At Eagle Ranch in South Hall, children and teenagers attend classes, play outside and talk to one another face-to-face — there’s not a cellphone in sight.
The residential campus for kids struggling with a variety of issues doesn’t allow cellphones and only allows limited screen time with computers and TVs.
“Screens and social media create a big distraction, and they often contribute to some of the emotional problems that a child is having,” Stefanie Long, Eagle Ranch’s director of communications, said. “We want to remove that distraction and give the boys and girls an opportunity to focus on themselves and who they are without those influences around them.”
Wade Pearce, the ranch’s senior director of programs, said the staff want to encourage the kids to communicate and interact.
“Many of our boys and girls discover a love for the outdoors and more active lifestyles once they are away from screens,” Pearce said.
A survey by Common Sense Media released in 2017 found that 98% of children 8 years old and under live in a home with some type of mobile device.
Although the overall amount of screen time hasn’t changed much in recent years, Common Sense Media reports the average time spent with mobile devices each day has jumped from five minutes a day in 2011 to 48 minutes a day in 2017.
Melanie Hempe, registered nurse and founder of Screen Strong, has visited Eagle Ranch and other nonprofits across the country, sharing about dangers of the digital world.
She believes children can develop an addiction to gaming and social media similar to a drug addiction.
Hempe said she’ll never forget the time she picked her son up after his first year of college.
“He got into the car and looked horrible,” Hempe said. “I thought he was on drugs. I asked him and he said, ‘No.’”
Hempe said he admitted to staying in bed for a week and blamed his state on the multiplayer online role-playing game, World of Warcraft.
“I thought he would outgrow it, but he failed in college,” she said. “He had tons of (Advanced Placement) classes and was in the engineering department. I had every reason to think he’d be successful.”
Hempe said she realized her son had a screen addiction.
Kristen Green, owner and director of Chattahoochee Child Psychology Services LLC in Gainesville, has worked with children who have been negatively affected by excessive screen time.
“These kids that are playing a lot of video games, whether on phones or a gaming system, the child will often respond the way one might expect an addict would respond when they hear their screen time is limited,” Green said.
Unlike Hempe, Green doesn’t use the term “addiction” when describing an unhealthy attachment to video games and social media.
Oftentimes she said media outlets will throw out the name, “internet gaming disorder” and link it with screen addiction.
Green said internet gaming disorder is not yet listed in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
The association describes it as a condition for further study, not an official disorder.
“I think there are people doing research, and there has been talk about possibly putting something in the DSM at some point. But it’s not there yet,” Green said.
However, the World Health Organization defines it as a disorder in the 11th revision of the International Classification of Diseases.
The World Health Organization states on its website that for the disorder to be diagnosed, “the behavior pattern must be of sufficient severity to result in significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational or other important areas of functioning and would normally have been evident for at least 12 months.”
As a board certified clinical child and adolescent psychologist, Green has observed children who have displayed behavioral changes because of their screen time.
In these particular cases, which typically involve video games, she said children manifest irritability, verbal or physical aggression and anger.
Helping her son overcome his problem inspired Hempe to start the nonprofit, Moms Managing Media, in 2011. The organization offers resources to mothers who think their children might be addicted to video games or social media.
Since starting her nonprofit, Hempe has published three books relating to screen addiction.
She said one of the biggest telltale signs of screen addiction is if video games and social media begin to interfere with how a child normally functions.
“When your child cannot list three things that they like as much or more than video games or their phone, then you’re headed for trouble,” she said. “My son, who is very addicted to gaming, told me something really powerful. He said, ‘When you are addicted to gaming, the virtual world is more important than the real world.’”
Hempe compares playing video games to playing in a city dump full of objects that can hurt a child.
“Every minute that they’re on a screen is a minute that they’re not doing something else way more beneficial for them,” Hempe said. “One thing that we’ve learned is that no child has ever died of not playing video games, so it really is OK to delay, pause and keep pushing it back.”
Even if people don’t agree with Hempe’s philosophy on limiting screen time, she said one thing that’s not debatable is the development of a teenager’s brain.
“Little gamers grow up to be big gamers,” she said. “If you think they’re going to be able to do it in moderation — kids can’t do anything in moderation.”
Green said limiting screen time over a period of time generally decreases the negative behaviors.
“The child will shift back to a more typical pattern of behaving and relating to others,” she said.
Green said she doesn’t see the problem increasing at this point.
“Games are out there,” she said. “Games are in their hands. The game may change, but I don’t know that (the problem) is still on the rise as much as very prolific.”