Every day a there seems to be a new article or news report about all the bad things screens are doing to our kids. It’s easy to get spun up in parental fear and anxiety surrounding this issue. Reacting to our kids from a place of fear and anxiety is ineffective, perpetuates power struggles and can damage the parent/child connection. I believe this is not only one of the main parenting issues of our time but one of the main things we are working through as humans. In essence, we are doing a giant social experiment on how to live in virtual world while staying connected to the real world. How to use technology without it owning us.
Today I want to unpack that. I want to start the conversation by first saying that we as adults are terrible role models, myself included. I think that to begin any authentic conversation with our teens about screen habits, we must first truthfully examine our own relationship with technology and screens. I have facilitated workshops with parents and kids where kids said “You are all about do as I say, not as I do.” Ouch.
So many interactive apps are designed to create compulsion looping. The reward center of your brain is activated by that “like,” notification ding or anything that tells your brains “something is going down that you don’t want to miss.” This means we are all getting a dopamine hit that we are addicted to and crave more of. Yes..adults too. We are not impervious to the brain hacking that is going on.
Humanize yourself and this issue with your child. Let them know that as a society we are all learning how to live with the best and the worst technology has to offer. Be honest about the ways that you use technology as an escape and how you are just as addicted as they are to the “ding” of the next email, Facebook notification or news update. Be honest that sometimes you choose to veg out on a game because being human is exhausting and hard a lot of the time. When we can be authentic and honest with our child about this and many other issues, they will trust us more and therefore be more open to conversation (note that this implies dialogue, not lecture) and advice.
Once we have acknowledged that all of us are trying to learn to co-exist with technology we can move beyond using screen time as reward and punishment or carrot and stick. Technology certainly isn’t all bad. Positive social and professional connections can be made. Screenplays are written, businesses are built, films are produced, lifelong learning is accessible in ways never possible before. I consider myself young and guess what? I was still using encyclopedias (look ‘em up kids) for research papers in college. The benefits of technology are immeasurable. I currently take piano lessons via Skype from one of the most incredible teachers in the country who lives several states away. Amazing.
All screen time is NOT created equal. Awareness is the primary tool for both adults and kids to cultivate in order to live with screens in the healthiest way possible. We all need to check-in with ourselves and have self-understanding as to when we are using screens as a tool and when we are using them as an escape. I think it’s safe to assume that we can all use technology to escape from feelings of anxiety, upset and boredom. Each time we pick up a device and use it as an escape, we are taking away an opportunity to be in our “inner world,” to move through feelings as opposed to avoiding them, and missing opportunities to create resilience and to allow feelings of discomfort that might exist to evolve us into our best selves.
I don’t think that setting arbitrary time limits is the most effective parenting tool. A good practice for parents to cultivate their own awareness is to narrate (the idea of narrating isn’t mine but I can’t remember where I heard it) what we are doing. This is great modeling for our kids. For example, you might say “I am looking up a recipe for dinner. This should be yummy. Would you like to help make it?” In this moment, as your kid observes you on your phone or computer, they aren’t assuming that you are on social media or the news. Hopefully this will manifest in them letting you know what they are doing on their screen and also help you to stay out of assumption mode and acknowledging that they, too, can use their screens as a tool. It also helps the people in the room to know that we aren’t putting our screens before them. More on that in my suggestions for house rules regarding technology.
As we cultivate awareness an even better gauge is to ask ourselves the question “Am I balancing being a consumer with being a creator?” Humans are wired to create. Creating is a vital part of our existence. Technology can play a big role in that. Someone has to create all that “stuff” we consume via technology. Why not you or your child? Someone using technology to help actualize an entrepreneurial dream, to learn about animation or to take an on-line class is different than scrolling through Facebook, the news, Snapchat, Twitter, etc.
Let’s look at some of the physical, psychological and social effects of screens. I am not a scientist or a doctor but I have read a lot about this topic and I have lived experience as a technology user and as a parent. In Victoria Dunckley’s book “Reset Your Child’s Brain” she talks about some of the physical effects of screen use. Neurotransmitter dysregulation is one. I mentioned dopamine hits above. Dopamine is a key player in motivation and reward. Most pleasurable experiences involve a release of dopamine. If the reward center of the brain is being continually activated by interactive apps and releasing dopamine, you will crave more and more of it. Have you ever noticed yourself or your child being irritable when being pulled off a device? It’s possible that it is because there is a crash and then crave for more dopamine. Maybe we aren’t meant to get that many dopamine hits throughout the day.
We have all heard about the blue light at night issue and how it suppresses melatonin (vital for sleep) and disrupts sleep cycles. So now we are craving dopamine and we can’t sleep. Disrupted sleep is a major risk factor for depression. And it’s kind of a chicken/egg scenario. Depression can cause disrupted sleep and disrupted sleep can be a factor in depression. The point being, we probably want to get our screen hygiene in order to protect the mental health of our kids and ourselves.
Melatonin has something to do with serotonin production. Once again...I’m not a scientist but melatonin increases in the dark and helps you sleep. Seratonin is boosted by the sunlight in the morning, which is hard to get if your curtains are drawn and you were up half the night on your phone and trying to grab some much needed zzz’s in the morning. Seratonin is the body’s natural happiness/feel good drug.
You can see how phone use can mess with these natural chemicals. I highly recommend Dunckley’s book if you really want to dive into the science behind this. She calls this dysregulation Electronic Screen Syndrome (ESS) and goes on to make the case that ESS is a shapeshifter and can either “exacerbate or imitate various mental and neurological health problems.” In other words, it is possible that some people are misdiagnosed and medicated for issues related to screen use. It is also possible that some people with true mental and neurological health problems are experiencing more severe symptoms due to screen use. Is all of this true for every person who uses a screen? Most likely not but this is good information for us as parents and for our kids to know.
Using technology for bullying and bad cyber citizenship can have obvious detrimental effects. FOMO (fear of missing out) is another big social implication for kids (and adults) that can impact our health. And what about the more subtle negative effects of being in a constant state of comparing of every aspect of our lives to the lives of others. Once again, this effects adults and kids alike. Author Glennon Doyle Melton says we don’t send our authentic selves into the digital world. We send our “representatives.” Let’s be honest. Our representatives make our lives look a lot better than they actually are. If we are honest, do we send our representatives to make us feel bigger by making others feel smaller? Something to reflect on for sure. It sort of makes me want to get real and post a picture of my very dirty baseboards and that giant zit currently on my cheek.
Researcher and author Jean Twenge does suggest that there is an association between screen time and depression. The sudden increase increase in teen mental health issues certainly suggests a correlation. The bottom line is that technology isn’t all bad and it is not going away but that we all must takes steps to learn how to live with it in ways that are best for our brains and bodies. Once again, this applies to adults too.
Humanize this issue with your child. Let them know that all humans are learning the best ways to live with and use all of this technology.
Cultivate awareness. When is our technology use a tether and when is it a tool?
Balance consuming with creating.
Creating Main House Rules (Remember that adults must follow too)
Both adults and kids are trying to figure out how to best live with screens. Let’s remember that mistakes will inevitably be made and we can reframe as windows for learning rather than meeting with punitive punishment. The facts listed with the rules come from the documentary “Screenagers.” Here are some suggestions. Remember “one size doesn’t fit all.” Each family is unique and must decide what fits their family.
People before screens - Be with the person you are with
Eat family meals without devices. Fact: Face-to-face conversations improve mood and empathy.
Put phones and devices away in the car. Fact: More than half of kids report seeing their parents text while driving.
No Double Dipping - one screen at a time, one thing at a time
Set time goals for studying without multitasking and then, also, take tech breaks. Fact: Multitasking is linked to less retention and poorer academic outcomes.
Give Your Nervous System and Brain a Chance to Rest
No screens in bedrooms when kids and teens go to sleep (for younger kids keep screens out completely). What is the ideal time to shut down? Maybe 2 hours before bed to give our nervous system time to wind down.Fact: 75% teens get inadequate sleep. The presence of devices disrupts sleep cycles.
I will end by saying try not to get spun-up in all of the fear. Be proactive. Be human. Be empathetic with yourself and with your tween/teen. Here is one of my favorite blogs on this issue written by Rachel Macy Stafford.
You are already an amazing parent. Continue being a warrior for your child. Stay in the trenches. Keep showing up. It is harder than ever to be a teen and to be the parent of a teen. Let’s face it, it’s hard to be a human. Be gentle with one another for “everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”