Adapted from a presentation given by Matt Bukowski, MA LPC.
One of the parts of parenting no one quite prepares you for is the sheer number of worries. Are they eating enough? Is the car seat strap positioned correctly? Do we live in a good school district? For parents raising kids today, there is an added worry that previous generations never had to face – are they spending too much time on their phones?
The worries are real and warranted. In the case of smart phone use, more and more studies are linking increased screen time in kids and teens to increases in major depressive episodes and psychological distress. So much so that in 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics released screen time recommendations for all children.
The APA recommends that children under 2 should almost never have screen time, and children between 2 and 5 should have less than an hour per day. Beyond school age, the APA recommends to “place consistent limits on the time spent using media, and the types of media, and make sure media does not take the place of adequate sleep, physical activity and other behaviors essential to health.”
It’s all a bit overwhelming for parents who just need to get their families through the day. For many, screen time is the carrot that gets kids and parents to complete basic daily tasks. Parents can get the laundry put away, or schedule a doctor’s appointment, or make dinner without interruption by propping their child in front of their favorite show or with the promise of some time on Fortnite. It’s easy. It’s accessible. But, at what cost?
Famous Low-Tech Parents
Look no further than the tech giants themselves. Most of the people who created the screens our children spend hours looking into, don’t allow their children unlimited access to phones and tablets. Steve Jobs and Bill and Melinda Gates were low-tech parents. They limited screen time. They realized, perhaps before anyone else did, that consumer tech was addictive and possibly harmful to young brains. This is the very thing research is now proving.
Being low tech may be great for Jobs and Gates, who can afford housekeepers and nannies, but it doesn’t help the average modern parent’s dilemma of how to get the laundry done without a toddler meltdown. Or make that phone call? Or boil some water for spaghetti? What do those of us who don’t have extra help on hand do?
Switch it up for better mental health
There’s actually a cheap and easy solution, but it might be a hard sell for the kid who loves Minecraft. Research about child brain development points toward what our grandparents knew to be true – send kids outside. Sit on the front porch and make that phone call while they play hopscotch. Open the window and watch them in the backyard while you fold the laundry. Or, if you live in an area without easy access to green space, take a daily walk before bedtime, get the family some free bikes to ride to a park, or sign your kids up for free swim lessons.
Humans are meant to be outside. Green space, the fractal patterns of nature and the sounds of the wind in the trees have the opposite effect on the brain that screens do. While video games and social media give brains increasingly exciting rewards, nature calms a growing brain. And what do parents want more than calm?
In the short term, changing behaviors and family patterns away from the easy solutions of technology and toward more nature-based and lower-tech play may cause complaining. But, kids are adaptable. After they realize you are not changing your screen time limits, they will find a way to deal.
In the long term, the greater benefit is that your child’s brain develops with healthier adaptations. Instead of seeking greater and greater rewards, they will learn the skills of empathy, creativity and imagination that no computer or artificial intelligence in the future will be able to replace.