With technology becoming a way of life, it's more important than ever to understand what effects–the good, the bad, and the ugly–screen time may have on our increasingly fragile generation of youth. We now have longitudinal data on the effects of screen time use in young people. Research has shown that screen time has far-reaching effects–touching your teen’s social, academic, and emotional development–something that cannot be ignored when it comes to parenting a millennial youth.

Screen Time, Education, and Cannabis Use In Young People

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Here at Pure Life Adventure, we love getting into the nitty-gritty details of how to educate and nurture healthy young adults and adolescents. We love to learn from experts who are operating in the thick of it, and we recently had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Sarah McMillan, the founder and owner of McMillan Education, run by her and her husband, Don. 

McMillan Education has helped families worldwide with independent boarding and day school, college, crisis planning, and graduate program planning. Prior to founding McMillan Education, Sarah taught English at Boston College and Boston University, teaching graduate-level courses in child and adolescent development, educational assessment and intervention, and young adult vocational and identity development. 

In addition to her experience teaching and working with families in the field of education, she also has a doctorate degree in developmental psychology and counseling from Boston University. From both a practicum and academic standpoint, Dr. McMillan can speak with authority about the challenges that our youth face. During her work, Dr. McMilan wondered early on how she could better understand how and why families struggle. Her refreshing approach to developmental psychology is both optimistic and hopeful. Developmental psychology, McMillan says, is grounded in the idea that all living organisms evolve and change, and that to survive, the human family must encounter challenges and obstacles that lead to evolution, change, and self-awareness. 

That said, it is concerning that we all too often see millennial youth struggle to navigate challenges and seem simply overwhelmed with the complexities of life. Now that we have watched a full generation raised around screens, we now have longitudinal data on the effects of screen time use in young people. 

Is Screen Time Really That Bad For My Child?

Many experts have long been concerned about screen time use in teens and children. What they are finding is that youth who are raised in front of a screen have some dramatic voids in their emotional and social skill development. Dr. McMillan commented during our interview that many of the youth she works with are ill equipped to manage the demands of their environment. They prefer to live and interact in virtual environments and almost shut down when forced to live and work in the natural world. In a nutshell, what screen time really deprives our youth of is emotional and social skills–something they desperately need on their journey to healthy adulthood. 

Screen Time And Adolescents

Let’s face the facts. Teens and their technology are here to stay. But when screens are ever present, research now shows that they tend to Interrupt the developmental process. Dr. McMillan believes that the human species is meant to continually evolve. As we encounter challenges, we adapt, and we grow. What is never challenged, stops growing. This is called arrested development and you primarily see this in children that have grown up under the watchful eye of a helicopter parent. Adolescents that grow up in front of screens have a hard time understanding how they fit into a natural, 3D world. Having spent most of their time with their face up against a screen, they don’t have practical world experience to know who they are, what unique gifts they have been given, and how they can contribute meaningfully to the world. 

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Education And Screen Time

Technology, of course, is a valuable tool and can be helpful in many ways, and there are positive ways to build online communities. But the “type” of technology you consume is more important than the time you spend in front of a screen, although that also matters. Dr. McMillan calls social media, texting, and YouTube, “flat media,” meaning that it’s something we consume which does not call the right side of the brain into action. The right side of our brain is the visual, spatial, and non verbal reasoning side of our brain. It’s where we develop the skills required to develop intimacy and interpret nonverbal cues. Consuming too much flat media will cause this side of our brain to weaken and atrophy. Trying to replace the 3D natural social world with “flat” media results in a hindrance of emotional and social skills. 

How Adventure Therapy Can Combat Effects Of Screen Time

Adventure therapy (sometimes mistakenly referred to as “wilderness therapy”) can help bridge the developmental gaps. Adventure therapy is a completely immersive experience where a child is encouraged to live in the natural world, to face and overcome challenges, and to find that the more they do this, the stronger their abilities become and the more their confidence grows. As Dr. McMillan says, what is challenged will grow. You see tremendous growth in the adolescents that attend adventure therapy in as little as three to six weeks. What a way to restore early developmental skills that have been lost behind the glow of a screen. 

Education And Young People

Many of the youth today have not attended what older parents will refer to as the “school of hard knocks”. Meaning, fighting and scraping for everything you have, working hard, and knowing how to pick yourself up and continue on when you get knocked down. 

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When it comes to education, flat media like pre-recorded distance learning is robbing our youth of the development of critical thinking and problem-solving skills. As a society, we should be concerned with the decline of these essential education skills. Although interactive, live online learning cannot replace in-person learning, it has forced the millennial generation to speak up in class and participate. It’s certainly not as powerful as learning in person, but it’s better than flat, passive learning. 

Boredom: Is It Really That Bad For Kids?

Your teen would have you believe that boredom is the absolute worst thing that could happen to him. But here’s why boredom is a good thing. It teaches the brain that low arousal doesn’t mean that you are sick or that something is wrong with you. Boredom in teens and in kids is nature’s way of letting creativity lead to task initiation. Teens today are lacking this critical skill because flat media is only meant to be consumed, not interacted with. This generation has lost their ability to stimulate themselves. Covid was actually a great reset in this area. More parents were dusting off board games and puzzles, and using problem-solving skills that we don’t use so much anymore. Even just reading more will open up the brain’s neurocognitive centers and that leads to great things. Primarily, it leads to the development of an adolescent that is not afraid to live and interact in the natural world that he inhabits.

Importance of Adaptive Skills And Self-Efficacy

Self-efficacy is an individual’s belief in his or her capacity to attain or achieve worthwhile goals. Adaptive skills are what all living organisms need in order to grow and change in an ever-changing world. An essential part of adaptive skills is how you respond and heal when confronted with sadness, trauma, and disappointment. Adolescents have lost their ability to sit with tragedy or uncertainty without what McMillan refers to as “swiping off it.” She has found that when this lost generation encounters something that is uncomfortable or uninteresting, they swipe off. You can’t develop adaptive skills living behind a screen. If they’ve had no practice at adapting for the last 18 years, they will struggle on their own when they hit college.

READ MORE: 5 Back To School Red Flags In Young Adults

Adventure Therapy’s Role In Pushing Young People To Develop

Adventure Therapy is one way you can immerse your child into his natural, 3D world. Adventure Therapy exposes your child to new experiences, adventures, and cultures. Through this amazing program, your child will begin to form his or her identity and realize how capable they truly are by identifying their unique skills and talents. They learn to socialize, process emotions, develop self-care skills, use critical thinking skills, and how to overcome obstacles. These skills are most likely very weak, or even non-existent, and Adventure Therapy is a great way to get your child back to experiencing life without the distraction of a screen.

Parenting Your Teen For Higher Education (Preparing)

When preparing your teen for college, the most important thing you can do is get out of your teens way and let them succeed. By succeeding, we don’t mean getting a sports trophy or a 4.0, but by letting them test their theories about the world and how it works. This is how they succeed at life. Oftentimes the world does not work how you think it will and this will encourage you to adapt to survive. And survive they will, in fact, they will thrive! You let them succeed by letting them work at a problem and letting them do hard things, even if they fail miserably at it. Never do for a child anything that they can do for themselves. This will bring accomplishment, gratification, and self-development. There’s an idiom that says that experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want–experience, the greatest teacher and educator on the planet. Don’t make the mistake of robbing your child of this valuable resource.

DISCOVER: Managing Teen Screen Time: How Much Is Too Much?

How Parents Can Help Their Teen Succeed And Develop

Every day problem solving skills are almost obsolete in our technology-heavy society. It used to be that if you missed the bus, you just had to find a way home–find a payphone, bum a ride, or walk. It was up to you; you had to problem solve and be resourceful. Now, with technology, you call mom or grab an uber. No thought or problem solving necessary. And although technology makes things easy, we do our kids a huge disservice when we remove problem solving experiences from a child’s learning environment. 

Problem solving helps kids learn to be resourceful, to calm emotions, and to access reasoning centers. Perhaps the perfect analogy, as McMillian so aptly puts it, is teaching a child to ride a bike. In order to balance, they must know what it feels like to ride under their own power. They must experience it first hand, in the natural world, not by watching a video about it. As the parent, you are still anxiously engaged, running along beside the bike, maybe with a hand on the back of the bike so that they don’t fall completely, but not so much that they don’t know what it feels like to lose balance and then recover. 

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We need to expect more from our children. It’s not cruel; it’s good parenting. Kids desperately need the sensory experiences of a natural world–to smell it, feel it, bump against it, and then your brain will hardwire what you have learned. Sure, you can watch a youtube video, but it won’t be the same. Once a skill is hardwired into your brain, it is Integrated and automated, ready to be used as a building block to further deepen skills and development. Tangible experience in the natural world is essential for the mastery of any subject or skill. 

Cannabis Use In Young People: What Parents Need To Know

The youth of this generation have grown up with a healthy amount of anxiety about school, and their lack of emotional and social developmental skills has them acting out in dramatic ways that often undermine their health. The prevalence of mental illness is an indicator of a lack of adaptive skills, or the skills to withstand and heal from unexpected outcomes or challenges. According to Dr. McMillan, the capacity to adapt is THE most important developmental skill that leads to happiness and fulfillment in adulthood.

READ MORE: Why The Rise Of Cannabis Use In Teens?

Why The Rise Of Cannabis Use In Teens?

Since the year 2000, cannabis use in teens has risen 245%. That’s astounding, and although more research must be done to understand why this number is rising, McMillan believes increased use comes from misinformation, legalization, and ease of access. If you ask a teen how harmful cannabis is, you’ll probably get a nonchalant shrug and they’ll likely say it’s pretty safe. Not risky at all. You get this same messaging from the media and from others in the medical field. The legalization of cannabis and the loss of negative social stigma surrounding it means that it’s becoming a popular form of self-medication for adolescents. What may seem like a harmless way to unwind has serious long-term consequences. Cannabis use directly affects brain functions like memory, learning, attention, decision-making, coordination, emotions, and reaction time. 

Why Do Teens Choose To Self Medicate?

The short answer? Self medication is the easiest way to escape emotional or physical trauma. Many of our young kids already struggle with anxiety so they reach for cannabis as a coping strategy. Unfortunately, it’s a coping strategy that leaves you weaker instead of more resilient. It tears down your self esteem which leads to depression. We now have the data that shows us the damage that is done to adolescents, even with recreational use, just 2-3 times a week. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Dr. McMillan believes that we can no longer turn a blind eye to the sobering effects of cannabis use on the human body. It’s a drug that is literally killing brain cells.

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Millennial Identity: A Work In Progress

We know it’s tempting and natural for parents to want the best for their children. No one likes seeing someone they love struggle and go through pain, but sometimes it’s better to let your child scrape a knee or get a “C” so they can learn how to cope with emotions like sadness, stress, anger, frustration, loss, and hurt. Individualization is the key to launching a healthy adult. The process of individuation not only helps you understand what you want, it helps you figure out how to get what you want as well. It is about identifying meaning in your life. The social and emotional learning that informs your millennial’s identity has to take place in a social environment in order to maximize growth. It’s time to get back to the principles of healthy human development by re-engaging in the world.

Pure Life Adventure loves to offer free resources to those looking for help or education. If you are struggling to find a path forward with your child, our white paper could help. The Millennial Identity whitepaper is written with you and your child in mind. It’s a great way to start learning and developing empathy for your millennial–how they function and what their unique challenges are–and how you can help.

Do you have questions about adventure therapy and want to see if our program is right for you? Contact the Pure Life team today.

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