Two years ago our family decided to break from screens for the summer. Before I continue, I feel a disclaimer is needed: I don’t believe screens are the enemy. They are not “bad”, nor am I encouraging the avoidance of them. In fact, the way I handle screens with my boys is to be able to manage the vast freedom they require. We cannot guard our children forever against the waves of information and sometimes sketchy material they will come across with one click of a button. It has always been my desire to teach my son’s how to navigate through this, encouraging the value of guarding their heart above all else to be the filter in which they decide what is permissible and what should be avoided. This is no easy task. It would be much easier to allow children to watch and play whatever they want or take screens away all together than to teach them how to manage their freedom. It’s all hands on deck that takes time and dedication on the part of the parent.
Limiting screen time is NOT the issue. Here are the issues:
With the debut of the iPhone and iPad in the last eight years, there hasn’t been substantial research about how increased screens have effected young minds. The good news is that research is starting to arise. The bad news is that it’s not looking good and our job as parents helping our children navigate just got harder. I always say to my boys that I will not limit their screen time until I see a need for limitation. When I ask for them to get off and they argue, that’s when I have a problem with it. When the suggestion of bike rides and walks together become “lame”, that sends a red flag. When friends come over and all the kids come to us parents with sullen faces and proclamations of, “We’re BORED without video games”, it’s clear screens have become an issue. In the last year these very issues have increased in our home, therefore the need to wind down, reset, and get back to reality.
Our children have become overstimulated and unable to process the delay of gratification because of screens. The problem with video games, multi-tasking, and constant iPad use is that this type of activity releases dopamine (the feel good hormone) in the mind. When you’re used to the high arousal state screens constantly provide, it’s hard to see something like nature as fascinating. The dopamine needs to be fed, and at higher levels each time. Video game creators are constantly leveling up video game stimulation by creating visuals that are faster and more complex, increasing the intensity in rewards, which then increases the adrenaline experienced. How can a bike ride compete? It’s pale in comparison.
Research has started to show how screen use impacts the central nervous system. It puts the body into a state of constant arousal that is followed by a crash. Does your child experience mood swings? Concentration problems? Limited interests outside of wanting to stay in front of the computer? Other side effects of overuse of screens are; depression, inability to handle frustration, poor sportsmanship, unable to handle emotion, social immaturity, trouble sleeping, and keeping eye contact. This is what coming down from “dope” (dopamine overload) looks like. Dopamine demands: MORE. It becomes an addiction to arousal. Does that sound like children today? Curiosity dies replaced with a dependancy on screens to escape the nemesis “boredom”. Sometimes the loss of screens can cause anxiety. Screens to many children have become a form of self medication. I know this became true for my oldest son.
Screen time overkill (much like what it’s like around my home in the middle of Canadian winter) puts a child in a state of chronic stress due to the part of the brain that is activated in active screen time. Screens bypass the prefrontal cortex, where empathy and creativity is formed, and utilize the fight or flight part of the brain. Using this part of the brain continuously puts our body in a state of chronic stress. No wonder students are more stressed out and anxious than ever. They never get a breather. Chronic stress leads to disregulation – the ability to modulate responses appropriate for the surroundings present. Ever seen a child who is locked in defensive mode? It’s survival mode, trained by constantly living in the fight or flight part of the brain. This then increases the cortisol hormone which impacts blood sugar levels. Children with attachment to screens often crave sweets as well. This type of stress affects a child’s ability to sort new facts and retain new information. You could accurately say it increases the appearance of what looks like ADHD, and if they have ADHD, like my boys do, it only makes it worse.
When my oldest started to not want to leave the house due to missing out on his Mindcraft or Fortnite game I knew we needed a change. When I realized that my youngest had been handed over to screens for the year we were dealing with our oldest son’s depression and anxiety issues, he experienced a change for the worse. We observed much of the effects I listed above in him. It’s humbling to look at the the negative patterns that have been created by my permissiveness. But there is also hope because we as parents have the power to create boundaries and paths to resilience for our children that can help them manage the world of screens.
The goal of our screen free summer was to give my boys nervous system a break and see some of the negative attachments and behaviours disappear. My husband and I are also noticed what screen overload was doing to us as well. Make no mistake, adults are effected as well.
What are you doing this summer regarding screens in your home?