Electronics. I have a love-hate relationship with them. I love how easy they make everything, but hate how they seem to suck the brain right out of our kid’s head. The dazed, far-off stare of a child who has had too much screen time, followed by the anger and screams of that child when told to turn off the tablet, haunt my dreams.
You may have read or heard the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendations regarding appropriate daily screen time for your child: no screens for infants under 18 to 24 months, except possibly video chatting; up to 1 hour a day for children aged 2-5, but avoid solo use and fast-paced programming; no screens at least an hour before bed; along with other recommendations that cover screen time and media use in general (you can read those here: Media and Young Minds).
However, what problems can too much screen time cause? How do we decrease screen time?
As a mother of 4 young children, I get it – that screen gives you longer periods of quiet or simply time to make dinner without small people slowing you down. But the screen time adds up quickly and can result in some pretty wacky behavior. Research suggests more exposure to television and video games use can result in attention problems, even if the child is typically developing. Too much screen time may be a risk factor for depression and anxiety in adolescents. Excessive screen time may inhibit a child’s ability to engage with others. Additionally, there is some evidence that cutting off access to screens for kids aged 11 to 13 years for just 5 days improved their ability to interact socially and read nonverbal emotional cues.
There are physical issues that can develop with lots of screen time too. Less physical activity and more screen time are associated with obesity in children, and bedtime access to screen-based media results in too little sleep, poorer sleep quality, and excessive daytime sleepiness.
On top of all of this, as social media use increases, the risk of cyberbullying and the psychological impact of that increases as well.
More studies come out on an almost weekly basis that suggest the need to monitor and limit a child’s screen time. Most children are not cognitively developed enough to monitor their own screen-time, and need an adult to place restrictions and limits for them. However, this is also a stumbling block for many of us – we are on our screens too! Nielsen recent published a survey about cell phone usage in which the authors reported that millennials (18 to 34 years old) are the top cell phone users compared with previous generations, followed closely behind by “Gen Xers” (aged 35 to 44 years).
With summer upon us, let’s crack down on screen time, both for our children and for ourselves! Although it may seem like a tall order, the truth is that most of us will not even stress about this change after a week or two. Actually cutting the cord is the hardest part.
Try some of these steps:
- Set a time limit – and stick to it!
Allow your child an age-appropriate amount of screen time and then turn it off. Easier said than done, right? If your child is always on screens, this is going to need some additional steps, such as gradually decreasing amount of screen time and/or using software that allows parental control over the device (e.g. qustodio.com or screentimelabs.com – some families I have worked with had great success with these software programs).
2. Be prepared for the protest.
Dopamine, a chemical in the brain associated with reward seeking and additional feelings of gratification, may work differently in kids that frequently play video games. The screen may be more rewarding than interacting with you in the moment. This results in defiant behavior or meltdowns when you tell them to put down the tablet. Make the change, implement rules, stick with it in a firm, neutral manner, and the protest will die down after a week to 10 days. The next couple of steps will help you prepare for this protest.
3. Be strategic about when you implement your plan.
Pick a week that your child will be busy away from the electronics to implement the new screen time rules. For example, sign your child up for a week-long camp where they will be engaged in an activity they like during the day, and start to enforce the screen time rules that week. It will be easier for your child to get used to a screen time limit if they spent all day away from the screen and only have an hour to use it in the evening. To make lasting changes, we have to set ourselves up for success by managing the situation and environment around the behavior. Picking a busy week to start will help you do that.
4. Identify Screen-Free zones.
Identify a central, common location to keep screens and chargers, such as the family room or kitchen. Having access to screens in the bedroom is linked to more problematic game use and difficulty sleeping. It is also easier to enforce the rules if the screens are in roughly the same place. You may need to problem solve this change though, such as acquiring an alarm clock if your child (or you) usually use your phone as an alarm.
5. Make a list of activities your child wants to do this summer.
Consider activities such as going to the pool, playing with friends, playing board games, etc. Keep some ideas in your back pocket for the times your child typically would reach for the screen, like before nap time or after school. For example, my 4-year-old loves to watch tv before nap. However, he is just as happy to sit and color with me or play play-dough when those activities are an option. I bring those activities out at the right time of day so I have something of high value that is more enticing than the screen.
6. Model appropriate use of screens.
If you are limiting your child’s screen time, you will be more successful in this endeavor, as well as enjoy your children more, if you limit yours as well. Engage with them. Most of us do not need to extend 24/7 availability to co-workers , acquaintances, or even extended family – so cut the cord. To this end:
- Take your phone out of your pocket and put it on a counter or in a drawer when at home; you will be less likely to pull it out and mindlessly check an app if it is not within reach.
- Turn off the notifications on your phone for all apps but your calendar.
- Delete apps you do not use or don’t enjoy using.
- Practice the Dialectical Behavior Therapy skill of doing things “one-mindfully”, which is another way of saying: focus on one thing at time – really. If you are washing dishes, focus on and think about washing dishes. If you are playing with your kids, focus on and think about playing with your kids. That single focus helps us to be less distracted and more patient. Start by engaging in one activity a day with all your focus, then extend that to two activities a day, and so on. It is a relaxing feeling to completely focus on pushing your children on the swing set, and your child will engage more fully with you in return. Give it a shot.
Limiting screens in this world where electronics are pervasive is hard. However, it will be worth it!