S02 E13 - Screens and KidsAug 09, 2021
Do you see your kids losing it when you take away the iPad or Xbox? Do they sneak around trying to get more time on their phone? Tune in as I uncover what might really be going on behind that behaviour. Screens are a relatively new phenomena, and little to no research has been done on its adverse effects, especially long-term. Despite this, we can uncover how it is affecting our own kids through observation and a “screen reset”. Don’t worry, it sounds scarier than it really is, and the end benefits are soooo worth it.
What we dig into:
- What ESS is and what it looks like in our kids
- How you can do a reset to determine how screens might be affecting your children
- How my reset has gone and tips for you in yours
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Reset Your Childs Brain: Reset Your Child's Brain
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Episode 13, Screens and Kids.
Books that have shifted my opinion on screens
This is a question that comes up often when people hear that I have a little bit of a different view on screens and kids, I guess, I don't know if it's a different view, but it's kind of like a burgeoning learning view.
I often get asked what my opinion is on screens. And so, I'm going to tell you it all today. Recently, I had a friend, we were chatting about different emotional experiences in our lives and kind of the ones that made the biggest difference to us.
And she was saying that so much of the emotional experiences that she's had in life had to do with books, reading a book and feeling like it was a hugely eye-opening and life-changing experience. So, I was pondering about that afterwards and thinking, what are some books that shifted that for me? And there definitely have been several. So, here I'm just want to mention two.
a) Reclaiming Conversation
One is Reclaiming Conversation. I love that book, and that was kind of the first one that started opening my eyes to the change that technology has had on how we interact with people around us; and it was really fascinating.
She talked about how, you know, even just something little, like sitting in the foyer of a doctor's office and being on your screen versus reading a book or flipping through a magazine, somebody is much less likely to interrupt you when you're on your screen because they think that you're "working or too busy to be interrupted".
And so, it actually has really decreased the amount of interaction that we have with the people around us, with our family members, with our friends, with random people at a grocery store in line, all of those kinds of things. And so, I loved that book, and it was very eye-opening.
b) Reset Your Child's Brain by Victoria L. Dunckley, M.D.
And shortly after that, I started reading Reset Your Child's Brain: A Four-Week Plan to End Meltdowns, Raise Grades, and Boost Social Skills by Reversing the Effects of Electronic Screen-Time by Victoria Dunckley, M.D. She's a Child Psychiatrist.
So, this is the book that I'm going to focus on in this episode. I'm going to tell you all about it, what she talks about in Section 1 and Section 2 and Section 3, and tell you about our experience with this screen reset.
So, I'm going to read just a couple little quotes from her book that I loved. So, she talks about how in a 10-year span from 1994 to 2003, the diagnosis of bipolar disorder in children increased 40-fold. Childhood psychiatric disorders such as ADHD, autism spectrum disorders and tick disorders are also on the rise.
Between 2002 and 2005, ADHD medication prescriptions rose by 40%. Mental illness is now the number one reason for disability filings for children representing half of all claims filed in 2012 compared to just 5 to 6% of claims 20 years prior.
And then, she says, "Now, consider that this rise in childhood psychosocial and neurodevelopmental issues has increased in lockstep with the insidious growth of electronic screen exposure in daily life." So, we all know that doesn't mean that there's a guarantee that that's what the connection is, for sure; but it has continuously risen at the same time.
She also says, "Children age 2 to 6, now spend two to four hours a day screen-bound." Also, she says, "This time, for their life, there's so much development happening emotionally in their brains at that time; and it's critical self-development period that now is hugely different than what it used to be."
She said, "Computer training in early educations, including in preschool, has become commonplace despite lack of long-term data on learning and development."
So, even though there really isn't a lot of long-term data and there isn't because the screens haven't been around long enough for us to determine what's going on here. She wrote this, I think, in 2015.
And so, even since then, even the, you know, six years since then, there has been huge developments and more smartphones and more interaction on screens, for sure. So, those kinds of things have become commonplace, for sure.
She said that there was a large-scale survey conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation in 2010 from children ages 8 to 18, and they now spend an average of nearly seven-and-a-half hours a day in front of a screen.
So, you might be thinking, 'Okay, my child definitely does not spend that much time on screens, that's way more' – that's fine. Still listen in, still tune in because there's going to be some interesting information that will pop up, anyways.
And if you are feeling like, 'Okay, yeah, that's definitely our family,' then this will be a really interesting thing for you. So, she talks about how she really started to notice that there was more and more and more dysregulation among the children that she was working with – and among the homes that she worked with; she used to work in group homes.
And so, it didn't happen overnight; she didn't realize that it was effects from screen time overnight, for sure. She said that there was just so many kids that were dysregulated.
She says "Dysregulated is when they have trouble modulating their emotional responses and arousal levels when they're stressed." So, anytime that they're in a stressful or emotional situation, they have a hard time behaving at an acceptable level.
So, over time, what she noticed was that this wasn't just happening with children with diagnosis or what we would call 'neurodivergent children'. She even realized this with "typical children" – so neurotypical without any diagnosis – that they could also experience these kind of side effects that she was noticing, but less extreme and still quite disruptive; and that it could affect every single child.
Victoria L. Dunckley’s experiment on how screens affect the behavior of kids
So, what she first noticed when was she was working in group homes and all of these children in the group homes were getting, they seemed to get more and more agitated; and what was happening was they were using video games as a reward for good behavior.
And so, all she said was like, 'Let's just try and experiment, let's just take them away for a month.' And so, they kind of prepped everybody, they took away these video games for a month; and it was a huge shift. There was a huge shift. In fact, it was such a stark difference that all of the staff there even noticed it.
And one of the staff members came and said, "I want to write a testimonial for you and for the work that you're doing," because at this time she was just starting to research this, I think, but he said, "I'd love to write a testimonial for you for the future because I can't believe how much of an improvement this has had."
So, it was a giant improvement for them.
How to determine whether screens are affecting your kids negatively
So, what we're going to talk about is a little bit about kind of the reasons behind this behavior. That's what she talks about in Part 2, kind of, what's going on. And then, Part 2 is kind of the how to do it.
And then Part 3 is kind of the 'after' to do it; and I'll put in little pieces of my journey and my story as well. So, what she says is that as you do what she calls an 'electronic fast' or an 'electronic reset'--
She's done this with over 500; this was years ago, so I'm sure she's probably doubled this now, but at that time, she said that she had worked with over 500 children, teens and young adults.
And what she does is she observes very specific changes that happen in them so that she can actually quantify what's going on here. And she said that she noticed about 80% show marked improvement.
So, this is a symptom reduction of at least 50% across all psychiatric symptoms and diagnostic categories, which is crazy, right? 80% of people have a 50% or more change across all diagnosis and categories.
She said, "In children with underlying disorders then the percentage might even be higher. And those people that do respond positively, about half will show a complete resolution of symptoms that is no more tantrums and not as much chronic irritability, poor focus on and on and on. And the other half will show marked improvement."
So, she says, "You can expect to see a happier child with better focus in organization, improved compliance and more mature social interactions." Now, this has definitely been my experience with this as – I don't know how many of you know, how many of you know me personally – but we did do this.
Analyzing Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age by Sherry Turkle
So, we did this whole reset, four or five years ago, after reading this book. I don't even know if I read the entire book before I started the reset because I was just so on board. I had just recently read Reclaiming Conversation, like I had mentioned, which I loved. And so, I was already really primed to start changing, I call it Start Changing a Relationship with Screens.
Part 1: The reasons behind kids' behavior after screen-withdrawal
So, she asks a lot of questions in the beginning, like, How irritated is your child when they're on screens or maybe when you immediately take them off? Do they have trouble making friends? Do they have trouble in school? Do they have trouble paying attention to one specific task?
Do they have trouble sleeping? Do they seem wired and tired? So, like they're exhausted but then they can't sleep or can't feel rested. Do they already have a preexisting condition like autism or ADHD – and maybe those symptoms that they've already had seem to be getting worse instead of better?
Maybe your child seems stressed, even though there isn't any specific stressors that you can point them to. Maybe your child's receiving services in school, and the services that they're receiving don't seem to be helping like they used to before. Maybe they aren't as interested in things.
What I've noticed was a lot of the like, 'I'm bored, I'm bored, I'm bored,' and lacking curiosity, like they just weren't as engaged or interested. They constantly ask me to help them do something, if they weren't on screens; it was like screens were the only option that came to them when they could think about something fun to do.
So, if any of this is ringing a bell, if any of this sounds familiar, then definitely keep tuning in. She said that, "Regardless of your child's issue, if any of those things are going on, then something is being missed." There is something there that is going on, we don't necessarily know what it is.
And for sure, screens aren't going to be it for every single child. But wouldn't it be interesting if it was, if that was the case, all of these issues, if all of the different things that I just mentioned, maybe all of those issues are tied to this one specific thing.
What ESS is and what it looks like in our kids
So, like I said, dysregulation is they lack the ability to modulate mood, attention and or level of arousal in a manner appropriate to the given environment or stimulus. So, for instance, something is irritating them more than what it normally does.
So, in my life, this would look like; I would take away the iPad, and my son would smash it on the ground or he would throw something or he would hit or he would scream or he would run around screaming – and even when it wasn't around the time that screens were happening, though, that dysregulated mood happened regularly.
And so, maybe he didn't get the right color cup or the right color plate, and he would flip out. And now, this is fairly regular for him that he definitely has things that happen like this all of the time.
But I did notice that it was like unending, like all day long. Literally, okay, not literally; we just read about the difference between literally and figuratively, so I should say 'figuratively', all day long. And it was very, very difficult for me.
I know it was difficult for my husband also, but I was home with my kids all day long; and having specifically two children that were really disrupted and dysregulated, was very, very difficult.
So, she suggests this screen-fast, and she talks about why screens are bothering us so much; and what she calls it is Electronic Screen Syndrome. She says, ESS or Electronic Screen Syndrome is essentially a disorder of dysregulation.
So, it's not in the DSM-5, which is the Diagnostic Statistics Manual of Mental Health (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders); you won’t see it in there. This is her own research that she has done, and this is the name that she has given it.
And so, oftentimes, what she notices is just that dysregulation and mood, lack of creativity, always being bored, not making friends, maybe not doing well in school – which isn't always the case, your children can definitely still be doing well in school and struggling with this.
One of the things that she mentioned in her book, which was really interesting, was that the brain doesn't discern between real or perceived threats. So, even if it's just a video game that they're playing or a computer game or a cell phone app that they're playing, if there's something like threatening within that game, their brain doesn't know the difference between that in real life. And even if you logically can tell that part of your brain, that fight or flight part of your brain, it can't.
Interactive Vs. Passive Screen Time
There's also a difference between what she calls interactive and passive screen time, and this is a difference that I hadn't known about before. So, interactive would be something on an iPad or a phone, really kind of close to your face and really engaging – video game time, stuff like that.
And passive would be if you're far away and you're just passively watching, you're not interacting with that at all.
And so, oftentimes, people will think that iPads or iPhones or things like that could actually be helping their child learn and they could be kind of building that education, I guess, that part of their brain because of what it is, because of the nature of the educational game.
But she actually says that it's the opposite, that that passive screen time does less to their brain than the interactive screen time does. And so, what we want to try to do is decrease specifically interactive screen time for at least two to four weeks.
Part 2: How to withdraw screens from kids effectively
When we did this, we did it for four weeks, but before you go into it, Part 2 talks all about how to set that up; so, how to set up a plan so that it works. So, setting up things like maybe you have a friend that is going to do the reset with you, maybe you can set up babysitters, maybe you can plan out a schedule or a calendar with fun and engaging activities to do that your children can look for.
This is one thing that I noticed is that we can't just take something away without putting something in. It's just like when we're trying to change our diet, we can't just be like, 'Well, I'm not going to eat all these foods and then not put anything else in as well.'
We need to be putting something else in, and we need to be doing something else with that time. So, spending more time outdoors – crafts, creative play, field trips, going to friends – whatever it is that you can do that's going to make it more enjoyable.
What happens too is that we think it's going to be really difficult. I mean, it is hard, for sure, but we think it's going to be really difficult; and after a week or two, our children get pretty used to it. And we also prep our kids; we're not just going to be like, overnight, 'By the way, we're not doing this anymore.'
How my reset has gone and tips for you in yours
One of the other important factors she talks about in Part 2 is making sure that you're writing down the behavior that you see that you would like to change.
So, is it an emotional or behavioral or a school-related or a social or a physical issue? Writing down all of those issues, picking the top couple issues that you noticed, and the problem areas, and noticing what you would want it to be like in the end.
So, I remember writing this down and thinking, I don't remember which of my children it was, but one of them, I remember feeling like one of them was those tantrums, those dysregulated moods. So, they would just go from 0 to 100 in no time at all, and I wrote down that this would happen on average 25 to 30 times a day.
This is a huge meltdown, and it would happen 25 to 30 times a day. And I think this was my younger child. Anyway, so I wrote this all down. You would also write down the intensity level.
So, I did like on a scale of 1 to 100 or something like that; and I was like, almost all of them are like 90%, like 92, 100% of like just the most crazy emotional mood you can imagine. So, obviously, I wanted that to decrease.
And so, my goal was like, 'Okay, half of that would be nice, maybe a little bit less intense and less frequent as well.' And so, you're writing down like these things that you notice; and then as you go through the reset, you're writing down what's happening.
So, at the end of every day, like, 'What do I notice today?' Because your brain, it's going to be really hard for your brain to notice that there is changes happening unless you specifically are looking for them.
So, I wrote down kind of the three top behaviors; I wanted to see change, what a goal would be for the future as far as change looks like. And then, I made a plan; I put it all out on my calendar, I followed through with that calendar for a month.
I also fitted in with the rhythm of our life. So, we happened to go traveling for a month. And so, it was easy for me to be like, 'There's no internet, we're not bringing the iPad with us; we're taking this out of our life for now.'
And so, it was a little bit easier because of that and because we were going, it was fun; there was always things to do. So, I would suggest also trying to fit that in with the rhythm of your life.
One more thing that she mentions in this Part 2 is making sure that you also decrease your own screen time because you don't want your kids feeling like, 'Well, this isn't fair because mom's not doing anything – she's on her phone all the time and we don't get to.'
So, what I did, for me, personally, was I still had to check my emails, I still needed to check some things; and so, I would do that in the morning before they woke up – and at the night, when they were already in bed. So, I wasn't on screens at all during that day, which was a huge difference for me, at the time.
Now, in the end, I will tell you what I noticed personally. She goes through stories and stories and stories of changes and they are miraculous. And if you have time, I highly suggest you go and read that book.
I will have it linked in the show notes because they are transformative experiences. Like I can't even go into the details of how amazing they are, but you have to read some of the stories.
My own experience: The impact of screen withdrawal on my kids
But what I noticed in my own story was that the amount of tantrums or meltdowns decreased by 80%, and the intensity of them decreased between 80 and 90%.
So, this was way more than what I was thinking. I was thinking it was going to be small over time; and it was huge. It was significant for all of my children. My oldest child, it wasn't quite as significant, but it still was; still was measurable, but not quite as measurable as my next two kids. So, that was a pretty big difference.
I also noticed differences in me. She talks about screens and parents as well. I mean, we're not immune to the effects of screen time either. And so, we can be more moody. We can have a harder time recalling short-term memory. There's a lot of things that can happen with us as well.
Part 3: How you can do a reset to determine how screens might be affecting your children
So, Section 3 is all about, what to do now. So, you do this whole reset; and then, what? And so, I like to think about it as changing our relationship with screen. So, she goes into detail about what she suggests.
What I did was I just implemented little, little bits in time; and then, I could tell when it started to bother them. In fact, I could tell physiologically; their cheeks would get a little bit red, their face would get white, their eyes would get a little bit glossy.
I could tell when they'd had too much time; they would get cranky, they would get more irritable, they would get more of that – 'I'm bored, give me something to do, I have nothing to do.'
And all of that really started to shift and change how we interacted with screens. I could tell that something was too much for one child, which was different from another child.
And there's lots of predetermining factors here as well. So, she talks about neurodivergent children and younger children and boys; they are a little bit more sensitive to these kinds of things.
So, what I like to do now is I like to think of it as just like co-regulation, right? 'Our children are born dysregulated. We help them regulate. Eventually, they're going to be self-regulated.' This is the same with screens.
I think that what we're trying to teach them is to have a healthy relationship with screens, over time. So, with my oldest child who's 14 now, I'm going to sit down and I'm going to have a conversation with him and I'm going to ask him like, 'Well, what do you think about screens?'
And I'm going to read him some of these things, and I'm going to tell him what my concerns are and what my ideas are; and I'm going to let him in in that conversation. I'm going to have the same conversation with my younger kids, but it's not going to be quite the same; so that hopefully, over time, he can start to build those healthy habits.
And whenever I notice that we're all getting a little bit too on screens again, we'll just do another quick reset for a few more weeks and we'll all have a healthier relationship with this.
Can screen-withdraw have a negative impact on our kids' careers in future?
So, I'm going to leave you with one last thing. Now, this is awesome; and so, listen up. I am so excited to share this with you.
One thing that people often say to me is, "Well, your children, if they don't learn coding right now, if they don't learn a video gaming right now, if they don't learn all these things right now – they'll be behind, they won't be able to catch up, they won't be technologically literate. They won't be able to ever be coders or professional video game players. You have to have your children start young in order for this to happen."
And I just want to tell you that I've never felt like that was true. I've always felt like, I think that they could still learn; I think that they could still catch up.
Example 1: Kids can still thrive in Tech careers despite screen-withdrawal
So, I'm going to tell you a little story. I have a friend who is a CTO of a company, a large company. I'm going to tell you a little bit about him; his name is Will Stevens, and he gave me permission to share this with you.
He grew up in a really different kind of lifestyle that he's going to share here. I'm going to read it to you, and what his idea about this is; and I 100% agree with everything he said here.
So, he grew up on a homestead with no electricity and running water. He lived with electricity for the first time at 13. By 16 he was working as a web consultant, and started his first business by 18. He's now the CTO of a Cloud Computing company, which works at the leading edge of innovation in their field.
He credits not just the lack of technology in his childhood, but also the context in which he grew up with fostering a great deal of creativity.
Today, he's observed that, "Too much focus is placed on finding the perfect solution versus exploring a workable solution that can be implemented to solve the immediate need, and those are likely simpler and very different from what went originally expected. Way too many people become paralyzed by the notion of perfection and even more by the fear of failure, so they don't allow themselves the freedom to just try things and to tinker, but it's through failure that we achieve the things that are worthwhile."
The most important skills he feels is to develop critical thinking and creativity, and the willingness to try things and fail without it impacting your psyche or self-worth. He feels that's best done through making, playing, and trying to create something that is meaningful to you.
The way children interact with technology today – in its current form – is that you can't see the actual construction of the technology through all the noise. They're using technology but not seeing it for what is really behind the interface.
The interfaces, social influence, and the information streaming through it can be manipulated by a child and that they might be able to play a game or understand how to turn on their favorite show, but they aren't interacting with the actual technology.
What kids need, he feels, is to tinker with motors and batteries and simple robots or even with tools and building and crafting and experimenting things with kinesthetic in 'your hands' components – things where the outcomes aren't immediately apparent at the start of the project.
The idea is to gain a fundamental understanding of electricity, logic, problem-solving, and having a tangible experience creating in the physical world a thing that once existed only in your imagination.
You can then harness your imagination to experiment, create testable theories, and connect links between the different iterations of your projects; and get a child to start to think abstractly about how to use that practical knowledge to solve other novel problems.
Their ability to grasp the technical concepts when they're old enough isn't going to be a problem for a child, especially when it's built on top of a solid foundation of problem-solving creatively.
So, here's a direct quote from him, put it this way, "I can learn a new coding language in a weekend, but the ability to apply that language to a problem that has never been solved before – I gained through experience, life experience, tinkering in problem-solving and in failure. It gives me the ability to see problems in a different way than my peers, and then use coding simply as a tool."
So, thank you, Will, thank you so much for sending me that. I completely concur. From what I can tell from my children, when they don't have so much time on screens; they are more creative, they are more willing to try new things. They're more willing to learn and to fail.
They don't have that 'I'm bored' about them all the time. They spend more time outdoors. They spend more time tinkering and more time playing. And like Will, that doesn't mean that they're going to be behind.
In fact, they could be leaders in their industry because they don't have as much screen time as the norm, as culture would tell us is necessary. So, I know this is difficult. I know that it's not an easy thing to be like, 'Wait, wait, wait, this is going to change our entire relationship with screens.'
And it's not, there's not a one-size-fits-all solution for you or for your family; you are unique, your journey's going to be unique, your family is unique. So, what I do with my family isn't going to be the same that you do with your family.
But I do know that as you do this reset, you'll be able to tap into that inner parenting expert inside you; and you'll know what steps next to take to change your relationship with screens and their relationship with screens so that we can all have a healthy relationship with them.
We don't have to go completely off of them, right? We can have that healthy, balanced relationship with screens. So, I hope this was helpful for you. If you have any questions about this, feel free to reach out; I love to talk about this topic.
I hope you enjoyed today's episode. Make sure that you give it Five Stars on Apple, and check out my monthly membership for moms in the show notes.