They are calling my generation (Generation X) the “last generation in the woods. ” We are the last group of kids that know what it’s like to play outdoors all day long until the street lamp came on. Childhood obesity is at a all time high, and the number of school-related hate crimes is astounding. The results are clear, technology is up, and compassion is at a severe low.
It seems everywhere you look there are devices for kids to “plug in” to keep them occupied. It starts at a very young age with the light up toys and flashing, colorful jungle gyms. We have one for the car, one for the house, one for just in case the others die out. It’s all very overstimulating, and the effects on the brain (research is finding) are far-reaching. Even the AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics) is recommending that children don’t watch ANY television before the age of two. Many suggest much longer than that with the alarming information found in the effects of wi-fi on a developing brain before the age of nine years old.
Yet everywhere you look, children are plugged in. Plugged into iPhones, iPads, tablets, portable dvd players, you name it they’ve got it in their tiny grasp. Even billionaire entrepreneur and CEO of Apple, Steve Jobs, didn’t allow his children to have iPhones until well into their teens. Studies have found that social media can play a large part in screen addiction, but the building blocks for this issue are there long before social media is invited into the equation. Researchers have found that dopamine (the same effect drugs or alcohol have on the human brain) is released while using apps, or interacting on social media. That is why it’s easy to fall down the rabbit hole once you’ve started using it. Ever log in to Facebook for “just a moment” only to find you’ve wasted two hours browsing? Luckily, there are many ways to help you decipher if your child is getting too much screen time.
At the grocery store, in the car, sitting at the table in the restaurant. If you notice that all of life’s everyday mundane activities seem to draw a device into the hand of your child, then they may have a screen addiction. All of these day to day activities, although not necessarily all exciting, play a part in your child’s social-emotional development. These are necessary interactions in which your child needs to learn how to navigate. You can alleviate this by purposely removing the option of devices from these activities. Important conversations are had in these still moments, missing out on these opportunities can have damaging effects. You can begin by setting boundaries for older children, or removing the opportunity to plug in altogether from younger kids during these moments. We recently bought a new SUV, and traded our minivan that had a dvd player in it. I thought it might be tough during road trips, but it turns out we enjoy car rides together much more, and the kids have found artistic ways to express themselves instead. The amount of drawing supplies that have made it’s way into our car rides, and we love it (except for the occasional melted crayon). It can be tough when parents need a break, but the benefits far outweigh the inconveniences. Look for all of the fun and silly moments to be had, and the lessons learned. It will serves them much longer than the thirty minutes of quiet time at dinner.
If you notice that when you do remove the devices, or turn them off that your children look as though they’ve been posessed, they may have a screen addiction. The reason for this mean or intense behavior is because their brain is being overstimulated. Once that stimulation is removed, it can feel like an intense withdrawal. There’s no doubt about it, it feels as though the mean epidemic is larger than ever. Bullying is at an all time high (including cyber bullying), and kids are having trouble connecting with each other. The reason the popular Netflix show “13 Reasons Why” is such a hot topic is because it touches on many real struggles our youth are facing today. These issues are topics we have all faced growing up, only it seems it’s amplified because of the lack of social interaction and the introduction of social media. When I was growing up, if we made a silly mistake it wasn’t plastered all over and online resource for every school in the tri-state area to scoff at. Bullies were required to see the effects of their harsh words or actions immediately. They couldn’t hide behind a chat room, if they hurt someone, they had to see the effects of that hurt immediately, and suffer the intrinsic consequences by feeling terrible. Remove the person-to-person contact, and this becomes a dangerous scenario. There isn’t any compassion for a blank computer screen, and the person on the other end is up for grabs. The compassion and problem solving skills learned on the playground face to face, and the conflict resolution are what made other generations sturdy enough to handle pressure from the outside world, and grasp that today was a hard day; but there would be other days. Allowing kids the unstructured play time to work together to figure out their problems, and feel compassion for others, is crucial to healthy human development. They become the building blocks of our lives, and we draw on them in each situation of our lives moving forward. This can’t happen if kids never got to play and were constantly plugged in. You can start by reading books that encourage compassion to our children, we’re laying the groundwork. By allowing them to figure out some of their own issues on the playground (instead of running to the rescue), we encourage autonomy. When we learn to use the right language to help describe the issues instead of placing blame or judgement, we are teaching them conflict resolution, instead of how to play defense all the time and ostracize themselves.
In classrooms across America, children are faced with the physical effects of too much screen time. There is a reason the AAP has recommended little to no screen-time for children, the effects on the brain while staring at a glowing screen can be tough on the brain. The state your brain is in while engaged in pixelated content is the same as though you were sitting in a movie theater. Ever notice how after a few moments, you are wrapped into the screen as though no one else is in the theater? It’s because of the intense concentration that happens, we almost transcend our environment and notice nothing else. Screen time has this effect on the brain, and while the brain is in this state, it’s dormant. There is an entire part of the brain left being unused. This portion of the brain helps to control motor skills, coordination, and scanning (left to right scanning is what is the part of the brain that helps us to read, crawl, etc.). Think of a child’s brain as having dark areas (areas not yet in use), once a scent, or a feeling from touch is introduced, the brain creates a synapses, a bridge if you will to this sensation. A portion of the brain literally comes alive with a new experience tied to it, creating a bridge to another brand new experience. This is why sensorial play, and process art are so amazing for our children’s brains, it literally awakens parts of the brain that would otherwise go unused while plugged in. Movement is key to childhood development because the left to right transfer lends to the ability to learn to read later on. Movement can help develop the prefrontal cortex, which helps with problem solving and emotional self control. Without this, the brain relies on the primal part of the brain that sends “fight or flight” signals to the body, causing wild tantrums, and the inability to work through experiences.
While these signs may seem daunting, the beauty in childhood is that it is never too late to implement healthy habits. Children are resilient and can bounce back from physical and behavioral issues with the right guidance, and more importantly the right examples. That’s the key to any lessons in childhood, an example needs to be set. One of the biggest reasons children can suffer from screen addiction is that their parents may be facing the same issue without even realizing it. How can we expect our kids to practice responsible device use if we haven’t quite learned how to put down our own smartphone? Ask yourself these questions: Am I always on my phone in front of our kids? Do I have my phone or any devices present at the dinner table, or during family time? When they see me, what do they see. One of the quickest ways to try and understand our children and their habits is by getting down to their level, and watching what their experience with us is like.
There are tons of great books dedicated to this issue, and resolving it.
“The children and nature movement is fueled by this fundamental idea; the child in nature is an endangered species, and the health of children and the health of the Earth are inseparable.” -Richard Louv