to do for the rest of your life, but it takes the interest out of it. It's more about constantly exploring, being curious, and seeing where life leads you.

Andy Earle: Want to hear the full interview? Sign up for a subscription today. It's completely affordable and your membership supports the work we do here at Talking to Teens. You can now subscribe directly through Apple Podcasts. Thanks for listening, and we'll see you next time.

Creators and Guests

Andy Earle
Andy Earle
Host of the Talking to Teens Podcast and founder of Write It Great
Dr. Michael Rich
Dr. Michael Rich
Director, Digital Wellness Lab; Clinic for Interactive Media and Internet Disorders (CIMAID) @ Boston Children's Hospital. Listen to Ask The Mediatrician here!
Ep 277: Understanding Our Kids' Online World
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