A DIGITAL DETOX
Screens helped families survive the pandemic, but is it time for a break?
Because children’s brains are malleable, they can learn and retain new skills, like foreign languages, more rapidly than we can as adults. But bad habits tend to stick, too. In other words, a child who learns to love screens in childhood may be more likely to become an addicted adult.
According to a survey of 1,306 8- to 18-year-olds published by the nonprofit research organization Common Sense Media in March, American kids are spending more time than ever on screens and social media. Overall, screen use increased by 17% from 2019 to 2021, with sharp growth driven by the pandemic. And for good reason.
Parents had to work, many with no childcare, so kids got nonstop screen time, much of it on tablets. As we slowly emerge from the pandemic, it’s unclear whether kids’ media consumption will return to baseline. We talked to local experts to understand what’s at stake, how to teach and model good screen habits, and whether a “digital detox” might benefit families this summer.
THE PROBLEM WITH SCREENS
Research predating the pandemic tracked the ways technology can disrupt concentration, degrade sleep, and delay cognitive development, among other ills. Smartphones and social media promote comparison and cyberbullying and contribute to obesity, depression and anxiety.
Through a Matthews-based non-profit, ScreenStrong, local expert Melanie Hempe provides families and schools with alternative ways to raise kids in a screen-dependent world. Hempe, whose oldest son struggled with video game addiction, likens social media to cigarettes. “A few short years from now, we’ll recognize how dangerous it was,” she says.
Kristin Daley, PhD, owner and co-founder of BASE Cognitive Behavioral group in Charlotte, says we’re physiologically drawn to screens because of how they make us feel, regardless of our age. Whenever activities tickle the pleasure centers of our brains, like fatty foods, sex, laughter, and play, Daley says, “Our brain releases dopamine to keep us doing those things.” In other words, the problem isn’t the screen itself, but rather its impact on our brains.
THE STRUGGLE TO UNPLUG
In an era where so much of our life is dependent on technology, going on a “digital detox,” or unplugging from devices for a set time period, can help us reset, whether we’re 7 or 47.
Hempe calls a detox a sort of self-test. “You’ll know if your child is addicted if you unplug their video game and they haul off and punch something.” But it’s not about punishment; it’s about opportunity. After all, the time they spend on screens comes at the expense of more worthwhile activities.
Without screens to get in the way, kids have more time for in-person play with peers, which provides more than just a hit of dopamine. According to Daley, when we have positive face-to-face engagement, “We get oxytocin, a love neurotransmitter, and serotonin, an antidepressant neurotransmitter, too. If we are given the opportunity to have those interactions, our brains will develop a preference for them.”
Some parents may worry that they’ll be judged by other parents for going screen-free for a spell. But Hempe says more and more parents are looking to minimize the role of screens, especially social media and video games, in their kids’ lives. “This is a movement,” Hempe says.
HOW TO GET STARTED (AND KEEP GOING)
- Visit American Academy of Pediatrics and use their online media calculator to figure out how much time your family spends on screens.
- Talk to your kids in age appropriate terms about the benefits of reducing or eliminating screen time.
- Help them come up with a list of fun and exciting things to do instead: plant an herb garden, have a water balloon fight, make bird feeders, wash the car, learn a card game, or explore a musical instrument or sport.
- Commit to a time period—how long you detox is up to you. Daley recommends between 30 days and three months. Hempe says families can go even shorter with a 7-day starter course. If this all feels overwhelming, consider making one small change, like designating one weekend day as media-free, or setting a screen time limit for an overused app.
- Make it a family affair. “Remember, the way we behave is the biggest role model for our kids,” Daley says. “If we aren’t leaving [the house], having social relationships, stepping away from media, it’ll be hard for our kids to follow suit.”
After your detox, unless you’re making a permanent lifestyle change (kudos to you if you are), try to maintain your new, healthy habits. The APA recommends two hours or less of screen time a day for kids older than 5 (one hour for kids age 2 to 5). It’s worth noting that some experts, including Hempe, say those rules need to be updated since some screen time, like time spent on video games and social media, is more likely to lead to dependencies than 30 minutes of a television show with a natural end point.
IT’S NEVER TOO LATE
If you or your child is already dependent on screens, fear not. “Our brain is incredibly malleable,” Daley says. “Was it preferable to learn algebra in 8th grade? Yes, but you’ll never lose the capacity to learn algebra.”
You never know, a digital detox might just be the best week (or four) of your life. “Once you take screens away, you will open up an incredible opportunity for them to step back and look at the other things they like to do,” Hempe says. “Eventually, they’ll obsess about something else like baseball.”
GUIDELINES FOR SUSTAINABLE TECH HABITS:
- Prioritize off-screen time. Schedule outdoor activities and encourage plenty of daily physical activity. Ensure kids get enough sleep. When you do incorporate screens, prioritize watching movies or tv shows together, with other devices out of reach.
- Encourage digital literacy and manners. Talk to kids about media, its benefits, and risks. “The more we make the conversation about ‘How do I feel when I see these things?’ and ‘What content am I looking for?’ the easier it is for kids to become wiser consumers,” Daley says . Encourage kids to make eye contact when in conversation rather than look at their screens. Model good behavior.
- Be wary of popular video games. If you can’t or don’t want to drop video games completely, consider playing with your child for 30 minutes on the weekends. “We’re not playing PacMan anymore. If you wouldn’t send your kids to an arcade in Uptown with strangers at night, why let them do the same thing online?” Hempe says.
- Create a family technology use contract. Designate screen-free zones (e.g. bedrooms, the dinner table) and times (e.g., after 6 p.m.). Delineate off-limit uses (like certain apps or games.) Create a contract like the one from the AAP.
- Incorporate safeguards. Set time limits and screen breaks for every device in your house. Most devices have free parental control applications built in. Bark is a popular paid choice for content monitoring, screen time management, and website blocking.
- Stop the noise. Consider removing social media apps from your smartphone, turning off notifications, deleting breaking news feeds, and installing apps that promote focus.
- Find families doing something similar. Hempe encourages families in Charlotte and beyond to join her Facebook group of more than 8,000 families who want to make a change, both in and outside of the Queen City.
NIKKI CAMPO is a writer in Charlotte. She’s written for The Washington Post, Good Housekeeping, The New York Times, and McSweeney’s.