A major problem in our times is the excessive use of electronic devices in children and adolescents. The overuse of screens is not a new topic. Children had been looking too much TV for decades. But with the introduction of the smartphone the situation has changed substantially.
From an early age on, boys and girls are occupied with smart phones, tablets or the TV. Screen addiction in the younger generation is as high as 20% Many health problems are related to this use. It ranges from lack of sleep to depression. The more screen time the less the brain substance develops in children. Children and especially adolescents stay in social media for many hours in the fear of missing something. They are confronted with a prototype of beauty, strength and general performance they never will achieve (upward comparison).  They are always connected and never out of duty.
There are certain general guidelines about how much screen time is appropriate for children and adolescents, e.g. by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
- Under 2 years of age, children shouldn’t have any screen time at all, whether it’s television or digital games and toys.
- Total screen time, including television and computer use, should be less than one hour a day for children 2 years and older.
- Children younger than 5 years should only play with a computer or video games if the games are developmentally appropriate, and they should be with a parent or caregiver while they play
Yet in our counselling practice we always felt uneasy with these kind guidelines.
- General time guidelines are always problematic. The impact of screen time depends more on how the time is used than on the sheer time. Of course there is a limit. But where is it?
- Guidelines are often not in line with how families live and telling them to change their behavior is just meaningless.
- Many parents try to reduce the screen time of their children. Just telling those families that children should spend less time on screens only increases the already existing family tension, eventually leading to more screen time.
- To simply repeat official guidelines is not an effective counselling. Therapeutic interventions must consider the social context. They must be tailored in order to be effective.
In short, we felt that the usual approach to the subject of screen time was unsatisfying. Our attempt was to see screen use in a wider social frame, to involve family communication and values into the discussion. But we still felt that we were missing the main point.
An important piece in the whole puzzle provided the TED talk of John Hari Everything you think you know about addiction is wrong. In this talk Hari describes a classical experiment on addiction. Rats get as addicted to heroin as humans do. Giving a rat the choice to drink water or a water enriched with heroine, the rat will use the heroine, will get addicted and eventually it dies. This is somehow how addiction and especially heroin addiction is described. It is extremely difficult to get off the substance when addicted to. This is exactly what we see with screen time, too.
But there had always been some doubt whether this view on addiction, although convincing, is correct. A major doubt dates to the Vietnam War where a lot of soldier used heroin. Yet most of them just returned home to their normal lives and only a slight number of them became addicted. Why that? And how might this help us to understand the screen time use of our children?
The heroin addicted rats had been held in a simple cage, the so-called Skinner box, where they had no distraction at all. They could either push the water button or the heroin-water button. And they chose the heroin button.
In recent experiments scientists tried a different setting. They gave the rats a more physiological environment where they had company, slides, training wheels, climbing facilities, bridges, water pools and so on. They lived in a kind of theme park. Under such circumstances, rats did not touch heroin and stayed with water. The addictive substance is just a seducing factor. If life is interesting enough it loses its seductive power. That is, the clue is the social frame. Therefore, soldiers coming back from war to their families mostly did not get addicted.
Looking at our kids sitting around at screens, they behave a bit like the rats in the cage. The truth is that the life of our children does not resemble at all with a theme park. School stress starts with entering school. After endless school hours and learning, kids might feel just as us after a day full of work where we just want to relax and watch TV. Out-of-school activities are often just another point of the to-do-list. At times, children tumble numb from one activity to another without acquiring any social competence.
We do not advocate that children should live in a theme park, quite the opposite. However, we suggest that the main problem is not screen time. Kids are not addicted to the screen. They are addicted to communication. They are social beings trying to find their own way into life.
We must face the question in how far our children grow up in a cage – where they are not allowed to develop according their own nature, their rhythm and abilities. We must face the question in how far everybody, inclusive psychologists and official institutions want to streamline children according to general ideas, certain tests and guidelines.
To streamline children for a world not suitable for them comes with a high psychological cost, a high cost for the children and the parents. We must be aware that our children grow up in an environment not suitable for them. In rats we would say that the bringing up of our children is not “species-appropriate”. Of course, there seem to be so many choices for children on the market, but they are not according to their needs. They provide of what can be sold.
Does school and already kindergarten put children into the cage, destroying their creativity, as some maintain? Or does the problem start already much earlier? If so, we should not be surprised when the children push the addiction button.
Children get slowly addicted to screens. We see this quite often in our practice. When parents understand that screen use has become a problem, they want a method or a trick to solve it. Or they want a specialist to tell their child to use their smartphone not so often and to behave differently, something they themselves have tried many times in vain. But this will never work. It is obvious that the advice to reduce screen time will be only part of the cage and “Another Brick in the Wall”.
Some parents hope that things will get better by time. But also, this rarely happens, and if so, mostly at a high cost.
This is the frame in which we have to investigate the topic of setting rules. Rules in order to be effective and helpful must be meaningful. They must be necessary in a wider context. Otherwise they just create a further struggle and, worse, they are just useless.
In the case of screen behavior, a change of the cage is often necessary. Except of advanced screen addiction, a slight change is mostly enough. It must be a change of attitude and this change starts with the parents. This shall be demonstrated with some advice for how screen use might be changed.
- You have to establish new rules.
- If your kids challenge your new rules — and you can bet they will — stand your ground and try to remain calm.
- Children need to realize that your stance is nonnegotiable
- Let them know you understand that this change will be painful for them.
- The problem is that we’re living in this culture of yes-parenting, and we don’t want to see our children unhappy for a single second. Therefore, you have also to challenge your own attitude.
- Practice empathy
Changing rules is not a simple task, but a complex endeavor. It is understandable that parents are shy to change. They find it difficult to challenge the cage and their own attitude. But this is exactly what is necessary when children are addicted to screens. But to change screen behavior is only one topic. It must fit into parents’ wider intentions. This can be perfectly seen with the following quotation: “Replacing face-to-face socializing with social media may be the emotional equivalent of replacing fruits and vegetables with sugar and flour in the human diet.”
We might express it more positively: We are able to provide our children a meaningful and tasty life, a life based on human and humanistic values. This had always been a virtue of Greek society. It is deeply rooted in every family. We strongly believe that the family is the best environment for inner growth and possesses all the tools to overcome difficulties. But the family must find appropriate strategies. This needs motivation, courage and an interest in change. Moreover, these strategies are different for every family. This is why general rules mostly fail.
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