A Complete Guide on fighting Screen Addiction in kids

Too much screen time in kids is resulting in anti-social behaviours, attention problems, speech problems, lack of family connection, tantrums, aggression - the list goes on. It's time for action!

Worried! Frustrated! Helpless! Angry!

I am sure we all have felt one of those feelings numerous times whenever our kids refuse to take their eyes off screens for hours. They are stuck in a never-ending cycle of online schools, games, TV shows, cartoons and social media.

And it seems like there is nothing we can do about it!

How can we? We are also stuck in a similar cycle, having to do remote office, checking all the notifications (both work and social I must admit), lack of social contact, even doing groceries online...! It seems like screens have become our only window to the outside world now-a-days.

But none of that changes the fact that too much screen time is bad for us.

Too much screen time in kids is resulting in anti-social behaviours, attention problems, speech problems, lack of family connection, tantrums, aggression - the list goes on.

In fact some research shows that young people who have grown up in this technogeek world are lacking in emotional skills, it increases bullying and decreases childrens’ ability to empathize and robs their creativity.

And this COVID-19 pandemic makes the situation worse than ever. Screen-based technologies have become the primary tools for literally everything our kids do - learning, communicating, entertainment etc.

Result? Our children end up spending all their time and energy interacting with an artificial device instead of real life experiences or direct human interaction.

So we will be talking about why we should be taking actions NOW and what actions we can take. But first let’s see what makes screens so addictive!

Why are screens so addictive?

Habit Loop by iAmMotherly
Habit Loop

Do you ever wonder why we have to push ourselves to put our phones down, and then why we pick them up again as soon as the notification bell rings? Or What is it about screens that makes them so addictive?

If we don't understand the psychological and biological reasons for compulsion, we'll continue to advise ourselves or our children to "use screens less," "put them away," and "have better self-control." It's like asking an addict to give up cigarettes, alcohol, drugs, or gambling when they already have a dependency on these substances.

It turns out that every compulsion starts with a psychological pattern known as habit loop, which is a three part process - Cue, Routine & reward.

You feel bored or hear a notification go “Ding” (which acts as a CUE), you pick up your phone and start scrolling (this is your ROUTINE), you see something you like and your brain gets flooded with Dopamine (a happiness/pleasure neurotransmitter or “feel-good” chemical), that makes you feel good (this is the REWARD).

This “Feel good” feeling creates a craving, which further acts as a cue and makes you repeat the same cycle over and over again. Result, you now have an unhealthy dependency on screens.

Although, in terms of intensity and effect, screen addiction is not the same as addiction to alcohol or narcotics. But screen-addiction has its own devastating impacts, especially for younger children.

Psychologists are learning that the dopamine from screens is impairing children’s impulse control, increasing the demand for instant gratification. This is why screens and electronics run the risk of keeping children in a chronic state of hyper-arousal, leaving them agitated yet somehow exhausted.

Let's know in detail what screens are ACTUALLY doing to our children!

Effects of Excessive screen time  

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Studies suggest that screen time may be affecting the normal development of fundamental learning, language, and emotional skills of young children.

Preteen and teen are not safe either. The brain undergoes significant changes during the preteen and adolescent years. This might explain why tweens and adolescents are more vulnerable to the negative effects of screen usage on their brain function and mental well-being.

Recent reports say that teens spend about 9 hours a day on a screen. And that is not including screen use for school related issues. Younger kids are not far behind, with 4 to 6 hours being the average for 6 to 8 year olds.

Staggering numbers right? Here's what excessive screen time does to our children:

Impairs Brain Development

Early data from a landmark National Institutes of Health (NIH) study that began in 2018 indicates that children who spent more than two hours a day on screen-time activities scored lower on language and thinking tests.

Another recent study done on 2441 children revealed that higher levels of screen time at 24and 36 months were significantly associated with poorer performance on developmental screening tests at 36 months.

Some children with more than seven hours a day of screen time experienced thinning of the brain’s cortex, the area of the brain related to critical thinking and reasoning.

Impacts Learning Ability

According to several research, toddlers less than 30 months have a restricted ability to learn through video. They learn better through face-to-face interactions and rapid feedback. Unstructured play time, which is crucial for learning and problem solving, is also taken away by screen time.

Responsible for Speech Delays

Language development expands rapidly between 1½ to 3 years of age, and studies have shown that children learn language best when engaging and interacting with adults who are talking and playing with them. Making eye contact and having conversations with your child builds a strong foundation for communication skills.

Young children spending too much time on screen instead does not get enough engagement with real people. This is one of the core reasons speech delays are increasing so much these days!

In fact a research done on 18,905 participants from 42 studies revealed that greater quantity of screen use was associated with lower language skills.

Hampers Motor Development

Due to screen time kids are in a higher chance of being obese. Not only that, sitting in one position for extended periods of time does not help all of the muscles in the body develop against gravity.

This also stops children from developing the coordination they need to run or play. You will sometimes see kids falling down while running without any apparent reasons, most of the times, screen time is the culprit.

Results in More Tantrums, Less Regulation

Some experts worry that using digital devices prevent children from learning how to regulate boredom, distress, and other impulses and emotions. You will generally see tantrums rising with increased screen usage.

Responsible for Attention Problems

Study found that children and young adults who spend a lot of time on TV and video games were twice as likely to suffer from attention disorders.

Reported Attention-Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) cases are increasing at a drastic rate (see report). Some psychologists say it may be because of too much screen use.

Impairs Social Skills

Adolescents, too immersed on screens, usually prefer to stay behind the screen rather than engage in direct human interaction. This leads to lack of necessary social skills which seriously hampers the quality of their life, career and relationships.

Increases Aggression & Emotional Problems

Studies in young men show that playing violent video games is linked to more aggression and less sensitivity to others. Also, imaging studies have found that internet addiction and game addiction can shrink the brain regions (frontal lobe) responsible for planning and executive functions, empathy, compassion, and impulse control.

Escalates Addiction and Reward-seeking Behavior

Screen time works as a quick source of Dopamine, the “feel-good hormone” which is part of the brain’s pleasure and reward circuits. Too much of Dopamine habituates children to only look for pleasure and reward and slowly incapacitates them to really give effort, work hard or focus.

Not only that, playing video games turns on similar brain regions as those linked to cravings for drugs and gambling.

Causes Vision Problems

Computer vision syndrome’ is caused by staring at a screen for long periods of time. Symptoms like- strained, dry eyes, blurry vision, and headaches are most common. Neck and shoulder discomfort can also be caused by bad posture.

Responsible for Obesity

Unhealthy weight is becoming one of the main causes of concern for the younger generation of our times, unlike any previous times in history. Screen time has a huge role to play in this as well. Instead of playing outdoors, kids are seen playing video games more, resulting in weight issues.

Causes Sleep Problems

A good night’s sleep is also key to brain development. According to one study, infants 6 to 12 months old who were exposed to screens in the evening showed significantly shorter nighttime sleep than those who had no evening screen exposure. they’re also lacking the deep REM sleep essential for processing and storing information from that day into memory.

Signs that your child is in the ‘Red Zone’

Warning Signs of Screen Addiction in Kids
Warning Signs of Screen Addiction in Kids

Nobody (neither adult nor a child) wants to admit they are spending too much time surfing the net or playing video games. But if your child shows any of the indications listed below, it's time to set some tougher screen time limitations for him or her.

Behavioural and Emotional Signs

  • Rather than spending time with family or friends, your child prefers to spend time in front of a screen
  • Becomes frustrated when he or she can not use screen media
  • During a bad day, screen seems to be the only thing that helps him/her feel better
  • Lacks concern or empathy for others

Social & Communication Signs

  • Has a hard time making and retaining friends
  • Always tries to avoid face to face conversation, rather prefers messaging
  • Has difficulty starting or staying in a discussion
  • Misinterprets nonverbal social cues on a regular basis

Cognitive Signs

  • Has difficulty focusing on the present moment, studies or tasks
  • School grades are declining, regularly misses classes and also hates going to school.
  • Even when not in front of a screen, your child may have a habit of thinking about and talking about their experiences with video games or the Internet

Physical Signs

  • Showing lack of interest or withdrawing from sports and other forms of physical activity.
  • Having trouble falling to sleep or maintaining a healthy sleep routine
  • Your child is showing black patches under the eye, complaining of headache

How much Screen-time is too much? Here is the Expert Guideline

Screen-time Guideline for Kids
Screen Time Guideline for Kids

Experts have created guidance encouraging parents to help their children develop healthy screen use habits early on. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the World Health Organization (WHO) have suggested a specific screen time recommendation for each age group, which is listed below-

Under 18 months old- No screen time at all

  • AAP calls for no screen time at all for children until 18 to 24 months, except for video chatting, as it may hamper the normal development of fundamental learning, language, and emotional skills of young children

Toddlers (18 months-24 months)- Less than 1 hour to no screen time

  • This is a critical developmental period for children and they should get as much physical and creative interaction with people as possible.
  • If they do get screen time, parents need to co-watch high-quality educational content with them to help them understand what they are seeing.

Preschoolers (3-5)- Up to 1 hour per day is fine

  • Children at this age can have mindful interaction with characters, so parents should help them understand what they are seeing and apply it to the world around them
  • Many forms of screen media material are available in print or other formats, like books or toys. Parents should allow their child to connect with their favorite characters away from the screen. It's another method to get kids to engage in creative play!

Elementary School Aged (6-10)- Up to 1 to 1.5 hours per day

  • Place consistent limits on time spent using media, and the types of media being consumed.
  • Since they are now entering school, make sure screens don’t become a habit before homework gets completed.
  • While developing tech skills is important, try to aim for a balance of creative and relaxed time.
  • Make sure the media does not take the place of adequate sleep, physical activity and other behaviors essential to health.

Middle School Aged (11-13)- Up to 2 hours per day

  • At this age, children can understand the concept of balance. It is up to parents to help them see how screen time fits into their schedule.
  • If you find your child getting really into a certain video game for a week or two, gently try to help them understand the benefits of moderation.
  • Help your children understand that recognizing when we are spending too much time doing any one thing is a valuable life skill.

Children aren't the only ones who spend too much time in front of the screen. Many parents also struggle to set good boundaries for themselves.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, the average adult spends over 11 hours each day in front of a screen. Parents should also set an appropriate limit on entertainment media, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).

Because after all, kids learn by seeing what we do, not what we say. So it is really important that we set the right example.

How can we limit the Screen Time?

I know You're concerned about your child's excessive screen time and want to keep it under control. You're not sure where to begin, though. It’s not realistic to ask your kids to cut out screen time completely, but making small changes is the best way to create long-term behaviour change. There are some other suggestions given to limit screen time.

1. Limit “your” own phone use first

Parents are the most influential people in their children's lives, and they will mimic any conduct they observe. Your children will be more inclined to follow your lead if they see you following your own rules and being active.

2. Create a screen time schedule

First establish a screen time limit, then sit down with your children every week and let them figure out how they plan to use it. A good rule of thumb for everyone is to avoid using screens during meals or within an hour of bedtime.

3. Avoid using screens as a reward or punishment

We have our routine time for screens that stays constant. Screen time is not dependent on getting anything else done (except homework - if that's a family value you want to establish).

4. Tell them your “why”

Be clear about why you want to limit screens or change the way your kids use screens. Talk about your values as a parent and the things you value more than screens. Talk about wanting a more connected family, more outdoor adventures, or a fitter, healthier body. Also tell them about the addictive nature and the adverse effect of screens.

5. Find creative and engaging Indoor Activities

By offering new and exciting activities, you can keep your child entertained without a screen.You might say, “phone time is over now, but I’m so excited to play a board game with you!” Open-ended toys or activities (like- plain wooden blocks, simple dolls, musical instruments, cars, art supplies, blank journals) helps your child to engage in deep and meaningful play.

6. Play With Them

Connecting over technology can be a really great thing to bring you closer to your children. Learn something new together. Help your kids with their research homework or watch a documentary as a family. This tip is less about limiting and more about connecting.

7. Co-watch whenever possible

If your children are going to have screen time, the best thing you can do is sit and watch the program  with them so they can understand what they're watching. Comment on things you notice, ask questions about what is going on. Sing along with your children,  engage them in conversation and repeat topics after the show to ensure that they remember the material.

8. Do it as a family

If you come up with family screen-time rules jointly, you'll be more likely to obtain your child's support. You may come up with a screen-time guide for the house as a group. Here are a few of our favorites:

  • Put away all kinds of screens during meals, no matter where you’re eating.
  • Homework and chores take priority over screens.
  • Turn screens off minimum one hour before bedtime.
  • Bedrooms are screen-free zones. Keep the screens in a common area.

9. Consistency is key

Cutting your child's screen time will cause some conflicts. You need to remain calm and tell your child why these rules are necessary for their health. In the end, greater sleep, reduced eye strain, and improved mental health will benefit both you and your child.

10. Address digital etiquette

Children and young adults must learn that online interactions should follow the same social guidelines as face-to-face encounters. Conversations about appropriate content, etiquette, empathy, and safety should occur early to provide a foundation for all digital media use.

11. Let your kid make mistakes

As your child learns about the media, they are bound to make mistakes. Use these mistakes as teachable moments, handled with empathy instead of times for punishment. If your child is engaged in risky behavior, such as sexting or posting self-harm images, this is a signal that something else is wrong and your child may need professional help.

12. Emphasize on the big 3s - Sleep, Healthy diet & Exercise

For both children and adults, all three are necessary for healthy brain growth and development, as well as health and wellness. Children who spend more time in front of screens have been shown to eat more fast food and less fruits and vegetables as well as get less sleep and exercise. Therefore, it is very important to incorporate healthy lifestyle choices as part of the daily routine, as well as limiting screen time.

Food for Thought

Quote on Screen Addiciton

When your child is getting older, you can no longer put limitations on screen time in the same way as when they were little. So as a parent in this era  you must rethink the concept of screen time. Now it is necessary to focus on the quality rather than quantity of their screen time.

“Good” Types of Screen Time

Anything linked to education that your child utilizes a screen for is most likely beneficial rather than harmful. Because there is so much excellent information available online, complete screen abstinence would mean your child was missing out on some incredible learning opportunities. Also there are several educational contents, stimulating video games help children to engage in more cognitive and skill-based activities.

Creating vs Consuming

As parents, we must figure out how to encourage our children to use screens for creative purposes rather than just for consumption. Making music, creating digital art, coding, podcasting, writing stories, or creating videos all involve demonstrating knowledge and critical thinking.

Strive for Balance, Don’t Count Minutes

For our children's screen time, we must take a balanced approach. They must be in fresh air, moving around and exercising on a regular basis. Bike trips, board games, park visits, and family dinners are all highly beneficial. It is not essential to cut your child off if they are utilizing technology in a positive and creative manner.

Let's all team up to get the best out of Technology and not let Technology get the best out of our kids! Let's take action together!

Download the 12 Ideas to Fight Screen Addition Guidebook HERE!

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