Losing children to their screens
Parents today didn’t grow up with the technology that the kids are growing up with today. So in reality, we don’t know what it’s like to be three years old and watching hours of videos. We don’t know what it’s like to be ten and to be fully immersed in a video game. We don’t know what it’s like to be 14 and to be hooked to Instagram or SnapChat. Also, we don’t have a reference for how to parent or what rules to set in relation to this, because our parents didn’t have to. So the reference of our childhood that we might often take (to do the same or the opposite), isn’t an option here.
As I have looked to understand the kids I work with and heard the challenges that parents face I’ve become more and more curious… What is the right amount of screen time? How do video games and screens shape our children’s brains? Why is a child so addicted to their games that they just lock themselves in their rooms to play or don’t have an interest for anything else anymore? It’s still early days in the research and so there are many theories and hypothesis and not as many concrete answers as we might like. That being said, it also seems like there might not be a one-size-fits all answer here… it depends on the child, on what they are engaging with on the screen, what else they are doing in their lives, how strong their connections are outside of the games and how their basic psychological needs are being met (or not).
What I have come to understand is that everything we do, think and feel shapes our brain. That is the principle of Neuroplasticity - that our brain is constantly changing and evolving to adapt to our needs. Knowing this, it’s safe to say that like everything we do, gaming and screens also have an impact on our brains. If we game for eight hours a day that will shape our brain differently than if we play outdoors with friends, read books, or build something with our hands. There is no doubt that certain skills are developed in video games and even social media. I mean, the reason I can type with ten fingers, is not the typing class at school where we had to write “the quick brown fox jumped over the fence”. The reason I can type without looking now is because I was chatting with my friends when the first online chat rooms came to be. So it’s not all bad.
That being said, we still only have 24 hours in a day and when we are doing more of the screens, we are doing less of something else. And that something else we might have done could also be a valuable skill that shapes who we are and what we are capable of. I see lots of children and teens who can message really fast and can sound very confident and straight forward in what they write, yet they don’t know how to have that same confidence and clarity when speaking to another person face-to-face. For me, this isn’t about whether technology is good or bad and we should allow it or not. It’s about ensuring we move with the times and embrace technology and that we stay connected to the fact that we are humans, living together in a physical world and we also need to be able to interact effectively here.
So how much screen time is OK?
If only it was that simple… Let me ask you back, why do you allow them screen time? If they are under the age of five you might say because they like it and it gives you a moment of quiet or time to things that need to get done. As author Lisa Guernsey mentions “video programs have an uncanny way of turning chaos into tranquility.” Or if they are aged 5-10, you might say because you don’t want them to fall behind other kids with their technological skills. And some of you, especially if you have teens, might say because it’s impossible to control it all the time. Whatever your reasoning, I get it. It is a challenge to balance all that we have on our plates these days. So what are we supposed to do?
I believe there is a time and place for kids to use technology. It will be a big part of their lives, so they are skills they need to develop. But the screen or game does not replace the love and time with you and other close people. Screen time for kids is also not the same when they are left alone, or when you are with them. Especially at young ages, helping your child make sense of what they see, to share and talk about it is really important. When they are older, showing an interest in their games or social media - asking them to teach you, watching and trying to understand their world as well as sharing your impressions - can be a way to connect with them. Even if this really isn’t your thing, it’s part of showing you are interested in them and what matters to them. It contributes to them feeling you know them, you care about them and you understand them.
When this isn’t the case, and kids are left on their own to play day after day, for hours at a time, technology can create a disconnect between parent and child. The child shares more time and emotions with the screen than with the parent. Not to mention that some of the games can also be quite addictive (more on this in a future blog post). So they may get hooked to the game and also feel disconnected from the family who doesn’t get their world. In extreme cases, they may lock themselves in their rooms, immerse themselves into the gaming world and disconnecting from the real world, friends and family sometimes resulting in severe depressions (psychiatric wards for kids and teens are seeing more and more of this).
All of this to say that screen time and gaming is not all good or all bad. But no matter how busy you are, you have important role to play in staying connected to your child and also being the rational part of their brain sometimes. Remember, the pre-frontal cortex (rational thinking part of the brain behind our forehead) is only fully developed at age 25. So we cannot expect our children to have the self control and logic to manage their screen consumption all the time. We do need to set limits and be around to enforce them consistently. Best is to agree on limits with with them (this supports their need for Autonomy). Then perhaps have them written down somewhere for all to see and so you can refer back to the agreement when needed.
What are your challenges with screens? How do you deal with them? I’d love to hear from you so we can all learn from each other.