Silence Really Is Golden

Time away from screens frees young brains to truly develop
By Dawn Poulterer-Woods
Dawn Poulterer-Woods
Dawn Poulterer-Woods
November 3, 2021 Updated: November 3, 2021

Years ago, before a smartphone was clutched in every human hand, I posed a question to our 300-plus high school students. After years of working in a high school as a teacher and counselor, I noticed some changes in our culture that were causing me pause. I figured it would be helpful to hear directly from the students.

“Take out a piece of paper and a pen,” I said.

“As a guess, how many minutes of total silence do you get in a day? And to be clear, this is not counting when you sleep.”

I saw a few smiles and heard a few laughs. Many were trying to calculate a realistic number. iTunes had been out for a while, and the release of the iPod was in 2001. By this point, the majority of kids owned one. CD players were in their cars and headphones were draped around their necks or plugged into their laptops throughout the day. The answer to my question was fairly clear, but I wanted them to think it out.

The kids shuffled out of the gym and handed their papers to the teachers waiting at the doors. All of them were collected and given to me. It required some self-control on my part to wait until I got back to my office to scan them. I sat at my desk glancing over their responses one at a time.

The average amount of silence they experienced in a day was 10 minutes, or less. Most of them had music playing while in the shower or getting ready for school in the morning. Most of them fell asleep to music or the TV playing. Most of them had music streaming, with no pause or commercial break, for the entire drive to school. In between classes, walking to the field for practice, or waiting on their ride after school, they had noise going into their brains.

I had a few other questions I asked them:

“What causes you to avoid silence?”

“What fears pop up when you get quiet?”

Though the answers to these questions were sad, they were not surprising. Many of them talked about fear and anxiety. They were worried about their parents’ marriage or wanted to tune out the fighting. Most mentioned being fearful about the future, not getting into college, or not getting the grades they needed to secure a “good future.” Some had memories to block out, others just made a habit of noise.

The problem is, noise pushes everything down. Music, YouTube videos, podcasts, movies, and TV shows keep the scary and stressful thoughts just out of reach, though they constantly linger on the sidelines. Ongoing input is an easy but damaging coping mechanism.

People who lack silence miss out on the development of some necessary life skills.

The Need for a Reset

Our brains get so full; they need quiet. Constant noise and information leave us overloaded and stuffed, leaving little time to reflect, wonder, and imagine.

Our minds need blank space. When they don’t get it, they stay amped up. However, when we sit still, our minds begin to relax.

Initially, it may be hard to slow thoughts down, it may be scary when fears that have been ignored start surfacing. We must push through. You’ll notice, and so will your kids, that once silence becomes more commonplace, it calms us. Quiet space actually provides the margins to work through the uncomfortable feelings, letting them move out. Trusting the process is essential.

The Discipline of Self-Reflection

My students heard me say it 50 times, “If you don’t pay attention to your character flaws, everyone around you will be able to name them but you.”

In other words, faults like bitterness, impatience, insecurity, using humor to deflect, or being stuck in negativity are obvious to everyone except the one not dealing with his flaws.

Noise upon noise can be a form of self-protection. Sticking headphones in our ears and tuning out can be one way to avoid what we desperately need to address. Likewise, hardships such as grief, loss of job, feelings of shame, failure, or the comparison trap must be worked through or they take a deep root.

People think self-reflection is for monks, archaic in a sense, and yet the most healthy people I know, know themselves. They are aware of areas where they need more balance, fears that have too much power, and losses they need to grieve with authentic emotion. This is far different from the self-absorption we see today.

A constant online presence is self-absorption. Taking time offline—in the quiet with no one there to respond—will lead to self-awareness, growth, and humility.

The Habit of Listening

The level of distraction produced from so much entertainment is hampering our listening skills. Our attention is shorter, our ability to be engaged is compromised, and our empathy has flatlined.

The more we sit still, think, consider, feel, and pay attention, the more connected we can be to those around us, as well as ourselves. The world is hard-pressed to find good listeners today.

The Development of Imagination

A strong imagination is underrated. Yet more and more research is affirming how necessary imagination is to problem-solving, creativity, coping, and empathy.

Blank spaces of time in the day allow the imagination to flourish.

It’s no surprise that ongoing input and the indulgence of entertainment hinder the development of one’s imagination. Silence, quiet, and open space breed a healthy imagination, as these provide the opportunity to cultivate ideas and creative solutions.

A Life Free From Addiction

A surplus of research validates the addictive nature of video games, social media, and other screen entertainment. The chemical residing in the pleasure center of the brain, dopamine, spikes during entertainment screen use. And like any other addiction, the more we use it, the harder it is to disconnect from it. Likewise, more time is required to keep the rush.

When our brains get silent and quiet, it prevents the all-too-common addiction to screens. Adolescence is a vulnerable time as the brain is in formation mode. Studies have shown that 90 percent of addictions begin during the teenage years. The more time the brain has to develop without the constant stream of input, the more protected it will be from addiction.

So What Can You Do?

Establish tech-free zones in your house: Don’t compromise on this. Take the time to explain to your kids why you are prioritizing spaces in your home where there is no screen use.

Preserve tech-free car time: Help your kids learn to live in the ordinary experiences that make up most of life. They will learn to pay attention to the simple beauties around them when they don’t have the option to zone out on a screen. The car is a time to engage in conversation and learn to be present. Human connection is paramount.

Model the discipline of silence/downtime: Kids need to see us be OK without our phones. They’ll sense your availability and attach to you as a result. In addition, kids need to see quiet time as a normal part of life.

Protect the bedrooms in your house: One of the most essential rules you can make is to have no screens in the bedroom. This is a place to ready for bed, calm down, enjoy being creative, or read. Screens will suppress melatonin and amp up brain activity, making it difficult to fall asleep.

In a culture that seems to adopt the lifestyle of the masses, it’s imperative to stop and think about what values you want to instill in your home.

What’s necessary for healthy human development? When you go against the norm, your kids may hate it. They may spew out, “You are the only parent who makes these rules!” They will act mad and annoyed. But rest assured, you’re doing the hard work of being a good parent. Your kids will move past it.

Developmentally, it’s their job to fight you on boundaries, but eventually they’ll see that you’re serious. And most importantly, they will experience the peace that comes with a life of less noise.

If your kids are struggling with screen addiction, get your copy of “The Screen Strong Solution: How to Free Your Child from Addictive Screen Habits” at ScreenStrong.com. This small book will provide you with the practical steps needed to bring a reset to your home!

Dawn Poulterer-Woods has her undergraduate degree in English from Messiah College and her master’s degree in Christian Counseling from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. She has worked with adolescents, families, college-age individuals, children, couples, and sexual offenders over the past 20 years in both private practice and the school system. She has witnessed screen addiction steal relationships and derail the path of purpose in many people’s lives. This article was originally published on ScreenStrong.com