This column is the eighth in a series providing information and suggestions about parenting through the COVID-19 pandemic. Therapists, authors and child experts Jim Wellborn, Ph.D. and Stacy Jagger, LMFT will be helping parents explain to their kids what is happening as well as how to deal with the various challenges of having kids home for the next month or more. They will be giving you suggestions and advice about setting up schedules, dealing with bored and irritable kids, continuing their schoolwork from home, keeping them occupied, maintaining friendships and social connections, managing and monitoring screen time and taking care of yourself so you can take care of your kids.
Back in the early days of electronics, in the 1920–30s, families would huddle around the radio and share the experience of listening to their favorite programs.
Then in the 1940s, television became the social centerpiece of the family. These TV shows were not daily events, rather, they were special occasions when the family gathered ‘round for a short break after a long day of work, a respite from life to huddle up on the couch and laugh together, cry together, and share the experience of being entertained together.
Gradually, that all changed. Families acquired more and more TVs, to the point where each family member had their own and could watch it in isolation. Then the screens became smaller and wireless and could fit into one hand. The internet brought us 24-hour access to solo entertainment. Today, we are so bombarded with screens that we are hard pressed to find a classroom, a restaurant, or even a gas pump without a screen glaring at us.
As adults, screens now consume a significant portion of our days and our attention. Sadly though, it’s not just adults whose attention is being monopolized by glowing screens. Screens are now dominating the attention of our children, too. And not just occasionally. Recent studies show that children are facing screens an average of seven hours every day. Seven hours!? That’s nearly the equivalent of a full-time work day. And at what cost? A truly sobering one.
The Problems with Screen Time
Disconnection. The overuse of screen time can bypass the perception of CONNECTION, and there is a direct correlation of children’s behavior problems and their perception of connection. So you may have a child you think has a behavior problem, when really it is a child who has a perception of connection problem
Overstimulation. Children’s nervous systems were not designed for constant stimulation. Their nervous systems are made for kinesthetic involvement, movement, play, nurture, real time challenge and reciprocal engagement. The overuse of screen time can look like a child with a revved up sympathetic nervous system, or a child whose parasympathetic nervous system (the body’s natural system to calm down the fight or flight response) is in a collapse response.
Competition. Children are children for 12 years. Nine of those years they have explicit, retrievable memory (the first three years are implicit memory). When you count the hours they have to be a child, think through how many of those years you want them to recall as screen time experiences (“My favorite day in childhood was in front of a screen," said no child ever).
Does My Child Have Too Much Screen Time?
Is all screen time bad for your child? No. But, there are some signs that your child may be suffering from the effects of too much screen time. So what is too much? Start by reviewing these questions to see how many of them are true for your child.
- Is your child’s behavior unmanageable?
- Do you feel you cannot reach your child?
- Does your child lose his temper or become angry when you ask him to turn off the screen or game?
- Does it seem your child is lost in space? In their own world? Not living in reality?
- Does it seem everyone in your home is doing their own thing? Is everyone in their own room on separate screens, or multiple screens at once?
- Is it nearly impossible to get everyone around the dinner table for a simple meal without screens all around you?
- Does your child seem overly anxious? Depressed?
- Is your child having a difficult time sleeping or getting good rest?
- Does your child seem easily frightened or startled?
- Is it difficult for you to get your children to want to play outside?
- Does your child seem isolated and you don’t know why?
- Does your child seem distracted and have a difficult time prioritizing family time?
- Is your family having a difficult time connecting?
Three or more
If you answered YES to at least three questions, screen time may be getting in the way of some important aspects of your child’s development. Here are some things to consider.
- Take the screens out of the bedrooms. After wailing and gnashing of teeth for a few days, you’ll find your kids will start congregating and connecting better and their sleep patterns will start to regulate. An old fashioned calendar using colored markers to block out when they are and are not allowed to use screens works wonders.
- Break up with your phone. Try having a time limit on your phone like calories. Leave your phone in the car in the evenings. It is like chocolate cake. We can’t live on chocolate alone nor can we live well on constant scrolling and screen time. Simply reducing your split attention between your phone and your child increases connection and reduces children’s behavior problems organically. It also relieves parents of much frustration.
- Focus on as much outdoor activity as you reasonably can, even if it’s the backyard! Sunshine and mud does wonders for a child’s soul. For young children, check out these mud kitchens.
- Prioritize creative screen time over consumer screen time. Creative screen time means learning a new skill, like a foreign language, or an art or music class online. Then, turn it off. Allow your children time to demonstrate what they have learned at a screen free meal.
- Take Dr. Sears advice from his forward to Stacy’s book 30 Day Blackout. At your entry door, make a sign that says, “Welcome to the Fun House! Please deposit cell phones here,” with an arrow to the deposit basket. This allows all family members to focus on real life connection based activities like cooking, puzzles, board games, walking/hiking, and having more connecting conversations.
30 Day Blackout
If you answered YES to six or more of the screen time questions, your child is experiencing some worrisome problems with their neurological, behavioral and emotional self regulation. It is time to consider a full 30 Day Blackout, a program developed by Stacy that consists of the family going 30 days unplugged from electronics and getting plugged into each other.
The first step in modifying your family’s screen time is to apologize and have “The 30-Day Blackout Talk.” It can begin with something like this:
“Guys, I have realized that we are all spending too much time on our screens, and I am truly sorry. The screens have isolated and insulated us from each other, and we are not connecting the way we should. For those reasons, we are going to turn off all our screens and do something called the 30-Day Blackout.” (Cue the screams of despair and injustice!)
The first five days of the Blackout are total hell, so be prepared. Around day five, children walk through “The Door of Boredom and The Pit of Despair.” This is when kids think boredom is going to kill them. But, happily, no child has ever died from boredom. Your children are beginning to experience internal peace, but they don’t realize it because many of them have never experienced it before.
During days six and seven, children typically become willing to do things they were not open to doing before, like chop vegetables with mom in the kitchen, go for simple family walks or have more connecting conversations.
Over the next three weeks, use connecting activities to replace what used to be distracted, solitary entertainment activities. Consider things like puzzles, trips to state parks, family hikes and bike rides, dusting off board games and actually playing them, crafts, reading together, or (in normal times) going to a children’s museum or the library as a family.
And miraculously, almost too simply, because you have put the bond before the behavior, children’s behavior problems can begin to trickle away. They really can. This is because all humans are designed to connect, from the cradle to the grave. It’s ingrained in all of us to crave connection. And no screen will replace the eyes of a loving parent.
Many families ask, “How do we pull this off with the need to use computers at work and school?” For the 30 Day Blackout to really have an impact, the entire family needs to do it together (parents and children). And yet, there are modifications that may be necessary for families to continue to succeed in work and school.
Here is an alternative that might work for your family:
- Make a one-page document that everyone signs committing to the Blackout.
- All social media apps and gaming apps come off the phones. Teens are allowed 30 minutes to an hour per day of texting or FaceTiming with their friends, preferably away from younger siblings.
- From 6:30 p.m. and until 6:30 a.m., parents keep their phones out of sight, only working during normal business hours. Keep screens off at all times around children. Parents should only text and email at specific times during the day while away from the children.
You may be wondering how the Blackout positively impacts the behavioral problems in children. By taking away the stimulation of the screens, the brain resets to a new normal and parents begin to “see” and “find” their child again. The child begins to connect with others, maintain healthy eye contact, regulate their emotions, and concentrate on one thing at a time for longer periods of time.
At the conclusion of 30 days, many families see such improved connection within their family that they choose to do another Blackout. Whether you do two Blackouts or one, all screen time from that point forward must be regulated as the “dessert” of your lives instead of the main course.
There are a number of apps for devices that can help you monitor and limit screen time on devices. The Screen Time app is one that will allow you to allot a set number of hours per day for your child to access to his/her phone before pausing the phone until the next day. Net Nanny is another program for limiting screen time that can also filter out any violence or pornography from your children’s devices.
For young children 10 and under, Stacy recommends a practice called Screen Time Marbles. This is where you simply give the child seven marbles in a jar for the week, with each marble equaling 30 minutes to one hour per day of screen time. They get to cash in their marbles as they wish. If they are having a behavior problem, parents have the option of removing a marble. If a child is having a great day, such as helping with chores and being obedient, parents have the option of adding a marble to their jar to reward good behavior.
One of the most surprising things about implementing the 30 Day Blackout is how positive children are by the end of the blackout. They often spontaneously comment on how much better things are or how much more fun they are having with their family. It really is worth getting in between your child and their screens to create the kind of family time you and your child deserve. And there is no better time than this shut down to get started!
Stacy Jagger, LMFT, RPT-S
Stacy Jagger is a mother of four and a therapist to many. She is on a mission to restore wonder to childhood, connection to families, and intimacy to relationships. She is the architect of the 30 Day Blackout, a break from technology designed to bring parents and children closer together and unleash the natural creativity in all of us. A musician at heart, she designed Music with Mommie, a parent-child bonding class that utilizes instruments and play to facilitate connection. Stacy has spent the last several years of her career building Music City Family Therapy, her practice in Brentwood. She lives on a small farm outside the city with her husband of 20 years, a pony named Mister Rogers, a few dozen chickens and a gaggle of ducks.
James G. Wellborn, Ph.D.
Dr. James G. Wellborn is a clinical psychologist with a private practice in Brentwood focusing on adolescents and families. He is an expert on motivation, coping in childhood and adolescence, academic engagement, parenting and adolescent development. An invited speaker to groups, agencies and churches on parenting and teenage issues, he conducts workshops for parents, teens, teachers and counselors on parenting teens, teenage issues, adolescent development, motivating teens, mental health issues and intervention strategies. Dr. Wellborn is the author of Raising Teens in the 21st Century: A Practical Guide to Effective Parenting. Dr. Wellborn and his wife live in Nashville, Tennessee and are the parents of two grown children and, now, of two adorable grandchildren. You can learn more about Dr. Wellborn by visiting his website at www.DrJamesWellborn.com.