There is much talk in the news how screen time before bed interferes with sleep. Adults are having sleep problems and so are kids. Parents are encouraged to keep the bedroom sacrosanct- meaning no electronics in the bedroom. That is a good idea. But it does not go far enough, because even during the day kids spend too much time on their computers, tablets and smart phones.
Here is what too much screen time does to the brain, body and mind.
- In the brain, electrical activity increases and neurons race.
- In the body, the act of responding to emails and playing video games can tense the muscles, cause stress, rev up cortisol and even activate the fight or flight response.
- In the mind, the capacity to be reflective is diminished.
Getting off gadgets gets a child back into the other parts of life that are important for their brain development, as well as their social, emotional and cognitive development.
If you are like most parents you find it hard to set limits and woo your child away from all those screens. Even the best intentioned parents these days are frustrated with how obsessed their children seem to be about using their electronic gadgets. It is a big problem, and not just for kids. It’s a problem for us as adults. I spent last weekend with my grandson and was so aware of how often I had the ‘urge’ to check my email, read the news or look something up on Google while I was with him. It was not easy to resist the urge! But I knew I was going to be writing this blog and that I had to be a good role model for what I was going to be talking about.
Why is it hard to resist our electronics? The brain is drawn to rapidly changing images, novelty and quick feedback, which is exactly what electronics provide us with so well. Change, novelty and feedback each activate a ‘hit’ of dopamine, the reward neurotransmitter. The dopamine is the ‘kick’, the stimulation that gets you coming back for more. It is literally habit forming and a recipe for addiction. We all know how hard it is to kick an addiction. The temptation is so powerful; the withdrawal so uncomfortable.
There are available solutions but they require effort on your part as a parent. The most challenging part about getting your child to reduce the time they spend in front of a screen is YOU have to work at it.
- For one thing, you have to stay on top of it and be committed to it– in the same way as if you were trying to change bad eating habits, or stop biting your nails. It is not a one time lecture. It is a day by day effort. Like changing any bad habit, you have to help your child form new healthier habits to replace old the screen time habit.
- For another you have to reduce the time you spend in front of a screen– at least while you are with them. This is because kids are such intense imitators. They simply do what you do, not what you say. If you want your child’s screen time to go down, your screen time will have to go down.
Fortunately we are not talking abstinence or going cold turkey. That would be impractical and unrealistic. As with everything we talk about in Reflective Parenting it is all about finding a healthy balance- a balance between electronics and the rest of life, such as friends, family, and physical activity. Time for contemplation, even some boredom is good, since it relaxes the brain.
Some suggestions for reducing your child’s screen time.
- Reduce your own screen time. Limit how
often you check email or Google.
- Have ‘electronic time-outs’ during the day, such as at dinner, before bedtime and for stretches of time on the weekend.
- Talk about your plans to reduce time on electronics with your child, giving them the reasons for why you are doing it. Have them actively participate in coming up with ideas for how to reduce their screen time.
- Be prepared for your child’s push back. Remember that giving up screen time is a little like kicking a cocaine habit or going on a diet. The cravings can get powerful. This why your child will implore you for MORE TIME! They will try to sneak time- like a dieter sneaking an extra cookie in the middle of the night.
- Be convinced. Be confident. What you are doing by setting limits is really, really, really good for your child. It is your conviction and confidence that will better enable you to set firm limits. Without them limits tend to get wobbly and fuzzy.
- Do it as a group. Parenting is designed by Nature to be a group effort– the ‘It takes a village!’ idea. Get a group of parents together to all decide to do it. That way you will feel backed up by the group and also will be able to counteract your child’s tendency to make you feel guilty that you are being too strict. You are not being too strict. You are doing what other well-intentioned and like-minded parents are doing.
- Don’t try for perfect! Just try for reduction! The aim is to contain how much your child is in front of a screen. Any amount you reduce it is good.
- Let them be bored! Of course it is good to help your child come up with other things they can do besides video games, texting and Instagram. But even if they can’t come up with anything else to do, it is totally fine for them to be bored.