Not about the screen itself, not about how much time he takes on the screen, but what the screen steals from our home. It steals his desire for connection with us and enthusiasm for family outings. Not wanting to go to a friends house with us to visit, little interest in going places most kids would be excited about like the zoo or viewing spectacular Christmas lights. No desire for outdoor or indoor play and adventure, and when there is a push from myself to do something together like our advent calendar or a game, it only ends in an argument. Can you relate?
In our case, it’s not only an issue of screens, it’s an anxiety issue. We have a boy who struggles with anxiety, depression, and ADHD. To him the screen is a safe place to interact with friends, play creative games like Minecraft, and create animation. For anyone dealing with anxiety (which is almost 1 out of every 5 youth in schools today), the screen becomes a safety net. No wonder kids are having such a hard time with friendships. The problem is when we let them use a screen to shield them, we are only contributing to anxiety and the continuation of interpersonal issues such as bullying – which is really only a product of children not knowing basic skills such as empathy. This is related to the decreased amount of face to face time we all are missing in today’s society. Today, community is something we fight to carve time for (or give up on because it’s too hard due to busy-ness), rather than something that is a natural flow of life.
Up until now I have never limited screens in my house. In my particular parenting style I want to teach my kids how to manage their freedom, yet at the same time I morn the days we remember of playing outside till dark. My five year old asked me the other day what computer games I played as a child. I found his reaction of shock humorous when I told him we never had a computer…. we had SWINGS. That being said, screens are a part of our children’s world and whether we like it or not, they are here to stay. They are now the way in which we live, get information, learn, and communicate (and don’t all us momma’s LOVE the intelligence google search has brought us?!). I believe the answer is for us to guide our children on how to balance it, or as I say in my home stated above, “know how to manage our freedom”. It is urgent we coach our children in this when they are young so that when they are older and exposed more to the dangers of the internet such as pornography and cyber bullying, they have the skills to navigate well. And by “older” I mean by the time they are ten, sometimes even earlier.
Our greatest tool as parents to guide our children are not more how-to’s. It’s not limiting screen time like clockwork or taking it away completely. It’s Connection.
Connection is your glue that will guard your home always. This weekend, I had to take away screens due to my children mis-using their freedom. There was upheaval, there was protest, there was outright war. However, what replaced the screen was an invitation to connect. One rule I remember hearing and will always live by is this: never take screens away without replacing it with something better; yourself. Many parents just take away screens and have their children “figure out” what they are going to do. This isn’t wise. It will only cause resentment in the child and temptation to hide things from you. We need to remember why we want the screen gone in the first place: to get back to the heart of face to face connection.
A child that is connected to their family are less likely to become prey to at risk behaviors and rebellion. They may still dabble, but connection creates “strain” they feel on the relationship which is healthy. The issue comes when I hear from youth at risk that their parents “don’t even care”.
Mentally, connection is important because it develops the pre-frontal cortex which has been designed to connect us with people. Face to face is the greatest way we develop the prefrontal cortex. This development is vital in order to integrate the lower part of the brain where the most primitive and powerful emotions such as fear and rage are ignited. It has more of the reward chemicals associated with joy – dopamine and endorphins than almost any other area of the cortex. It regulates emotion. It is vital for self awareness and empathy. When’s its connections are ruptured, it lacks capacity to regulate emotion resulting in fear-based, reactive emotions to flood our minds, influence our thinking processes and control behavior. (adapted from Gabor Mate’s “Scattered Minds, the healing and origins of ADD)
In other words (if you didn’t get a word that meant) YOU are your child’s dope (amin). Don’t let them get it from screens or anywhere else. Dopamine (where we derive the slang word for marijuana, “dope”), are the happy chemicals that rush the brain. We love this feeling and were meant to get it from interpersonal connection. The lack of connection will have us running to unhealthy sources to get it.
So now, get off your screen and go connect. After all, it’s us who sets the example of screen time. We need to manage this freedom as well. And remember, you are everything your child needs.