Kid’s Screen Time and the Positive Dynamics of Choral Music

7 mins read
Upset. A boy with a pillow in hands looking upset

This year, the annual National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day is observed on May 9th.

It is a day to raise awareness of the importance of every child’s mental health and as Governor Newsom proclaimed last year, “The unprecedented challenges of the past few years have put a spotlight on the mental health crisis facing our nation and its heavy toll on the youngest among us – especially in under-served and marginalized communities. Children and youth are struggling with anxiety, depression and trauma, and far too many of them are facing these issues alone. In California, we take the mental health and well-being of our children seriously, and we’re taking transformative action to ensure that struggling kids have the support they need to grow and thrive.”

Newsom continued, “The statistics speak for themselves: mental health issues are the leading cause of hospitalization for children under 18 in California. Eight to 10 percent of children under the age of five experience clinically significant and impairing mental health problems nationally. The weight of this crisis is not carried equally – children and youth of color, those living in low-income communities, LGBTQ+ youth, and other vulnerable populations are experiencing higher rates of stress and social isolation.”

Pasadena psychotherapist weighs in

Alison Hild is a Pasadena-based psychotherapist1 and mindfulness skills teacher. Hild works with parents and also provides individual therapy for children from age two through the teen years.

Hild comments, “The pandemic caused a great deal of distress for parents as they tried to manage their own feelings around what was happening in the world while simultaneously trying to protect their children from experiencing an overwhelming amount of fear. Many parents were juggling, working from home, keeping their children entertained, essentially having to homeschool their children, and trying to protect their children from their own feelings of overwhelm, anxiety and confusion.

This combination can understandably lead to parental fatigue and dysregulation of the home’s ‘nervous system.’ While we all have individual nervous systems that are either regulated or dysregulated, a family home also has a ‘shared’ nervous system. What I mean by this is that regulation is contagious, as is dysregulation. If one member of the family unit is feeling dysregulated, it is very likely to have a trickle-down effect. Consistent dysregulation in the home increases the likelihood of anxiety and ‘unwanted behaviors’ from children as they try to sort through their big feelings.”

Re-grounding and re-establishing the nervous system

Given the disruption that the COVID-19 years brought, Hild observes that parents may now feel unsure about what is normal regarding their child’s demeanor and what may be signs that their child could benefit from outside support.

A group of people sitting and looking at the camera

Environmental stressors may also disturb healthy family dynamics, creating tremendous stress for younger members in particular. Common stressors include domestic violence or conflict between family members, moving to a new home, changing schools, the arrival of a new family member, separation or divorce of parents, loss of a loved one, and the presence of addiction or substance abuse in the home.

“Parents will reach out to me due to concerns such as anxiety, ADHD, emotional regulation, depression, perfectionism, self-esteem concerns, identity exploration, social challenges, sibling relationships, transitions, and traumatic experiences. I advise parents to be aware of an increase in self-isolating behaviors in the child,” says Hild. “We look for excessive worrying, an increase in sadness, and unkind self-talk from the child. An increase in fearfulness may present in the form of nightmares and having a hard time falling asleep. More tension and altercations may signal deeper conflict. Dramatic changes in eating may also be warning signs or distress signals, and we also need to be watchful for any signs of overt self-harm.”

Screen and social media may not be all bad, but they’re not enough

Hild says that while screen time and social media may be beneficial to children and teens if all that tech leads to more in-real-life interaction. However, this is usually not the case. She says, “Constant access to phones and reliance on social media don’t teach children to tolerate boredom or how to be patient when something is not exciting.”

primary education, friendship, childhood, technology and people concept - group of happy elementary school students with smartphones and backpacks sitting on bench outdoors

Citing the omnipresence of FOMO, Hild acknowledges that “…interaction with screens is impossible to get away from, but we must be mindful about the importance of setting limits and boundaries with technology. Adolescence is now starting earlier and lasting longer.” She says. “For instance, you may notice some difficult social dynamics between peers happening as early as 2nd and 3rd grade instead of beginning in high school. The brain is not mature until age 25 or so, and so that kind of social pressure becomes very stressful for a young person.”

To disarm potentially destructive situations, Hild advises that parents individually allocate frequent quality time with each child, away from the competition and distraction of other siblings and family members. Time spent in nature and with animals is also recommended. These activities invite the child’s free emotional expression and develop self-awareness.

Even though parents naturally want their children to be happy and appear as such, Hild warns against Toxic Positivity: scared, sad and mad may be on the menu. “It’s important that we allow children to be themselves,” says Hild. “The child needs to be reassured that all feelings are okay. And developing the ability to identify feelings can help build social skills.”

Hild always incorporates the arts into her sessions, including enjoying musical instruments. A singer herself, she worked in music before entering her current field. “Singing releases endorphins,” she says, “and listening to music and making music with other people reduces cortisol levels.”

And while one size does not fit all, a few readily accessible practices seem widely helpful in helping kids navigate the process of growing up in 2024. Focused attention from parents, screen-free recreational experiences with peers, fresh air, movement, play, and the natural neurochemical high of singing with others, whether in a cathedral or around a campfire, all may be beneficial to a child’s mental health.

The choral cure

Patrick Flahive is the choirmaster for St. Andrew School and the Co-Founder and Artistic Director of Pueri Cantores SGV (the preferred contemporary translation is “Young Singers”), now celebrating its third decade as a 501(c)3 nonprofit ensemble dedicated to teaching and performing the great sacred music of the choral tradition. He cites the lingering aftermath of COVID-19 as a factor in the isolation that may lead to mental health issues for children.

Flahive comments, “I’ve been told by organizers of sports teams and Scout troops that while wading through this post-pandemic world, we have seen a sharp decrease in children and youth group activity participation. Though we have had more than 60 members in years past, we are currently struggling to rebuild the chorale after the pandemic quarantines which strictly prohibited gathering together to sing.”

On the plus side, PCSGV welcomes new choristers, and Flahive reports an uptick in enrollment in the choir that he directs in partnership with his wife, Executive Director, career singer and vocal technique coach Lauren Flahive. For grownups and kids who may be new to sacred choral music, a perfect introduction awaits on Saturday, May 18, at 7:30 PM. Pueri Cantores San Gabriel Valley will celebrate its 30th Anniversary Season at St. Andrew Catholic Church with works by Mozart, Britten, and other ethereal selections. Dr. Hee Jeong Kim on piano and a chamber orchestra, will accompany the soloists and vocalists. All funds raised will benefit the music education programs of the choir (call 626-918-3994 for more info). The suggested donation is $20 at the door and $15 for seniors and children under 12.

The happiness quotient of singing in groups is indeed gleeful, but the reference is slightly more complex. In musical terms, a “glee” is a baroque, classical or romantic-era British part song, meaning an a cappella form derived from the madrigal, arranged for several voices. But dig a bit deeper into the etymology to learn that the term “glee” arises from Proto-Indo-European and Proto-Germanic words meaning pleasure, mirth, play, and joy—all congruent with modern neuroscience.

The Royal Society Publishing conducted a groundbreaking study in 2015 that compared the benefits of group singing to other shared activities, such as crafting or creative writing. One of the conclusions reached was that “…the distinguishing feature of singing was that it bonded groups more quickly than the other activities.” The study also stated, “Building on a growing body of the literature, we propose that group unity depends on behaviors that are synchronous and involve some muscular effort, which triggers the release of neuropeptides such as β-endorphin, yield enhanced positive affect, and in turn may enhance individuals’ willingness to cooperate.”

The study is summarized in this way: “Singing breaks the ice so that individuals feel closer to the group as a whole even if they do not yet know anything about the individual members. Such an effect may overcome time constraints on the creation of individual relationships to allow large human groups to coordinate effectively and quickly. In this regard, it is interesting that religion, another potential mechanism for connecting large numbers of individuals, often incorporates singing or chanting in groups.”

A person talking on a cell phone

This is why Flahive encourages parents to enroll their children in choirs. “After 30 years of directing Pueri Cantores SGV, what I observe lately is a shortened attention-span among children, which I think is a result of too much tech, too much screentime,” he says. By contrast, “Singing together is a way of discovering joy.”

Star power appreciated but not required

Because we live in the entertainment capital of the world, it’s important to note that group singing is beneficial, even if the singer has no intention of becoming the next Andrea Bocelli (or Taylor Swift). Flahive’s focus is not grooming future super-stars, but rather nurturing here-and-now confidence in children. Acquiring musical literacy, including the ability to sight-read musical notation, may also enhance seemingly unrelated skills, including proficiency in math.

“I often have to reassure fearful parents that I am not in this to terrify children! But sometimes, as early as the first rehearsal, the same parents will tell me that their child sang in the car all the way home. The kids never realized that they could do this, and it quickly becomes a way of releasing fear,” says Flahive.

Rather than the synthetic perfection of the recording studio, group singing is deeply organic and profoundly warm-blooded. Flahive effuses, “The vibrations that form the sound belong to the singers. When we are making these sounds together in unison, it’s a very primal thing. We begin to breathe in unison. Our heartbeats synch-up. The choir effectively becomes an ecosystem, like a single organism.

“The soaring choral music of Mozart, Palestrina, Vivaldi, Handel, and so many other magnificent masters was written for the voices of children.  This is the music that grabbed my heart as a child, and I have spent a lifetime committed to furthering this art,” says Flahive.  “Singing is a sharing of wealth, an embrace, and beauty is a refuge from anxiety. There is so much more beauty available to a life that’s informed by music.”

  1. AMFT136606, Associate Marriage and Family Therapist, supervised by Bren M. Chasse, LMFT94662. ↩︎
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Victoria Thomas

Victoria has been a journalist since her college years when she wrote for Rolling Stone and CREEM. Victoria describes the view of Mt. Wilson from her front step as “staggering,” and she is a defender of peacocks everywhere.
Email: [email protected]

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