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“It’s time to put away all the devices,” I said to my seven and nine-year-old children.
“Did you hear me? Let’s turn everything off,” I repeated.
“What?!” my daughter protested.
“That’s so unfair,” retorted my son.
There I was again…suddenly in a power struggle over screens.
Part of me just wanted to give in. After all, my children on screens meant free time for me.
But then I remembered the statistics around screens:
>> In Europe, The Independent recently reported that obesity is at “epidemic proportions,” as one in three children are now obese or overweight.
>> In the United States, obesity in U.S. children increased at an unprecedented rate during the pandemic.
>> Teen sadness rates and depression are at an all-time high.
>> Parents’ stress and overwhelm have continued to increase since March 2020 when COVID-19 shutdowns began.
>> In 2020, a study by Instagram found that one-third of teen girls said “Instagram made them feel worse,” even though these girls “feel unable to stop themselves” from logging on.
>> Screen time usage in children is considered to be one of the top three harmful effects of the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.
After examining the facts of increased obesity, sadness and depression rates, and overwhelm, it is time to make a plea for parents to reconsider screen time this summer.
This is not because I am anti-screens. Nor do I believe that children should never be allowed to watch movies or play video games.
As a parenting educator, former elementary school teacher, and mama of two, I see the benefits of screens and I don’t believe children need to be raised without screens entirely.
However, screens have taken the role of babysitter, friend, and physical social interaction.
Screens are used to keep children quiet at dinner, to suppress their boredom at the grocery store, as a substitute for playdates, as the chief entertainer when parents need a break, and as a place for children and teens to escape to when they are feeling sad, rather than getting the parental connection they so desperately need.
As summer approaches, many parents are overwhelmed with the high costs of summer camps, the fears of Covid in group settings, and the difficult balance between caring for children over the summer and work. In the stress and overwhelm that parents feel, screens provide an immediate solution that temporarily seems to “fix” the problem.
With kids glued to X-boxes, Nintendo, PlayStation, Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube, it gives parents time to do their work and not have to send their kids off to summer camps. This temporary solution, however, has a host of consequences.
Take Luna for example. Luna is a hypothetical girl based on my experience working with children and research in the parenting field.
Luna is a bright girl who used to excel in math and reading at school. She always got good grades and had a host of friends. Since the worldwide shut down from COVID-19, Luna has felt isolated from her peers and has grown used to staying indoors more and more.
On the weekends, she finds herself on devices for at least six hours of the day. At first, the screen time makes her feel happy. The social interaction on Instagram and the bright lights of her video games releases dopamine in her brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter and hormone. One of its important roles in the brain is attached to pleasure and reward. In short, it makes us feel happy.
There are good ways to get dopamine and not-so-good ways. Some good ways to get more dopamine into your body are through exercise, healthy foods, and in-person social interactions. Harmful ways to get dopamine are through drugs, alcohol abuse, and screens.
Kathryn Lorenz, MD, says that “Prolonged use of watching TV, video games, scrolling through social media—all of that use acts like a digital drug for our brain.”
Lorenz goes on to add that “studies have shown screen time affects the frontal cortex of the brain, similar to the effect of cocaine.”
Luna begs her parents for more screen time because it makes her feel good (with the rush of dopamine) and screens temporarily take away her underlying sadness. And yet, the more prolonged screen hours she engages in, the worse she feels. The cycle is destructive.
Furthermore, Luna sees her friends and people she idolizes leading exciting and fun lives. She looks at girls who have the body type she wishes that she had. Luna’s feelings of low self-worth are building and her parents are unaware of just how badly their daughter is beginning to feel.
Luna is not an uncommon or drastic example of a child in today’s society. Luna is easily your own child or the child next door. And, Luna needs your support.
The first step in decreasing screen time in your home is to create a plan. This is a crucial first step because nothing can change if there isn’t a plan for creating that change! It is similar to going to the gym. If you want to begin working out more, you would first make sure you have the proper clothing, you would sign up at your local gym, and then you’d schedule your workouts on your calendar. Without a plan, action is hard to take.
Your plan for decreasing screen time in your home should involve your child. This is critical because if your child doesn’t participate in creating the plan, they will feel like it is a punishment rather than you helping them create long-term healthy habits. That is exactly what happened to me when I entered into the power struggle around screens with my two children (I hadn’t yet created a plan!).
Find a time where everyone in the family can sit down together and create a list of activities that your child can do rather than using screens (maybe you would like to create one for yourself too?). Share the facts about screens with your child and let them know why you are working to make this shift in your home.
Record your list on a piece of paper or download a free PDF from my website and hang it on your wall.
You, as the parents, make a decision about how much screen time you will allow each day. For example, in our home, we allow video games for one hour on Saturday and Sunday. During the week, however, we do not allow our kids to play video games.
It is then up to our children on the weekend to decide how they want to allocate their screen time.
Using a timer is key here. Keep track of how long screens are being used so that you can adhere to the plan the best you can (you don’t need to be rigid, but rather mindful of the overall goal).
During the times that children feel bored or have used up all their screen time, you can have them refer back to the list of activities they created. That is their guide for finding activities when you are not available, and that list can be updated as much as needed.
Lastly, make sure that you are carving out time for activities, social interaction, picnics in the backyard, camping trips, making healthy treats in the kitchen, and anything else that will reestablish your bond as a family (and increase healthy dopamine levels).
Reducing screen time can feel challenging at first, but remember why you are making this choice. Think of the long-term benefits you are giving your child by saying yes to an engaged life rather than a passive, screen-filled one.