Let’s talk about screens.
If you are struggling with this part of your parenting life, please understand that you are not alone. Many of us drive ourselves crazy over this issue. It can feel like a murky area, on the one hand when children are absorbed in a show or a game it makes for a whole lot of much needed quiet in a busy household, on the other hand kids seem to want a lot of screen time and we worry, is this healthy??
So let’s break it down. Let’s look at what to do, what not to do, and how to stay sane and connected to your children in this world full of shiny, beautiful screens.
1. DELAY, DELAY, DELAY
There is no way around this hazard, early screen time damages developing brains. Often parents want to give their kids an educational edge by providing them with early learning games found on devices, but in actuality, too much screen time too soon seriously stalls development. If the damage happens during the critical years before the age of three, the results can be permanent.
That’s no joke!
(More details and facts about early screen time effects can be found in this really helpful article).
So when the two-year old ferrets out the cell phone from your purse, you trade it for something more appropriate—just as you would with a more dangerous object. And when that same child sobs wildly in response and throws herself on the ground, you respond with empathy, not with acquiescence.
You’re really mad that I took that away huh? Darn it. It’s fun to play with, I know.
Hold her and repeat your empathetic observances until her feelings shift and she’s ready for a new activity.
The negative effects of intense screen time show up most clearly in young children, but that doesn’t mean older children aren’t similarly affected. Screens provide immediate gratification – the bells, whistles, and imagery available at a finger stroke are hard to resist, and when given the opportunity many kids will choose this easy entertainment over the type that requires participation, complex thought, or human interaction. This means that those powerful brains aren’t laying important groundwork necessary for a successful and happy life.
Furthermore, we actually want our children to look at faces. That sounds funny, but it’s true. In order to develop emotional intelligence, children need to observe and interact with beings that have emotions. Expression—like a furrowed brow, a strained tone of voice, or tears—is the kind of data we need our children to collect in order for them to develop empathy and compassion, two faculties absolutely crucial for meaningful relationships.
2. HAVE A PLAN
Having a plan means that you can say YES! when your children ask for screen time. Decide how much time you want your kids to have and stick to it. It means you will have to monitor them and that’s a total drag, but as pointed out above, it’s totally worth it. Even older children need help regulating their screen time and when everyone is on the same page about how much they get each day it will make your job easier.
Remember, just because the family is clear about the limit doesn’t mean that there won’t be upset feelings when the time is up. Your job is not to extend the screen time in order to alleviate these feelings, but to simply recognize and honor them when they arise.
Are you bummed that time is up? I bet. You LOVE that game, huh?
Let them thrash in their upset, and support them as they struggle with the transition. Don’t offer ideas as to what to do next, don’t chastise them for not being grateful for the time they did get, simply offer empathy and touch and wait for their brain chemistry to shift. When they’ve calmed down a bit and their executive brain comes back online they will find their own solutions as to how to spend their afternoon.
3. SAY NO
Kids love to play video games and watch shows—who doesn’t? So they ask. And they ask and they ask and they ask. It can be utterly maddening. It’s tempting to say YES just to make the asking stop, but most often, unless it coincides with your plan, the answer should still be NO. And that’s ok.
In our house when our youngest daughter asks for unplanned screen time, we let her down gently, and immediately she will ask: Then can I have some sugar?
Humans enjoy instant gratification. The urge to be entertained, to coast downhill and let something else offer stimulation is completely understandable. I am guilty of it myself—reaching for Instagram when I am between tasks is a knee-jerk reaction. Sugar acts the same—a shortcut to enjoyment, an instant pleasure buzz.
But the answer to extra screen time or sugar is still NO. I recognize that my daughter is asking because she needs something, and the instant fix is the first place she is looking to address that need. To help her, we empathize and seek to meet her needs in a healthier way.
We’re not going to do screen time or sugar now, but I can help you with your feelings… Are you having a hard time transitioning? Need some connection? Let’s hold each other.
It’s okay for kids to be upset. (Read that again if necessary!) As long as we support them in their feelings, managing rocky emotional terrain is actually stellar for them and their developing brain.
4. AVOID THE MAYBE
Instead of responding to your child’s request for screen time with a “maybe later”, it’s better to just get the NO over with.
The only thing worse than a kid spending too much time on a screen is a kid pacing the floor waiting for screen time. When we clearly say NO, explain our reasoning, and help them process their reactive emotions we free them up to do something else with their time.
Likewise, resist the urge to dangle screen time as motivation, as in: Maybe we’ll have screen time if we can get the house cleaned up... Motivating kids with promised pleasure only works in the short term—meaning, they will clean the house, but only as a way to get to the reward, not because they are learning the value of a tidy home or enjoying the opportunity to contribute, and they learn to only repeat this particular chore because of the reward. As soon as it is removed so is the motivation.
Take some of the power out of screen time by downgrading its importance. When we dress it up as a glittery carrot that inspires kids to do their chores, we contribute to its allure. Instead think of it as any other activity that your kids get to do for an allotted time. Make it less of a big deal and it will become less of a big deal.
5. PAY ATTENTION TO TIMING
When kids are playing video games, they aren’t doing other things—this is almost too obvious to mention, but it’s important to keep in mind. The most crucial thing they miss while staring at a screen is emotional processing. Off-loading our feelings, releasing them via wrestling, laughing, playing, and talking, is our way of maintaining emotional health. An overload of emotions hinders our ability to think clearly, form connection, and feel empathy for others.
In the normal course of the day children accumulate heavy feelings, feelings that need parental support and connection before they can be released. When children spend all day at school then return home to play video games for the remainder of daylight hours, they skip that crucial emotional processing. And furthermore, most media and video game content is designed to be stressful, thus, plainly adding to (rather than reducing) our children’s daily emotional load.
We can be lulled into thinking that screen time gives everyone a break because the kids are still and the house is quiet, but digital entertainment is not restorative. Think of it instead as a POSTPONEMENT, and yes there might be relief to be found there because the noise and activity does cease for a bit, but feelings don’t pause, instead they accumulate and fester. If there is whining and crying before screen time, there will be whining and crying afterward too. And, most likely, the expression will be more intense because not only did those original emotions go unattended for an hour or two becoming more potent, but the new emotions that arise from both enjoying and stopping screen time have been added to the pile as well.
Make sure the amount of screen time you allow leaves plenty of time left over for crying, laughing, and sharing. Better yet, address feelings before introducing screens into the day. And perhaps best of all, address feelings in place of screen time and the house will consistently remain on the calmer, quieter side.
Often we simply can’t relate to what our kids want to do with their screens.
Minecraft for hours? No thank you.
YouTube videos non-stop? I’ll pass.
We don’t understand it so we don’t value it. It all seems like a waste of time and thus we begrudge their use of devices, we spin stories about addiction, we demonize not only the activities but our children as well. As a result we become the scowly-faced villains of our children’s lives. And then we read an article regarding the screen time debacle that advises: Join IN! Minecraft can be fun! Connect with your kids via their beloved video games!
And we’re like: F-YOU!
But here’s the thing. Wanting screen time is normal. Watching and playing what you like is normal. (I’d watch the British Baking Show all day if I could.) And here’s the other thing. You don’t have to like their screen activities in order to connect, you just have to recognize that they do.
When I memorize the names of YouTubers that I don’t care about, just so that I can ask our 13 year-old about the latest “news”, what I am really saying is:
I see you. You matter to me. I value what’s valuable to you.
When my partner, Nathan, played a back-up singer in our thirteen year-old daughters’ video on her latest favorite app, Music.ly, he wiggled and jived and got the major giggles. He doesn’t care about that app! He doesn’t have it on his phone! But he does value our girls and that’s how he chose to show it.
Screen time doesn’t have to be disconnection time. Our kids’ interests aren’t always interesting, but they are. Ask questions. Memorize some of what they tell you. Repeat it back in a later conversation even if you get it completely wrong, like I do, and let them “educate” you some more on the wide world of their cyber passions.
7. SHARE THE INFO
There is great research on screens and their effect on children, and there is no reason not to share what you have learned with your kids.
Our nine-year old self-limits her use of the iPad. She knows that extensive use of a screen limits her ability to be creative and entertain herself. She is thrilled that she can use something commonplace, like pebbles, as characters in a game that lasts for days, and she doesn’t ever want this ability to wane. So she sets a timer on the kitchen stove, not because we have a prior agreement but because she desperately values the power of her imagination.
When we bring children to the table and empower them with information, they get to play a part in the design of their days (and the health of their brains).
Everything you’d ever want to know about the effects of screen usage can be found here.
Have you ever noticed that when we have our faces in a screen our children ask to play video games? Often, upon finding their parent unavailable for connection, kids will, once again, reach for something else that immediately feels good, like their own personal screen.
If we want our children to start live conversations instead of virtual ones, to engage with the 3D world not the 2D, and to be available for meaningful interactions, we have to do those things ourselves.
Smart phones are incredibly convenient, but they are also, like all screens, highly addictive. Each time that DING! of a new message rings out, we have a Pavlovian response, and our fingers reach without a thought. One of the best ways to un-tether oneself from their charm is to turn off notifications. By turning these alerts off, you can sever the chain. Trust me, you’ll still check frequently enough so that you won’t miss anything.
And it will be worth it, because when our children seek us out, they will see our eyes, and our smiling open, interested faces.
These steps don’t eliminate the strife caused by alluring screens, but hopefully they will help to make the life you create around them feel better.
WRITER & PARENTING MENTOR
Natalie Christensen is a writer, illustrator, and mother living in Missoula, Montana. She is co-creator of Feeleez, a line of tools that support the emotional development of children. She offers life + parenting coaching and on most days can be found on the banks of the Clark Fork river with her family and her yellow dog.
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