More than 100 parents, teachers and students filed into Clifford Hope Auditorium Wednesday night to learn how to control and coexist with the devices that have come to define large parts of their lives.

Their guide? Author, therapist, school counselor and Fox News and The Today Show contributor Tom Kersting, who has been researching and speaking about digital media’s effect on children for years.

Kersting’s points originate from rising levels of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and anxiety in students over the past decade. He said, as a high school counselor, he sees more anxious or panicked students in a week then he used to see in a year. At his private practice, he’s seen more middle school students with anxiety disorders then he has in 17 years.

The spike correlates, he said, with increased use of electronic screen time, bumped up by the emergence of popular websites like YouTube and Facebook and the growing widespread use of smartphones. A 2015 survey showed that parents and adults spend about nine hours a day online, he said.

It’s a trend that is not unheard of in Garden City, said USD 457 Professional Development Coordinator Suzette Goldsby-Lewis. She also had seen an uptick in students of all ages diagnosed with anxiety or ADHD or that show similar behaviors, and the district has seen an increase in students taking advantage of mental health services. She’s not sure if increased cellphone or media use is the main factor in that change, but it’s likely a contributing one, she said.

“We just wanted families to be aware of the effects … so that in their homes they could be aware of it and then be able to help the kids disconnect and reconnect with their families,” Goldsby-Lewis said.

Kersting said high media usage, especially on smartphones, distract students during the school day and put them behind on school work, which can lead to higher stress and anxiety levels. And the habit can lead to sleep deprivation as students use their phones well into the night and early morning, he said.

Social media feeds into a fear of missing out and symptoms of depression from comparing their lives to their peers. It can lead to suicidal ideations, he said. For some students, particularly young boys, video games become a legitimate addiction.

Productivity can also be affected by a digitally wired mind, Kersting said. Kids accustomed to being plugged in all day are more prone to multitasking, a tactic that actually uses more brain power to complete tasks less efficiently. Plus, he said, young people who do not use face-to-face social skills, instead favoring digital communication, tend to lose them. And a deep sense of silence, introspection and mindfulness? Kids don’t have it.

“The problem is that the generation of kids now has never done that ever, most of them, even for a minute because any down time is now immediately replaced with screen time. There’s no rainy days where you build forts in the basement. I mean, there’s some. But not like it used to be,” Kersting said.

During a question and answer session, he, unprompted, said that there is scientific evidence that shows “direct causality” between different types of cancer and the proximity of cellphones, particularly ones that will use 5G, a phenomenon he said tech companies do not want the public to know and politicians are covering up. He urged people to reach out to their elected representatives.

The connection between cellphones and cancer, as it turns out, is more complicated. Studies are contradictory and there’s currently not enough evidence to reach definitive conclusions either way. For a deep dive on the subject, Vox’s comprehensive breakdown on the science of both sides of the issue is a good place to start.

But the root of Kersting’s argument came down to parenting and familial relationships. Parents can let technology eat up their children’s time on commutes or at restaurants or the family dinner table that could be used for conversations and taking the time to learn about each other. To fight that, parents can limit kids’ access to screens, like banning smartphones and TVs from children’s bedrooms, the dinner table and when completing homework, only allowing kids to play video games on the weekends, emphasizing that a smartphone is a privilege, encouraging hobbies or jobs and not getting kids a smartphone until they are in late adolescence.

And the efforts are something schools can double down on, as well, Kersting said, by encouraging parents to follow those rules or disallowing cellphones at schools altogether.

The solutions resonated with parents that saw prominent cellphone use or young people’s interest in social media or violent video games first hand. Tony Wedel, who came to the session with his family, said he even saw increased cellphone use among people in their mid-20s in the workplace. His wife, a teacher, sees the behavior among her students, he said. Kersting’s lessons were a confirmation of what they see everyday, he said.

For Tina Davis, mother of a fourth grader and seventh grader, the session validated her tendencies to avoid violent video games and wait to get her children cellphones.

Wedel’s 12-year-old daughter, Emma, thought the night was cool. She learned a lot.

“I think cellphones, tablets, screens, everything. I think they’re OK as long as they’re limited,” she said. “There are so many things on them that you could possibly need … You can keep that stuff, and your photos and stuff. You can make memories. But they do need to be limited. Because if you’re on it all the time … really bad things will happen.”

 

Contact Amber Friend at afriend@gctelegram.com.