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Save your mind, get outside and play

“Tell me about an invention you don’t like and why,” was the question recently posed to a second-grade class in Louisiana. 

“I would say that I don’t like the phone,” one student wrote. “I don’t like the phone because my parents are on their phone every day…I hate my mom’s phone and I wish she never had one.”

Ooof. If that doesn’t get parents’ attention, what will? A teacher recently posted this message on her Facebook page and it went viral. Why? Because this child’s honesty is like a punch in the gut for parents who know deep down it’s true – they’re addicted to smartphones as much (or more) than the kids they’re trying to tear away from tablets and video games.  

Phone and technology addiction is a problem most people are aware of, but the complications it causes go deeper than just physical time away from our kids (which is bad enough). Excessive technology use has a strong link to increased anxiety, a condition that’s ravaging the country. A New York Times article “Anxious Nation” offers troubling statistics: anxiety disorders now rival depression – and in some age brackets surpass it. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that 38 percent of teenage girls and 26 percent of teenage boys have an anxiety disorder. A new study from the University of Illinois finds that addiction to, and not simply use of, mobile technology is linked to anxiety and depression in college-age students.

“People who self-described as having really addictive style behaviors toward the internet and cellphones scored much higher on depression and anxiety scales,” said psychology professor Alejandro Lleras, who conducted this study.

Charlie Hoehn was a workaholic who was constantly on his computer or phone, the latter of which he’d bring to bed to check work emails after midnight. He developed crippling anxiety and after trying a variety of strategies that failed, he stumbled on the book The Power of Play. It was his “a-ha” moment, and one we can all benefit from. Humans are suffering from what he calls “chronic-play depravation.” 

“The research is pretty clear,” said Hoehn, who has gone on to do a Ted Talk about his experience and has written the book Play It Away. “They have done experiments. They’ve deprived animals of play—they give them love, nurturing, food, shelter, all the things they need to survive— but they deprive them of play, the animal inevitably grows up to be socially and emotionally crippled.”

What do we do? Do we want our kids to remember mom or dad in that unflattering position hunched over our phones with blank zombie faces? Do we want to contribute to our kids (or us) developing mental health disorders? Let’s make memories instead. We just passed the unofficial beginning of summer - Memorial Day weekend and the last day of school - and have the promise of several months of warm weather ahead. This summer, let’s get outside and play with our kids, family and friends without – or with very limited – technology.  

Locally, we’ve got new bike trails in Talking Rock, a couple of hiking trails on Burnt Mountain, and the Dawson Wildlife Management area/Edge of the World rapids, Carter’s Lake and Amicalola Falls that are short drives away. You can even make smaller changes in your routine – instead of going to a restaurant take lunch to one of the many parks in town. Hoehn recalls the first time he chose play over screens and work. A friend asked him to grab coffee for a work meeting and he suggested a game of pitch instead. 

Humans aren’t wired to spend their lives indoors, sitting at screens under the eerie glow of fluorescent lights. Research shows that getting outside is crucial for our health. It’s been shown to fight anxiety and depression, lower stress and blood pressure, improve focus, fight fatigue, and improve short-term memory. Technology serves us positively in a lot of ways, but gone unchecked can become detrimental to health and relationships. This summer let’s get outside and play. Your kids (and you) will be much better off.