Carlson’s therapy sessions often start the same way. He comes in loaded with energy and talking a mile a minute. He uses the chair less to sit in, but more as a climbing apparatus. Sure, he’s a 7-year-old boy and they often are energetic, but this behavior is next level. I don’t have to work to engage him in conversation, because he is overflowing with things to tell me. However his stories are all about video games, YouTube shows, and movie characters. He can launch into descriptions of all the details of “plots” of shows like Skibidi Toilet and he’ll repeat these narratives in every session. If I try to engage him in an art therapy project, he’ll interject drawings of characters from these shows or video games, even if they are not relevant to what we’re discussing or drawing. To say he’s obsessed, would be an understatement.
In early therapy sessions I’m often minimally directive with young people so I get a sense of what they do, their interests, and what they want to talk about. For more and more young people, especially boys, the pattern is an obsessive ramble for the entire session about Fortnight or YouTube shows or some TikTok “influencer.”
I see kids in therapy today who are easily excited, hyperactive, fidgeting constantly, and talk in obsessive ways about video games and YouTube shows. I often discover that these children also have inconsistent or a complete lack of rules at home about how much technology they can use. So they are exposed to hours and hours of video games that are fast-paced and unrelenting in their levels of intensity. They have cell phones and watch short video clips that promote a short attention span. When children come in for sessions in the evenings on a vacation day I ask what they did all day and more often than not they look at me quizzically and say: “Gamed all day of course.”
They also get sucked into the YouTube rabbit hole of shows like Skibidi Toilet, with cartoons lasting a few seconds or minutes. These cartoons feature a dystopian world of psychotic TV men and toilet people, who engage in violent battles complete with sudden explosions and laser gun blasts. Human heads repeatedly get bashed with fists or weapons and even stabbed with knives. In addition, the plots are incomprehensible and are not “good guy wins,” which can help children make sense of any “good versus bad” conflicts and violence. This extremely violent content would make anyone stressed and anxious, much less a seven-year-old.
I find that most child tech consumption is usually done supervised and in the child’s own bedroom, so parents have no idea what they are watching, how much, or their reactions.
For contrast, when I grew up in the 1960s, we didn’t even have a television until I was maybe 10. It was not in our living room, but in a small den and it was black and white and about 10” wide. Our parents regulated how much we watched and what shows. (Not that there was really anything on TV that wasn’t kid friendly at all anyway.) The most fast-paced TV was Road Runner or Bugs Bunny cartoons, which are laughably slow-paced compared to shows today for children. These shows were also only 30 minutes long including breaks for advertisements. The levels of excitement were minimal and plots were mostly focused on humor, although often did involve violent themes — Wile E. Coyote plummeting to his “death” being the main plot of Roadrunner, of course!
Unlike today’s generations we had help regulating our excitement largely by the environment: high-intensity shows were either not available or my parents limited our access to them.
Kids need help regulating their emotions, even excitement. For example, if a child is angry for hours, that is not healthy and we need to help them work through the anger and become calm. If a child is sad, we need to help them work through that sadness as well in a reasonable manner and time. Excitement is no different.
Parents must do two things to help children regulate their levels of intense excitement that the media exposure provides. They must manage the environment by limiting how many hours of violent or fast-paced media they consume and — preferably — limit their exposure to begin with. Hint: There is really no redeeming educational value of Skibidi Toilet!
Children should not be marinating in excessive excitement (or any emotional experiences) for hours and hours without parental limits.
Parents can also help educate children on how to down-regulate their feelings of excitement, which is what I do in therapy with children like Carlson who come into session all wound up. All emotions come and go in intensity and learning to manage highs and lows of feelings is an essential skill that will help children in adulthood.
We also know that the neurobiology of these intense experiences, such as hours of exposure to violence or fast-paced shows, trains a child’s developing brain and nervous system to also be fast-paced and hyperactive. This is evolution’s way of preparing a child to live in the environment he or she is living in. The brain, in essence, says: “Hey, we’re living in a really high-stress environment here with lots of shooting and running and chasing, so we’ve got to be ready at all times to respond to that environment.” The result is hyperactivity, hyper vigilance, fidgeting, poor focus, poor school performance, sensory sensitivity, and “boredom” with any activity that isn’t as fast-paced as the latest first-person shooter video game or Marvel movie.
Parents today are the first generation who were raised on the internet and video games, so they have no awareness that these levels of excitement might be over-stimulating for their children. They also may have been left alone to consume hours of games and inappropriate TV shows and movies and may not have been taught by parents how to down-regulate emotions as well.
Tips for Teaching Emotional Regulation
- Observe your child.
- Put your phone down and observe your child regularly: What behaviors does he exhibit when he starts to get excited and how can you spot them early in the process before he gets too excited?
- Notice the patterns.
- Does he have more behavioral problems after hours of video gaming? Or when tired, hungry, after school or experiencing other sensory over-stimulation? Does the excitement then lead to crying spells, anger, pouting, oppositional behaviors, tantrums?
- Notice the environmental impacts.
- Does your child keep it keep it together when things are quiet, but then get over-reactive in a loud store or crowd or when rushing out the door in the morning? What happens when the stress level escalates just a bit or de-escalates?
- Alter the environment.
- Limit the types of media your child is exposed to and how long they play or watch. Adult-themed material can be over-stimulating because it contains content that the child is not emotionally or cognitively ready to handle. For example, I hear many young children watch adult-rated horror movies that cause them to be highly fearful and have nightmares. There is a reason movies like this are rated for adults!
- Keep other stressors to a minimum, such as rushing around, household noise, yelling, and family conflicts.
- Turn off TV news shows with graphic images of violence, war and conflict that are likely over stimulating to children.
- Make pre-bedtime a calm and predictable environment. Don’t permit highly excited, loud or physical play.
- When your child does become overly excited or hyperactive, help your child regulate emotions and behaviors.
- Teach deep breathing skills.
- Teach slowing the body and brain with mindfulness skills.
- Teach that excitement might feel good, but too much isn’t healthy for a young body and brain.
- Help them notice their bodies and minds, recognizing when they are moving too fast with excitement, and getting them to slow down their thoughts and behaviors.
- Model your own emotional regulation skills.
- Check your beliefs. If you were raised on video games and horror movies, do you automatically assume they are good for a child? Decades of research shows that watching virtual violence is linked to increased aggressive thoughts, feelings and actions in children. Some G and PG rated movies with spooky content might be OK for some young children, but it’s best to err on the side of caution and avoid PG-13 and R rated shows.
Your job as a parent is to help children learn to regulate themselves and excitement is no different from other emotions. Children can get too excited and need help building skills to manage this feeling.