I’ve never really known where I stand on the whole electronics use issue. I knew there were different opinions about whether or not you should let your kids use screens – pretty strong opinions, too.
The issues range from when to how much to what type is ok. I always kind of fell somewhere in the middle. I didn’t exactly think screens were like, the anti-Christ or anything.
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I have always believed they should be limited to some extent. But life is rarely that simple. And when we started seeing the effects screens were having on our oldest son, we decided to do an electronic fast.
Our kids were exposed to screens basically from birth. I spent the first several weeks of Samuel’s life binge watching every season of Law & Order:SVU (and there were like 18 of them at the time).
I never really entertained my son with tv, but he was certainly present while I watched. And occasionally he would play with my phone in the checkout at the grocery store.
When Elliott came along 13 months later, TV time became my saving grace. Curious George was playing for a large portion of every day. We’d watched the entire series from beginning to end plus every Curious George movie probably 100 times by Elliott’s first birthday.
Once Samuel got tired of that, we moved on to Sheriff Callie. And that’s when the trouble started. There had never really been any major problems with screen time other than my mom guilt for letting them watch so much (I was a work at home mom with two toddlers – cut me some slack!)
But when Samuel was around 2.5 years old, he began to display some concerning behavior. He had become completely fixated on Sheriff Callie. He wanted to watch it from the time he got up to the time he went to bed.
Any time we turned it off, he would have major meltdowns that would last 30 minutes or more. If we didn’t let him watch it he would continue to ask over and over and over for long stretches of time and when we would say no, he’d have another meltdown.
No distraction or empathy or discipline seemed to work to get his mind off of this show.
And then his aggression and anger began expanding beyond just watching TV. He would often lash out at his brother, hitting or pushing him for no apparent reason. He would go from completely happy playing on the floor one minute to throwing toys and raging the next.
He was struggling to follow directions or to even listen to us when we talked to him. It was becoming a major problem.
And that’s when I went looking for help.
What I Learned About The Effects Of Electronics
I started my search in a positive parenting group I was a part of. Through my inquiries and the responses I got, I found a book by Victoria Dunckley called, “Reset Your Child’s Brain.”
As I began reading I realized that all the symptoms I was seeing in my son could be related to screen time. I learned so much about the ways that screens can affect our brains.
That too much screen time can cause neurological, developmental, and behavioral problems or worsen existing problems. I learned that there’s a such thing as Electronic Screen Syndrome (ESS)* which can cause a whole host of negative side effects for those exposed.
I discovered that while passive screen time (like just watching a TV show) can have a negative effect, it’s interactive screen time (video games, phone & computer use, etc) that really does the most damage.
All this information was helping me begin to understand why we had been struggling so much with our son over the past few months. And I was ready to change!
Our 3-Week Electronic Fast
So after some discussion, we decided to take a break from screens for awhile. Victoria’s book provided a guide for a 3 week screen fast, and so we followed that.
I spent a week just kind of mentally preparing and making sure I was ready to handle any fall out there may be from removing screen time. I was fully prepared for there to be a major power struggle over this decision with my almost three year old.
Then day one of the fast came around. And to my surprise, Samuel didn’t really put up a fight at all! He asked to watch TV, but he didn’t really get too upset when I said no.
I had activities and things we could do instead and I had arranged my schedule so that I could be available to play with the boys more instead of being wrapped up in my work.
We started the fast with the intention of limiting screen time for my husband and myself as well. Our plan was to only use screens for work related tasks (we both do jobs that require the use of a computer).
But by about the middle of the second week, I was missing my shows and so I caved. But I limited myself to only watching when the kids were in bed.
Since the third week of our fast was the week of Christmas, it was pretty simple to make it through. We were so busy with holiday festivities that it hardly phased us!
And when January rolled around, I was ready to keep going! I had planned to extend the fast to February, but about a week into the new year, we did end up letting the kids watch some TV.
After three weeks screen free, I’m happy to report that the behavior issues diminished significantly. We found ourselves struggling much less. The kids were enjoying actually playing more, and in general it was much smoother sailing.
It’s been a few weeks now since we allowed screen time again, and I’m seeing the same behavior issues manifesting in both of my sons again.
We are seeing more fighting, more aggression, less focus and attention, and more difficulty with transitions. Tantrums are more frequent and more intense and it’s harder to calm them down.
Now I can’t say for sure that these behaviors are all related to TV time. But what I do know is that when we removed screens behavior improved. And when we brought them back, behavior struggles appeared again.
So whether or not the screens are the cause, they certainly seem to contribute.
What We Plan To Do Moving Forward
Now that we’ve seen the effects that screen time seems to have on our kids (and effects may vary from one person to the next), we will need to take some action moving forward.
Set firm boundaries
The first thing to do is establish firm boundaries in regards to screen time. What that will look like for us is setting limits on the amount of screen time allowed, the time of day that it’s allowed, and what type of screen time is allowed.
Your boundaries may look different depending on the needs of your family.
Some good guidelines to start with include:
- No screens for at least an hour before bed
- No screens until homework is finished
- Screen time limited to 15 minutes a day per year of age (so my 3 year old could watch 45 minutes of TV each day)
Keep open communication about electronic use
When everyone is clear on the boundaries and you’re all communicating well about it, screen time limits will be much easier to enforce and to stick to.
Make it easy to follow the rules by keeping them short and simple and posting them somewhere everyone can see them.
Be sure to communicate the new boundaries to your child(ren) as well. This makes it hard for them to say they didn’t know later on.
Explaining the reasoning behind the new boundaries may also be helpful for some children – especially older children.
Revisit and revise
Over time as your children get older (and presumably more responsible) and as your life circumstances, activities, etc change, your screen use boundaries will need to change as well.
So revisit your boundaries often – every few months is probably sufficient – and make sure they are still working for your family. Early on you may need to make more adjustments more frequently as you learn what works best for your family.
As time goes on, you will establish a good rhythm and won’t need to make adjustments as frequently.
Don’t be afraid to take your child’s requests into consideration as well. It’s good for them to feel heard and validated. That doesn’t mean you have to agree to their requests, but you should at least consider them before saying no.
The effects of screen time are still not fully known. Research is still being done and their are conflicting opinions.
All of the information I’ve shared with you is based on things I’ve learned from reading Victoria Dunckley’s book, “Reset Your Child’s Brain” and from my own personal experiences.
*As far as I am aware, there are no medically recognized disorders or diagnoses related to screen time. Victoria Dunckley discusses what she calls Electronic Screen Syndrome (ESS), but this is not a medically recognized diagnosis.
From what I have learned in my own personal research, individual doctors may or may not acknowledge screen time as a factor in your child’s neurological, behavioral, or developmental problems.
However, removing screen time has no adverse reactions (other than perhaps causing frustration in your child) and may potentially improve any neurological, behavioral, or developmental struggles your child is having.
Even children with diagnosable conditions can experience symptom improvement with reduced or eliminated screen time. So really there’s no downside to giving it a try!
Obviously, screen time may only be one factor in any struggles you are seeing with your child. If you believe there could be more to it, it’s always best to seek the advice of a medical professional (which I am not).
In the end, we still allow screen time. Probably way more than we should. Right now that’s just what works for our family in this season of life. I’m not against screens and I will never say that all families should eliminate all screens.
Technology is incredible and there is vast opportunity for learning and growth through the use of electronics. Screen time in and of itself is not bad. It’s our overuse of it and our inability to regulate ourselves that causes issues.
For some, a complete electronics ban may be necessary. But I’d guess that those people are few and far between. For the majority of us, we just need to teach ourselves and our kids how to set healthy boundaries with our devices and learn to interact with the real world a little more often.