With Understanding Comes Calm Header

screen timeIt amazes me when people purposely purchase cars with DVD players installed. Talk about a bad trip…a bad road trip. Particularly for gifted and distractible kids, after cajoling, begging and prying them off of what we call in our home, “electronics,” they are insufferable. As though trapped in a bad 70s sci fi movie, airlifted by aliens in a beam of bright light, strapped to gurneys, their brains sucked out, they return to us sullen, angry and monosyllabic.

I often recommend that clients seriously “structure up” electronics time. I truly believe the electronic devices of today have a power to engage our frontal lobes in a way that is different and damaging. It’s harmful to relationships, to creativity, to self control and teaches us immediate gratification, egoism, and that anything worth gaining is worth gaining only if you win or get something in return.

True, electronics can provide time when our brains are on idle, sometimes useful as a strategy to relax, particularly for gifted individuals plagued by a tendency toward intensity and “monkey mind” – when we simply cannot stop the flooding of thoughts. But how many minutes, hours, days, are we going to waste in front of a screen before we realize the lost time? It’s not just lost time with others but lost time with ourselves; inside our own heads. I wonder if “ponder” will appear in the Miriam Webster dictionary much longer. Seriously, when is the last time you or anyone you know pondered? Wait, I don’t have time to think about that, I haven’t checked my email in two minutes!

Back to the car. We used to borrow a neighbor’s DVD player when we took our annual ten-hour summer treks. It didn’t take long for us to realize just how miserable our kids behaved when “electronics time” was over. Then we isolated the time to just the last two hours of the trip. Since we told them ahead of time when they would get to watch a movie or borrow our devices no one kept bugging us with “is it time yet?” Although this delayed approach helped on the front end when their long awaited electronics time was up, they were cranky and wired or sullen and subdued. We also realized that after this two-hour binge, we witnessed an addiction-like obsession with when they’d get their next “hit.” Forget about them helping unpack the car once we finally reached our destination. What a way to start our vacation.

We are proud of the fact that now our kids read or draw or play our favorite car game “what weird thing is the person in the car next to us doing?” We are grateful that our kids love to play games, do puzzles and read the newspaper comic strips. But I still wonder when they are off on their own will they exercise their learned abstinence or will they overdose in an electronics orgy?

It’s impossible to turn off all electronics in this world. For one thing, schools are relying more and more on online opportunities for homework, grades, shared documents and even social media. Don’t get me started. But it’s really important to point out to our kids the importance of well roundedness and to help them develop the skill, yes the skill, to interact with others looking them in the face. As with most things there is a sweet spot, a balance to avoid being a hermit and simultaneously avoid becoming a junkie. People always ask me “but what do they DO in the car?” They listen to music. They think. They look out the window. They say “I’m bored.” They sing. They ask “Are we there yet?” They come up with funny ideas or new games we can play together in the car. My goal is that they have fun inside their own heads and recognize the quiet interior of their minds as a peaceful and relaxing place.

A few tried and true rules toward balance:

• No texting, talking or surfing while in the car. This goes without saying for the driver but I’m talking about the passengers. The car is the best place to talk to your kids or spouse; no one can go anywhere, they’re literally strapped in. Have a no electronics rule in the car and see how much you learn about your family’s day. This is particularly interesting and enlightening when you’re shuttling a group of teens.

• No electronics at the kitchen table. Remember when your Mom told you if you eat in front of the TV you eat more than you normally would? The TV is in the palm of our hands these days. It is well known that families who have meals together enjoy a marked decrease in addiction and other unwanted behaviors (CASAColumbia.org).

• No devices in the bedrooms. Ever. This invites isolation on the one hand and potentially deviant behavior on the other. Who is your child interacting with in the middle of the night? This and the research proving that the blue light emitted from modern day devices lowers our ability to make melatonin (our body’s natural sleep chemical) are good reasons to keep electronics out of the bedroom (http://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/blue-light-has-a-dark-side).

• No devices at parties, play dates or other get-togethers. It saddens me when people exclaim “Look how quiet and engaged they are” when looking at a usually rambunctious group of preteens or teens with their noses, albeit sometimes shoulder-to-shoulder, staring into a screen. Keep a basket near the door and have everyone store his or her device. Have you ever witnessed teens at a party texting each other when they are sitting across the room from one another? Why wouldn’t they just talk out loud? There is no good reason and there may be a very bad reason.

• Limit screen time and teach kids to get off when their time is up. Enlist “iphone training” – tell your kids they won’t know how long they have to use the iphone. It could be three minutes, thirty seconds or thirty minutes. As long as they “get off” immediately upon being asked, they will soon get another chance to play again and will learn how to handle transition.

Utilizing these strategies successfully takes time. You are going counter-culture. Parents often think that electronic devices are the great equalizer. Some consider it a success play date if their twice exceptional kids get along while playing a video game. However, as with any skill, prep and practice make us more adept. Our kids can’t learn how to interact if they never need to interact.

Am I advocating we become luddites? No. In fact there are times when I just need to turn off my brain and playing a silly game on my phone does the trick. The important skill however, is how to guarantee moderation. This is the best thing about electronics; we can learn self control, the importance of time management and how to prioritize. Talk about these goals with your kids and you will teach several skills simultaneously. The catch? We as adults have to role model!

I’d love to hear your success and challenge stories as you implement these ideas. Email me at Julie@withunderstandingcomescalm.com and let me know how it’s going. I’m here to support you as you continue your journey down the parenting road.