“I don’t know how to explain it, but something is wrong with my son,” one mother told me, fighting back her tears. “He’s a good student, he does his chores, he used to be so sensitive and caring. But I feel like I’m losing him. His video games are the center of his universe now and he’s losing his connection with us.”
This desperate mom claimed her son was depressed and seemed to be disappearing into another world. She was sharing what so many parents wish they could share, but don’t due to the current cultural norms. We, as a society, have accepted the idea that screens are harmless and part of every child’s day-to-day life so we are afraid to admit that our child might have a screen dependency. And the industries responsible for producing and marketing this technology have not been transparent about the known risks. So, how do you help your child? How do you rescue him or her from our screen-driven culture? How do you get your child to join the family at the dinner table and participate in family celebrations again? How do you reclaim your kids from their screens so they’ll find joy in real-life activities again?
It is not as hard as you may think, but early action is the key.
The Warning Signs of Screen Dependency
If your child exhibits any of the following behaviors, he or she may have a screen dependency:
- Is on entertainment screens every day and for longer periods of time
- Lies to parents about how much time they are spending on screens
- Sacrifices social and physical activities for more screen time
- Leisure screen time interferes with homework and school success
- Experiences bad moods when not allowed on screens
- Chooses screen time over spending time with family
If you answered ‘yes’ to any of the above statements, here are some steps you can take to reclaim your kids from their screens and help them find the joy in real-life activities again.
Six Tips for Reclaiming Your Kids from Their Screens
1. Get Educated
Understand the Importance of Child Development
A basic understanding of child development provides direction for healthy screen use. For example, when parents understand that the executive function area of the brain is not fully connected until the mid-twenties, they understand why children and teens are driven largely by unregulated emotions and rewards.
“Executive function and self-regulation skills are the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully.”
When executive function skills are not fully developed, children and even teens are not capable of regulating screen use themselves. They need us to set boundaries and help them turn off their screens.
Recognize the Natural Drive for Peer Approval
When parents know that young people crave peer and group approval just about as much as food, they think twice about allowing exposure to social media.
According to a national study authored by Dr. Brain Primack, dean of the College of Education and Health Professions and professor of public health at the University of Arkansas, “Young adults who increased their use of social media were significantly more likely to develop depression within six months.”
Excess time spent on social media displaces time spent establishing healthier face-to-face relationships. The curated positive portrayals of life shared on social media are especially difficult for young adults as they search for identity and find it impossible to live up to such idealized standards.
Gaming and Excessive Social Media Use Changes Brain Chemistry
When parents understand that the dopamine released during video gaming and social media use mimics the effects of a drug, they will be motivated to take action.
One 2011 fMRI study led by Simone Kühn, of Ghent University in Belgium, of 154 14-year-olds found that frequent gamers had more gray matter in the left ventral striatum, a change that may result from increased dopamine release that also shows up in those addicted to gambling.
Understanding how screen use affects brain chemistry is a huge incentive for reclaiming your kids.
2. Get Community
When the weight of your entire society is tilted in one direction, the first step after education is to find support.
One of the greatest human needs is to bond with others and earn the approval of our peers; it is a survival mechanism and a core aspect of the interdependent nature of human beings. This is true for parents as they look to other parents for advice and support, and it is true for children as they seek to fit into peer culture and develop their identity.
The human drive to belong to a community is so strong that people may follow group norms even if they are being hurt by them.
Finding a new community that understands screen struggles and offers you support is essential to creating healthy screen habits for your kids. Most parents can’t make screen changes alone. The bigger your struggle, the more important it is to seek out like-minded families. Without this support, the odds are that you and your kids will slip back into old habits.
Once you are confident with the facts and find a new community to bond with-or even just a few friends to support you-you will be ready to remove the screens that are harming your children. Lean on your community to reclaim your kids from their screens.
3. Be a Coach, Not a Friend
Adjusting your parenting style is the next important key to successfully raising kids in a screen culture. Decades of research point to one style of parenting that offers the most success: firm but loving parenting.
Firm, but loving parents are not their child’s best friend; instead, they are their best coach. Strong parents are not afraid to go against the norm when needed and put up guardrails and boundaries so their kids will thrive.
Children crave this type of parenting. When parents love their children enough to say “no” to negative forms of screen use, they will win against the pull of today’s screen-obsessed culture.
This coaching perspective allows you to love your “team” with confidence, and to do the right thing even if the team doesn’t like it. Trust your parenting intuition.
Are you experiencing a losing season right now? Then it is time for a new game plan. Go back to the fundamentals and do the hard work-even if the team complains.
When we change our perspective and begin to parent like a good coach, we put ourselves on course to win the screen battle. This one simple step to rethinking your parenting style will get you halfway to your goal of reclaiming your kids from their screens. You are no longer the mean parent; you are a smart, winning coach.
4. Redefine Fun
Your child uses screens because screens are fun. Your job is to replace screen activities that bring about negative consequences with something truly fun: real life. This art of replacement is paramount in overcoming most addictions.
Parents must plan ahead to fill the time that was previously spent on screen-based activities. Practical replacements like board games, books, art supplies, and puzzles are a necessity. One mom reported that during this replacement period, she had never played so many Monopoly games in her life.
Another mom learned how to play chess. Don’t worry about having to play board games every day with your kids forever; this phase is temporary. Eventually, your child will not need you to fill downtime.
In order for replacement activities to work, your child’s environment will also need to change. Video game controllers on the table are too hard for your child to resist. Willpower has a short shelf life; few can withstand the same temptation more than a few times. Many addicts do well detoxing at a treatment center only to fall right back into their addiction when they come home to the same physical cues in their environment. For families, this may mean that you need to rearrange your home to be more family-centered instead of screen-centered.
Right now is not the time to worry about over-scheduling your child. Sign them up for lessons: music, art, sports, dance, etc. But realize that you don’t have to break the bank. Do what you can to keep them busy, creative, and physically active. How about a family bike ride after dinner, daily runs, or workouts with Mom or Dad? Your goal is to structure new interests by getting involved, especially at first.
5. Reconnect to Family
The final phase of screen detox is centered around your effort to get your child reattached to your family. This is easier to do with younger kids, but can be more challenging with teens. Chances are that if you have a dependent gamer or social media addict in your home, you have a child who has emotionally distanced themselves from the family unit. Your child-at every age-needs to feel close to the family.
Don’t stress about what some friends might say. Ignore what mainstream culture says about kids being “left behind” without screens. Your goal is to unconditionally love and support your child through this lifestyle change.
You know in your heart that your kids will be far ahead without the stress and anxiety of negative screen time. Spend time with them. Sit and read a book with them. Go camping, even if it is only in the backyard. Get off your own screen when you are with your child. You have everything you need to save your child.
6. Trust Your Intuition
One of the best parenting tips I can leave you with is this: Trust your intuition. Our world is full of stories of a parent’s intuition saving their child. A police detective working in the sex trafficking division once told me, “We listen to the moms. When they tell you that they have a ‘feeling’ about something, I can’t logically explain it, but they are always right.”
Try a Screen Detox and Reclaim Your Kids from Their Screens
Screen detoxing is the best decision you can make for your family. It is difficult at first to think of a life that doesn’t revolve around smartphones and video games. But stepping away from these distractions leads to freedom and a revelation that these devices, not your child, are the problem.
Forty years ago, very few people suspected that cigarettes cause cancer. People smoked in hospitals, churches, and airplanes. Today, no one questions the facts that cigarettes are detrimental to the health of smokers and those around them. One day in the very near future, people will think the same thing about screens for children. As a parent, you need to start now to protect your kids from years of damage.
Think of your screen detox as the happiest decision you will ever make-a proactive decision to help your child that will benefit them the rest of their life. You are creating new habits that will not only enrich your child’s development, but also enrich your relationship. You are opening doors you never dreamed you could open, helping them reclaim potential they never knew they had, and creating fun memories that almost never were. The time is now to reclaim your kids from screens and help them experience the joy of living in the real world again.
This story was originally published on the ScreenStrong.com Blog.