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Can TV, Videogames, and Computer Use Be Harming Your Teen’s Health?

Monday, September 3rd, 2012

teens and tvAlthough worries about sex, drugs, and school still top the list when I talk to parents of teenagers, the issue of screen time, video games and social media sites often have parents and teens in bitter battles. What’s a good parent to do?

According to a 2010 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, the average American youth spends eight to ten hours a day on some form of media–often more than one at a time. The Center on Media and Child Health (CMCH) was founded ten years ago as a collaborative effort of Children’s Hospital Boston, Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Public Health to figure out just how this enormous change in the daily life of kids might be affecting them.

Michael Rich, MD, is a pediatrician whose focus is to study the effects of media on children’s health. He thinks of media the way other doctors think about nutrition, wanting to give parents research based tips on which media are empty calories versus full of nutrients. In order to do so, Rich and his team have examined more than 3400 studies on the impact of media. Not all the results are what you might expect.

For example, Rich and Bickham found that kids who watch TV with friends were often more likely to spend time also doing other kinds of activities with their peers. So quantity is not necessarily bad. On the other hand, kids who spend more time watching violent shows tended to be more isolated. The research does not indicate whether it is the chicken or the egg. In other words, do isolated kids watch more violent TV or does violence cause more isolation? No matter what, parents and therapists should be monitoring the content of kids media and encouraging social engagement of all kinds.

Media late at night can disrupt kids sleep, and too many kids (and adults) are already suffering from sleep deprivation. Neuroscientist Marcus Dworak looked at sleep patterns of boys aged 12 to 14. Researchers asked kids to alternate between watching action movies one night …


Does Your Toddler Tweet? Protecting Young Kids on the Internet

Monday, August 27th, 2012

toddler tweetDid you know that more than half of kids aged six to nine now use some kind of children’s social network? Or that 47 percent talk to their friends on the Internet? And that 14 percent are on Facebook in spite of the fact that they are underage? To top off these startling revelations of a new study is the distressing news that 58 percent of parents admit they are in the dark about what their kids are up to in our brave new world.

Our kids have been born into this world. They are “digital natives” and many parents and teachers are “digital immigrants,” trying to learn a new foreign language and enter a mysterious culture that is both unfamiliar and overwhelming. Some parents I talk to have stuck their heads in the sand, hoping it will all just go away. Not likely.

Our children are spending more and more time online—and this trend is only going to continue to soar as smart phones are in kids’ hands at younger and younger ages. It is imperative that parents educate themselves about how to protect their children in the new technological universe.


Mean Girls and Bullying Boys: Pitfalls and Lessons for Parents

Monday, July 30th, 2012

mean girls“Isn’t it kind of silly to think that tearing someone else down builds you up?”  -Sean Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens

Just a few days ago, I was meeting with two teenage girls and their mom and dad. The parents wanted counseling to help them lessen the conflict and emotional volatility of their communications. The younger daughter, soon to go into eight grade, suddenly announced that she wanted to change schools in the fall to escape a group of horrendously mean girls at her junior high.

As the parents were alternately upset, speechless and defensive, the older sister chimed in with enormous empathy, having been the recipient of similar attacks a few years prior. Although I was sad to see the suffering of this close family, I was relieved that both girls were openly sharing their painful experiences, enlisting the support of their parents in the process.


8 Insights to Keep Love Alive in Intimate Relationships

Sunday, July 22nd, 2012

keep love alive“Love doesn’t just sit there, like a stone; it has to be made, like bread, remade all the time, made new.”   -Ursula K. LeGuin

In thirty-five years of counseling couples and families, I have continually been reminded about how little most of us are taught about specific tasks and principles for building and maintaining happy, loving relationships. There seems to be a myth afoot: once married, the relationship grows on its own.

Unfortunately, without some form of guidance from a mentor, minister, therapist or close friend, often what grows are bad habits and distance.


Americans Get the Gold Medal for Anxiety

Sunday, July 15th, 2012

 american anxiety“As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler; solitude will not be solitude, poverty will not be poverty, nor weakness weakness.” -Henry David Thoreau

NEWSFLASH!: The United States gets the gold! We have become the nation with the highest level of anxiety in the world. According to a recent study by the World Health Organization, 31 percent of Americans are likely to suffer from an anxiety problem at some point during their lifetime. The silver medal goes to Columbia with a lifetime risk of 25.3 percent, and the bronze to New Zealand with 24.6 percent. “The United States has transformed into the planet’s undisputed worry champion,” writes Taylor Clark, author of Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool.”

Articles have been written by psychologists, politicians, pundits and other bloggers trying to explain the reasons for this downside of American mental health. I’m more interested in what we can do about it. We will undoubtedly need to tackle this problem from many different angles. This is only one.

Since prior generations of Americans did not reportedly suffer from such epic levels of fear and worry, is there something to be learned from our familial history? If you are one of the worried masses, could it be time to simplify your life?


How To Enhance Your Kids’ (And Your Own) Motivation: Part 1

Monday, June 11th, 2012

To be motivated means to be moved to do something. Who among us has not wondered or worried about how to motivate ourselves, our spouse or our kids to get things done, whether it be homework, exercise, or just doing the dishes? The good news is that this area of inquiry is so important that it has been and continues to be a hot topic for research.

One of the key distinctions when examining motivation–or lack thereof–is the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. When we are intrinsically motivated, we do something because it is interesting and enjoyable. When extrinsically motivated, we do something either for some type of reward or to avoid an external punishment–the proverbial carrot or stick.

Life is full of all kinds of activities, some fun and some boring. Most of us do not have to be prodded or praised to do something we inherently love. We just need to figure out how to get ourselves to complete tasks that are unappealing but necessary.


Top 10 Tools for Surviving Family Vacations

Monday, June 4th, 2012

Now that school’s out, everyone wants to play and go on vacation. Having a flashlight and flares for a car trip is a great idea. So is a travel bag of games and CDs.

But what about a repair kit for family feelings? Or a road map to harmony? Even a dream vacation in an idyllic setting can become a nightmare if the kids are at each other’s throats.

Here are some practical parenting tools to help bring out the best in everybody:


Gay Marriage: How to Handle the New Hot Potato

Thursday, May 10th, 2012

In a country deeply divided into red states and blue states, President Obama’s endorsement of gay marriage will no doubt become a political hot potato. In the meantime, the psychological and emotional impact of politics on the actual lives of families will get drowned out in the rhetoric of opposing sides.

As psychotherapists working with couples and families from diverse backgrounds, we know first hand how differences about things like religion, politics, values and behaviors can either damage or strengthen relationships. Which way it goes depends on several crucial variables.

First, can family members listen with an open mind to the experiences of loved ones even when they can’t agree? Second, can they develop empathy for the pain of another? Third, are the individuals open to new information and education?


Joy=Love–Fear and Other Emotional Equations for Happiness

Monday, May 7th, 2012


“Everything can be taken from a man or a woman but one thing: the last of human freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”– Dr. Viktor Frankl

There are a lot of excellent self-help books out there these days. So many, in fact, that it is often difficult to figure out which one or another might be helpful to suggest when someone you love is suffering. I recently came across an unusual book, written not by a psychotherapist or neuroscientist, but by an MBA from Stanford who founded the second largest boutique hotel company in America.

This book will appeal to twenty and thirty-something dot-commers, men who like the short version, engineer-types of any age and gender, and all the other anti-touchy-feely folks you know who need some help wading through painful emotions (even if they don’t think so).

The story behind this book is compelling. Chip Conley was a powerful CEO in Silicon Valley who appeared to have it all. Then the bubble burst in the economy and Conley lost five colleagues and friends to suicide in a few short years. In 2008, without warning and for no apparent medical reason, his heart stopped. This got his attention in a big way, and he began to seek out answers about how to alleviate his suffering from the field of psychology.


Why Are We Becoming More Lonely?

Monday, April 30th, 2012


“All the lonely people, where do they all come from?
All the lonely people, where do they all belong?”

-from the song, Eleanor Rigby, written by Paul McCartney and John Lennon, released  in 1966.

Being lonely is not just painful, it is a major contributor to a host of health problems including depression, sleep problems, obesity, and dementia. The importance of social networks–increasing our time spent with family and friends rather than being alone–is so well documented that both the medical and psychological communities are realizing it has the same relevance to health and longevity as things like not smoking or getting regular exercise.

In another well-known Beatles song, we seem to get by so much better “with a little help from our friends.”

Although there have always been lonely people in the world, their numbers are growing. In 2010, the American Association of Retired Persons conducted a survey of 3000 adults over 45 years old. A little over one-third admitted to being lonely compared to twenty percent only a decade earlier.

Some groups were shockingly hard hit. Half of those never married were lonely. Forty-three percent of adults aged 43-49 were lonely. Other prominent researchers estimate roughly 20 percent of Americans are unhappy due to loneliness. That’s 60 million people in America alone.


How's Your Family Really Doing?
Don MacMannis, Ph.D. & Debra Machester MacMannis, MSW are the author of How's Your Family Really Doing?.

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