In my counseling practice, I often see families who have been referred to our office because their children have received a diagnosis of ADHD and/or mood regulation disorders. A recent article on by Dr. Victoria Dunckley at Psychology Today argues that when attempting to treat these kids, many practitioners are “barking up the wrong tree.”
“They’re trying to treat what looks like a textbook case of mental disorder, but failing to rule out and address the most common environmental cause of such symptoms—everyday use of electronics.”
In her new book, Reset Your Child’s Brain: A Four-Week Plan to End Meltdowns, Raise Grades, and Boost Social Skills by Reversing the Effects of Electronic Screen-Time she argues that frequent use of electronics disrupts the body’s circadian rhythm, desensitizes the brain’s reward system, produces “light-at-night” that can increase the risk of depression and suicide, induces stress reactions, overloads the sensory system, factures attention, depletes mental reserves, and reduces physical activity levels and time spent outdoors.
Most of us know that screen-time needs to have limits, and conflict between parents and children over the use of screens can be an every-day occurrence. For several months, I’d noticed my growing frustration with arguments over whose turn it was to choose a show, or play the iPad, or be on the computer. My 7yo started sneaking the iPad into her bed at night, and if she didn’t have a rule about when to get up in the morning, she’d be up at 5:30am with the tv on. I felt like we were constantly having conversations about whether or not my children could use a screen, and this had a lot to do with the fact that they were saying they were “bored,” and seemed to lack the ability to play anymore. They didn’t want to go outside, needed a bargaining chip to be redirected towards something else, and stopped enjoying their toys.
When my children were toddlers, I started reading articles, blogs, and books about how to manage screen time, and, for years, I’ve never found a good solution. That is, until my husband said, “When my girls were younger, I just had a rule that there was no tv on school nights. It worked pretty well….” After trying lots of other things, a ban on screens during the week sounded like a good option. I informed the girls that when they started school, we would stop using iPads, LeapPads, tv, or computer during the week – unless a screen was needed for homework. When that first week rolled around, there were a few days of complaining in the afternoon, but I would be lying if I said there were tantrums or meltdowns. Now that we’ve had a month with screen-free school weeks, the transformation in our evenings has been phenomenal. Here’s what I’ve noticed:
There’s more play outside.
It helps, of course, that the summer heat is fading and it’s finally nice enough to play outside. When the girls get home from school, they have a small snack and head straight to the backyard. There’s been a lot of jumping on the trampoline, bird-watching, nature-exploring, bike-riding, plant-watering, and picnics under our willow tree.
There’s more play inside.
Instead of spending the evening planted in front of the television, the girls are now making use of their toys, games and art supplies. There has been a lot of drawing going on, and after my 7yo drew a doll that she “wished would come to life and be a real doll,” we’ve already figured out one of her Christmas presents.
This morning, I listened to my eldest playing with her dolls in her room, creating a story-line with different voices for each character. I thought about what a stark contrast that behavior was compared to her behavior only a month ago when she lamented about having nothing to do, and “being too old for toys.” She hadn’t grown up quite as much as I thought she had; she’d only forgotten how to play as a child.
There’s more reading.
At times, I will walk into the living room to find my husband reading his New Yorker, my 7yo re-reading “Dory Fantasmagory,” and my youngest sounding out words from an easy reader. We have always allowed our children to read after we tuck them in at night, but our 7yo has been flying through books these days. I’ve been going to the library while they’re in school to pick up books that supplement what they’re learning (both at-home and in-school) and if I leave library books on the coffee table, the girls are drawn to a cozy chair in the living room where they can pour over the new reading material.
There’s less arguing.
It might only be wishful thinking, but I swear it seems as though our youngest two aren’t bickering and arguing with each other as much as they used to. Could it be that watching the television every afternoon was making them cranky and irritable? According to Dr. Dunckley, it’s possible.
“Screen time induces stress reactions. Both acute stress (fight-or-flight) and chronic stress produce changes in brain chemistry and hormones that can increase irritability. Indeed, cortisol, the chronic stress hormone, seems to be both a cause and an effect of depression—creating a vicious cycle. Additionally, both hyperarousal and addiction pathways suppress the brain’s frontal lobe, the area where mood regulation actually takes place.”
There’s more family time.
When the television was on every evening, the grown-ups would sit in the dining room having drinks and talking, while our two youngest were in front of the tube, and our 12yo was in her room watching videos on her iphone. We’d try to have a family dinner every night and if we were successful, it was often the only family time we had together. Now, we’re sitting out on the deck while the kids play outside. We’re having family dinner outside too. We’re curling up with books in the living room, or going for bike rides and walks to the park. The 2-3 hours we have together between school pick-up and bedtime are now hours that we truly are spending as a family. And I love it.
We still run into some arguments over screen time on the weekend, so screen regulation is still an ongoing process. Our 7yo would make a great middle-aged bum if left to her own devices. Currently, she has free-reign with electronics on the weekend so it’s not uncommon to find her naked, with only a bathrobe loosely tied around her waist, taking up a permanent residence on the couch, watching television with food scattered around her – late in the afternoon. When she grumbles about turning off the tv for merely an hour, I tell her that she seems to be having trouble regulating her own screen hours, so I’ll keep stepping in to help her give her brain and eyes a break. The good news is that instead of making a big fuss, she finds a way to entertain herself without a screen. What a difference from a month ago.
Do you struggle with balancing screen-time and play-time? I’d love to hear what has and hasn’t worked for you.