My family and I took two months off screens this summer. How did that go? Let me fill you in, but first let me answer for myself first and then tell you what my kids really thought about the experience.
After two months of being off social media I am back and refreshed from the time away. I didn’t realize what a normal part of life it has become. It was strange to not share special moments with friends. Sometimes it felt disconnected and lonely – that’s when I remembered this thing called the phone. The greatest discovery for me was how much my brain needed the downtime. It freed up my creative brain space to get some projects done, as well as I was able to be more present with those surrounding me in the moment. I can say my appreciation for spending time sharing with friends over coffee became much more appreciated.
Before I tell you what my kids thought of the process, I would like to share with you why I did this.
I noticed my children were becoming obsessed with screens, particularly gaming. At the same time I noticed an increase in anxiety, irritability, meltdowns, distractibility, trouble following simple directions, and little interest outside of playing video games.
When “no” became the regular answer when asked to do fun things with the family, I had a problem with that. This is when I knew that something needed to change, but what? HOW were screens effecting my children so much?
Here’s how screens are effecting children in general from a neurological point of view.
Video games keep the gamer engaged by giving them a sense of control and choices which lead to instant rewards, being gratified immediately. Instant rewards send dopamine levels, the feel good chemical in the brain, through the roof. The problem with feeding reward systems and dopamine in the mind is that it takes more and more to appease it. What’s interesting is that research is finding in children the same reward circuits that are being activated with video games are the same reward circuits that feed harmful addictions.
The other problem with raising dopamine levels through the fast-paced rewards that are given through video games is that it puts the body into a high state of arousal, followed by a crash. This is where we see our children become disregulated, moody, anxious, and sometimes aggressive. Dopamine is what makes the player want to play more. Game designers are geniuses at creating intensity in their games to satisfy the inner reward system. Coming down from high dopamine levels causes a child to become disorganized or anxious.
The other problem is that serotonin, important for being social, having a stable mood and coping with stress, becomes more disregulated with video game play, making games more like self medication. This hyperarousal and inability to process is where the prefrontal cortex is compromised. The prefrontal cortex gives the ability to plan, have empathy, and problem solve. When the prefrontal cortex is compromised it hinders attention span and the ability to handle stress.
The hyperarousal that video games create is caused by the constant state of being in “fight or flight brain”, making it hard to relax or think things through. When a child lives in their fight or flight brain continually, it becomes hard to regulate calmness. The nervous system is in a state of stress, and if that is prolonged, it can actually cause damage to the nervous system. If you’ve ever experienced a child who normally is fairly even keel turn savage after being asked to stop playing a game, it’s because their nervous system is on overload.
Loss of Curiosity
To be human is to be curious, inspiring creativity. Unfortunately, slow cooked creativity that comes from a curiosity about life can’t compete with the high levels of dopamine release a video game can provide. Normal things become boring. Nature is too slow. Relationships become a let-down compared to the instant gratification rewards a game offers. There’s no comparison.
“Wait, I thought you said there would be no mommy guilt?”. It’s hard to read the reality of what happens with too much game stimulation isn’t it? However, remember these are just facts to keep in mind. I started observing these three dangers in my boys and knew we needed a break. Interestingly enough, when we were about one month and a half through, I noticed how much my boys actually need games for downtime.
“Wait, didn’t you just say in a round-about way that video games are bad?”
I gave the facts, yes, but also realized after couple of times when I allowed the boys to play for a limited time near the end of the summer that it actually refreshed them. I realized at that moment that it was going to take time and great intention on my part to navigate the waters of balancing screens in our home. Coming back into the fall and permission again for screens, my goal is to train my boys to learn how to handle them. My youngest, for example, cannot handle the same amount of time on a screen as my older son without becoming moody and disregulated. I’m teaching him to notice the signs and get off the screen before it gets out of control.
As for what my boys really thought about this process, they will tell you it was horrible, but deep inside it has built the awareness inside of them that screens can easily get out of control. We all noticed the difference in our mood over the summer (but they won’t tell you that…)
There is no easy answer when it comes to screens. I wrote another blog on navigating screens which you can read about here. I think it’s important to stay flexible, keep communication lines open and be transparent through the process. It’s important to look for the signs mentioned above and navigate accordingly.
No mommy guilt needed. There’s no pat answer. Every child is different. You CAN teach your children to be masters of the screen, rather than the other way around.