The Epic Screen Time Battle
Screens – they’re everywhere! As our kids get older, and generally more savvy with phones, tablets and apps, how do we help them find balance when overexposure is so easily attainable? We spoke with Cindy Kaplan, parent coach and conscious family therapist, for help understanding how screen time can affect our kids, while also giving us tips on discussing it with them. Read on for some great strategies:
We hear a lot about young children and screen time. For tweens and teens, how much screen time is "too much?"
While “too much” is part of the equation, it differs from person to person. There are no guidelines from the APA for teens like there are for kids two and under, and content plays a huge role in determining the answer to this question as well. In my home, I know there is too much screen time when I see other activities and interests fall by the wayside because of it. For example, when my kid has gone days without picking up a book or isn’t finding the time to practice the music that he enjoys, we are at “too much”. When a kid isn’t getting homework assignments turned in or grades are dropping, it is likely too much. When face-to-face interaction with parents, siblings, or friends is shrinking, it is likely too much. When a teen won’t come to the dinner table because they’re on their phone, it is likely too much, but there may be other issues at play as well.
What are the harmful effects of overexposure to screen time?
I believe that the most harmful effect of overexposure to screen time is the deterioration of connection with family. For tweens and teens, there are effects in behavior that mimic symptoms of ADHD, depression and anxiety. Victoria Dunckley MD, a psychiatrist who has written a book called, Reset Your Child’s Brain, has determined that it takes about four weeks of a screen-fast to reset your brain back to baseline. She often will only test a child or teen for ADHD once the family has engaged in a screen detox. The results are fascinating. She has found that many kids who exhibited behaviors of ADHD no longer exhibited them. People who had a diagnosis of Bipolar disorder or Depression didn’t need to be medicated or required a much lower dose than if she had medicated them before the screen fast.
I think one of the other greatest harmful effects of too much screen time is how it takes us away from ourselves and our own thoughts. Tweens and teens have so much going on for them emotionally during these years without a screen and using the screen just suppresses what they are feeling so they can’t deal with it. They use the screen, often unconsciously to numb out or to avoid being uncomfortable. The feelings will be suppressed but will find their way out in less healthy ways and manifest as Depression, Anxiety, or physical illness. Ironically, the use of social media exacerbates the natural feelings of insecurity that we often have at that age anyway. Most of us can recall what it felt like to enter the lunch room and wonder where we would sit, or walk into school wondering about friends, what people are wearing, thinking, etc. The use of social media magnifies these uncertainties and insecurities in a way that I believe is more than a tween or teen can actually manage.
Are there certain types of "screen time" that you prefer more than others or are all created equal? (Social media vs TV/ipad vs reading on a kindle)
Many of us received the message that playing games on a screen is better than just sitting on a couch and watching TV because it is interactive and TV is passive. In fact, the opposite is true in many ways. TV can be watched as a group so that everyone isn’t in their own world or on their own devices. TV shows have a plot with a beginning, a middle, and an end. We all know that there is no end to scrolling on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat or many video games. The fact that parents and teens can watch a show together provides an opportunity for discussion and connection. I have great family memories of watching shows in the evening with my mom and sister. I don’t think there is anything terribly wrong with reading on a Kindle and it sure makes reading while travelling easy. That said, there are some sensory experiences that one can only get from holding and reading a book. If the only way to get your teen to read is on a Kindle, go for it!
How do parents talk to their kids about screen time in a way that makes sense to them? (Particularly when being around screens is their "norm.")
Parents are victim to overuse of screen time in the same way that their kids are, and I think this can be one of the greatest ways to connect with them about the challenges. We as parents really understand the temptation to check e-mail or Facebook while waiting in line at the grocery store or checking responses after we post something. It is so important to show our kids that we too struggle with overuse.
There is another concept called “persuasive design” that is worth educating yourself about, in addition to sharing with your kids. Persuasive design is a little known phenomenon where the tech industry has paired up with neuropsychologists to figure out ways to continually pull kids away from the nonprofit world of imagination, creativity, exploration and being out in nature, to the for profit world of figuring out ways to keep users, kids and adults alike to continually want more. They have found a way to design video games that capitalize on the natural desire for boys to experience mastery and social experiences (playing video games online with friends) and the FOMO (fear of missing out) among girls and their use of social media. When we explain this to our kids and help them understand that the media companies have us right where they want us, kids often decide that they want to beat the system. Screens are here to stay and not only do we need to make peace with them, we want to teach our kids awareness, mindfulness, and literacy around understanding its impact .
What types of limitations should be set? Should taking away screen time be a punishment?
Again, there will be different limits for different kids as there are different effects depending on the individual’s temperament. The parents must figure out what limits feel right to them and become more conscious of the decisions and lack of limits currently in place. When parents are crystal clear on our limits such as no screens at the dinner table, no use of screens in the car, no screens in the bedroom, or all devices are charged in one place at night, etc. we can hold the boundary and set the limit from a place of connection versus from a place of control..
I don’t believe that punishments are effective, but logical and natural consequences are necessary for any learning to take place. The only time I think screen time should be taken away is when we see it either being used irresponsibly or when we are convinced that it is getting in the way of homework or other important activities or qualities of being. That said, it is always beneficial to start from a place of curiosity. “You know that your phone can not stay in your room overnight and yet you kept it in here last night. You must have had a good reason and I would really like to know what that is.” “I notice that you are really having a hard time turning off this particular video game. What is it about this game that makes it so hard?”
For parents, this technology world is something we never experienced as kids ourselves. What are a few important resources you'd recommend we check out to keep up with it all?
Below list of resources that I gave to the parents who attended the talk I did last week on media and our kids.
Victoria Dunkley, MD: Reset Your Child’s Brain: A Four Week Plan to End Meltdowns, Raise Grades,and Boost Social Skills by Reversing the Effects of Electronic Screen Time
Richard Freed PhD: Wired Child:Reclaiming Childhood in a Digital Age
Cindy is a Certified Parent Coach, a Master’s level Family Therapist, and Yoga Practitioner for children with special needs. She has been working with families, parents, and children in a variety of settings since 1995. Her study of yoga infuses her family work in ways that help parents be less reactive and more responsive. She brings humor, keen listening skills, and many resources to the families with whom she works. Cindy lives in Newton, MA and has three kids between the ages of 11-19. cindykcoaching.com
PLEASE NOTE: The writers of this article are not medical professionals. The information in this column is not intended and should not be construed as providing medical or psychological advice, but rather to offer readers information and provide a perspective to better understand the lives of themselves and their children. Articles on this website may be opinion based. The articles are not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist, psychotherapist or other licensed medical professional. If you do have health or safety concerns, please get in touch with a healthcare professional.