The question we all want to ignore (or maybe just me), but I know when my children are watching too much screens because they start throwing more fits and their attitude get’s worse and worse. So here we go, let’s ask Dr. Sandy Gluckman from Parenting that Heals: Is Screen Addiction Responsible for My Child’s Mood and Behavior Challenges? And if so, what do I do about this?
The answer is YES! But before I tell you what to do about this let’s talk about what happens to a child addicted to screens. It’s a 4-part story.
Part 1 of the screen addiction story
Your child’s body and brain become overstimulated from too much screen time which triggers high inner stress. Your child’s nervous system goes on edge. And inflammation builds up in your child’s body and brain. The stress hormones will cause your child to be irritable, tearful, depressed, or rageful; have temper tantrums or meltdowns; fight with siblings or friends; and be defensive or reactive.
Part 2 of the story
Something else happens. The blood flow goes from the amazing frontal area of your child’s brain to the more primitive area of the brain. The result is that the frontal lobe is shut down. This is not good news because the frontal lobe is the part of the brain that is responsible for impulse control, mood control, empathy, creativity, movement, planning, understanding consequences, learning from experience and decision-making. And now it is not available to your child so they make poor choices, are impulsive, don’t think things through and can’t engage in meaningful conversations.
Part 3 of the story
This is a really unfortunate part of the story. The stress causes fight-flight-freeze behaviors that can look like symptoms of disorders such as depression, bi-polar, ADHD, psychosis, conduct disorders, ODD, OCD, panic attacks, PTSD and others. So, practitioners are diagnosing and medicating children for ‘disorders’ that are not real disorders, without understanding that the symptoms they are seeing are related to stress, triggered by screen addiction.
Part 4 of the story
One last piece to this story. We, as Moms and Dads, get stressed. We feel frustrated, angry, upset and worried, so we argue and complain and yell at them to get off their screens. We may lecture and explain and bribe them. We may punish then with consequences. Now WE are in stress mode! And when we do this, we create the very last thing we need or want – our stress increases our children’s stress level, their nervous system is even more on edge and their bodies and brains become even more inflamed. And then they need to self-medicate with even more screen time.
The Question is this: Which Came First?
Was the child experiencing high stress first – which then caused the excessive screen time as a way of self-medicating and relaxing? Or did the excessive screen time trigger the overload of stress hormones and fight-flight-freeze behavior?
My own research and experience suggest that children are stressed and anxious before they became addicted to screens. And then the excessive screen time increased the stress even more. Of course, there are many reasons why a child could be feeling stressed and anxious. But no matter what these reasons are, the fact remains that it is the stress chemistry that is flowing through the child that makes the child vulnerable to the excessive use of screens. And if Mom and Dad didn’t realize their child was stressed or don’t know how to reduce the stress, the child turns to screens and can soon become addicted. It is a way for them not to feel what’s happening inside of them.
What Can We Do?
1) Come to terms with two facts:
- Excessive screen time is harmful to our kids’ bodies and brains.
- Our children have to live in a world of screens. As unfortunate as that is, screens are here to stay.
2) Understand that the WAY we deal with this will either increase the problem or reduce it significantly. In other words, how we interact and communicate with the child about this is critical.
3) Understand that by reversing your child’s addiction to screens, you are actually resetting his or her brain and nervous system – which is a huge gift that will transform their lives.
Follow these steps:
1) Educate your child about the dangers of screen addiction. The problem is that they won’t believe you; nor will they take Google seriously. I would recommend that you take them to a practitioner, who can explain this to them in a professional and unbiased way. This way they will understand why you are concerned and not see it as you being difficult.
2) Make a committed decision in your mind to significantly reduce their screen time. Present this decision to them at a time when everyone is relaxed. Never at a time of conflict. Explain the decision in a calm, loving way, while at the same time making it clear that it is non-negotiable. It should be seen as the decision of a responsible, loving informed parent, not as a punishment. This is crucial.
3) Go for balance. Together with your child, calculate the amount of time he or she spends on screens, and cut this by half. Make the new screen time contingent upon them using the other half of the time for healthy non-screen activities. In other words, if they spent 6 hours on screens, they will now have 3 screen hours provided that they spend the remaining 3 hours on healthy alternatives, involving movement and/or engagement with people.
4) Allow them to briefly vent when you present this to them and then get them to focus on what kind of non-screen activities, they could become involved in.
5) Spend time with them brainstorming activities they can engage in to earn their screen time – such as, for example, exercise, being out in nature, practicing their sport, volunteering, painting, playing a musical instrument, doing their share of chores or mowing the lawn, walking the dog or a part-time job.
6) Once these activities have been identified, calculate the amount of time each activity will take. This way they know how many and what activities they have to do, to match their screen time.
7) Write these activities on a card, together with the time each activity takes. Place the cards in a container. Each day they can pull out a card or cards for activities they have to do to earn their screen time.
8) Make all screens unavailable at night.
Much of the success of this depends on you as a parent.
Be prepared for the fact that putting this into action, will mean that you will have to make some changes to your lifestyle and become more actively involved with your children in ways you were not before. (It is well worth the effort because screen addiction has extremely negative long-term effects on our children’s lives).
Your role will change from complainer, enforcer, punisher, worrier, and nagger to becoming a role model of this for them. You will share with them how YOU are reducing your screen time. Commit to this and let them see you acting on it.
Have fun! And good luck.
Let me know your thoughts, your successes and your challenges with this.
By the way have you seen my ‘Healing Parent Toolbox’ consisting of 7 powerful videos? Parents tell me this toolbox has changed everything so much for the better between them and their children. It’s worth reading more about this special series of 7 videos here.
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