Photo by sandra dubosq on Unsplash
As our modern world hurtles headlong into the automation of everything, it is becoming increasingly difficult for us to take our heads out of our screens. As professionals we may spend our time in screens as part of, or the main focus of, our job. We could be editing video, making Photoshop magic, keeping the internet working, interfacing with a car’s on-board computer, or writing a blog or book. When we need downtime, screens offer escape in the form of movies and video games, they offer to distract and babysit our children, and our phones keep us in constant contact with friends, relatives, and supervisors. As a result we spend over 8 hours a day on average in front of some sort of screen, and so do our children.
Many parents I know seem to have an inherent sense of the dangers of excessive screen time, however few seem to be on top of it. They can tell you how a child threw a tantrum after being pulled off a video game or a TV show but can’t seem to tell you how much screen time their kids are getting on a typical day. Just like we know how eating too many calories will make us gain weight but few of us actually count them properly, many parents also aren’t counting their screen time hours for themselves or their children. Children in particular are vulnerable to harm from screens. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends strict guidelines for all children under the age of six, with the guidelines becoming more stringent as age goes down. Excessive screen time can harm your children, and especially young children, in several ways: being linked with high rates of obesity—screen time is often sit time—behavioral disorders, and stunted learning.
I myself am a recovered video game addict, and I’ve experienced these things first hand. I spent the bulk of my 5th through 12th grade years addicted to video games. My grades suffered, I didn’t get enough sleep, my social life never got a chance to begin, and I even threw away a shot at post-secondary education. It wasn’t until life asserted itself to the point of eviction that I finally started a nearly decade long road to recovery.
I didn’t grow up with smart phones, they didn’t really enter the picture until after I graduated high school. The iPod was a new fascination in those days, and the iPhone wouldn’t hit until years later. I’m not sure where I’d be if I had access to things like smartphones back then. Many people are as absorbed in social media as I was to my games. You see them every day, ignoring their surroundings, stumbling into traffic, weaving on sidewalks, bumping shopping carts into bystanders, running their cars off the road. Social media and the constant ability to access it has dangers in store for adults and children alike in the form of sexual exploitation through revenge porn, cyber bullying, and pornographic exploitation of minors.
I could go on about the dangers of getting absorbed into video games, social media, TV, and other screen based time wasters. Here’s the thing, you probably could too. You might already be thinking about the stuff I missed in the last few paragraphs. As I said before, many of us know the risks, we just aren’t aware we’ve fallen into them or how to manage them. It’s easy to get frustrated at the very idea of managing this stuff for you or your kids. Social media seems nearly required of us, and for school children it’s sometimes actually required for assignments. Classrooms are getting ‘smart’ and your child may be sat in front of a screen for hours on end before they ever make it back home. The internet of things is upon us, and now our refrigerators, washing machines, and dryers are having full featured touchscreens built into them that you can even watch Netflix on. In a world such as this how could we even think to manage screen time for us or our children?
Fortunately, there are remedies. I gave a little hint at the beginning of this post. The context surrounding screen time matters. The current AAP guidelines for children I linked above are much different than the ‘no screens for children under 2’ blanket ban just a few years ago. Researchers have found that not only what’s on the screen matters, but what your environment is as well. Your work use of screens (for work purposes) isn’t a problem as long as you’re keeping it to work hours. Most of us inherently feel a difference between screen time spent for business or pleasure. Children also seem to know the difference, and as long as an adult is in the room co-watching and guiding consumption of the content, very young children can actually benefit from screen time. The exception seems to be children 18 months and younger, which the AAP recommends only being exposed to screens in the context of a video chat with another human being. Apart from the 18 month age group, high quality programming co-watched with an adult seems to be okay. Here are a few things you can do to help keep screens from becoming a problem.
Monitor your screen time–
Actually clock it. Treat it like watching calories. Record your patterns for a while, and the patterns for your children, and see how the numbers stack up. Make notes on whether the programming was work related or otherwise educational, or whether it was recreational.
Reduce very low quality content–
Video Games, pornography, and other forms of instant self-gratification content—Instagram anyone?—release large amounts of dopamine in your system that you can easily become dependent on. People heavily addicted to games like I was, or addicted to porn, can take up to 90 days to reset their dopamine levels back to normal. This shouldn’t be construed to be anti-games or anti-porn, there are many activities that can do this to you, but these two are shoved into our faces almost as hard as the screens themselves. In fact, Emily and I still regularly participate in these activities together, now that my addiction is under control, in an interactive manner I’d label as fulfilling. Closely monitor consumption of these types of entertainment if you allow them at all.
Watching entertainment as a group, and turning it into an interactive and potentially even educational experience, can take otherwise low quality content and make it beneficial. Interact with the evening news—my grandfather and father preferred heckling for those—make fun of shot composition, keep a Michael Bay explosion counter in his films, and other activities that promote interaction between the people watching the content. Avoid just vegging out.
Talk to your child’s educators and make sure they are aware of the dangers of excessive screen time. Make sure they understand that even high-quality screen time is linked to health issues like obesity. Have them go over the electronic curriculum with you and object to low quality content when you see it. Make sure the educator, especially elementary level educators, aren’t using screen time as a pacification, and make sure your child has sufficient opportunities for physical activity at school. If your child’s educator is using screen time in ways you find unacceptable go over their head to the principal, contact other parents, and get the school board involved if you have to. If your school board is responsive that’s great, if they aren’t—as seems too common—make them listen with a ballot initiative if you have to.
Detox and Recover–
I know I know, that word is abused to death, but in this case it could be taken literally if you consider constantly elevated dopamine levels toxic—after my experiences I sure do. Pay a visit here and read some of the stories of people just like me that were awfully addicted to dopamine simulators. If you or your child are addicted to these mediums, don’t give up, get educated, and learn how to support them. Ripping the bandage off will be the hardest part, like the cry-it-out sleep training method, but there is light at the end of that tunnel for you and your kids.
Hopefully, managing screen time for you and your children won’t turn in to the struggle that it did for me. I hope you’ve found some useful information here if you do. As always, this blog is no substitute for professional help. If you need serious help, or can’t seem to get a handle on it, enlist the services of a qualified professional.
Have a comment or a question? Is there a topic you’d like discussed? Let me know through my contact page.