What If Your Family Went Screen-Free for a Week? Here’s How, And What It Could Do

What would happen if your family committed to just one week of going screen-free? Would you or your child experience panic, anxiety, unease, resentment?

Most parents and teens spend about nine hours a day in front of screens and agree that limiting their screen time to just school or work would be a major challenge. Eighty-three percent of the nine hours in front of screens typically has nothing to do with work or school and is spent texting, listening to music, watching shows and movies, playing video games, browsing websites, and using social media. 

Why try a screen-free week?

A healthy diet of moderate screen time can be helpful and educational and contribute to better mental well-being, but there are many drawbacks to overconsumption. Over consuming can literally lead to addiction, poor sleep, and unhealthy weight gain.

Addiction

Playing video games can release dopamine, the “feel good” hormone that is part of the brain’s reward and pleasure circuits. There is an American Psychiatric Association diagnosis given to people who are addicted to online gaming: impulse control disorder. The negative effects of this disorder can be both physical and emotional. It is generally characterized by social isolation, feeling restless or irritable, preoccupied with previous or upcoming games, fatigue, poor personal hygiene, and migraines from eyestrain. While the short-term effects include isolation and poor self-care, the long-term effects can lead to financial, academic, and occupational consequences.

Sleep Deprivation

Sleep hygiene is essential for all humans, but it is especially critical to the developing teen brain. The use of screens in the evening has been correlated with the decreased number of hours of sleep teens get and can make the process of falling asleep more challenging. Screens have this effect is because most of them emit a blue light that interferes with the body’s natural ability to release melatonin, a hormone that causes one to feel sleepy at night. This delayed release tends to throw off the body’s natural biological clock and circadian rhythms.

Weight Gain

It is no surprise that weight gain is also associated with the use of screens. There are several contributing factors that can lead to unhealthy weight. The most obvious reason for weight gain is the lack of physical activity when sitting in front of a screen. The lack of sleep when screens are overused can also affect our body’s ability to regulate weight. And last, unhealthy foods are often marketed on screens, as well, which leads to poor food choices. Some screen-free advocates will go as far as to say that sitting is the new smoking.

Steps to Starting Healthy Screen Consumption

  1. Identify screen-free time.

    The goal is not to eliminate all use of screens but to set limits on it. It can be easiest to do this when there are clearly defined windows of time when screens are not available for use. For some families, mornings are a time when screen use is prohibited because most teens are rushing out the door to make it to school on time. There has also been research showing that screen use can have a negative effect on executive functioning (memory and attention). Not a great way to start the day! The dinner table and time in the car are also great opportunities to limit screen use. With the busy lives that teens lead these days, parents now have limited opportunities to connect with their children. These windows of time can be made sacred by setting hard limits on making them screen-free zones.

  2. Get busy.

    When kids are busy outdoors or engaged in extracurricular activities, they get the bonus of face-to-face communication. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that all kids get at least 60 minutes of activity a day. Explore their interests and get them signed up for weekly activities that reflect their interests.

  3. Turn it off.

    Set a deadline for when screens and technology get turned off. This can take the form of turning off a Wi-Fi router at a certain time each night or collecting phones, iPads, and computers to be charged in a place that is not visible. Your child’s health, development, and well-being are dependent on sleep. Encouraging healthy sleep habits sets your teen up for success in all aspects of their lives.

  4. Be a role model.

    Don’t think for a second that your child will alter their behavior if you aren’t making changes to the way you use screens. We cannot expect our children to regulate their screen use if we are not able to do so ourselves. Be mindful that the expectations you set for your child should be adhered to by everyone in the family.

  5. Be a partner.

    When approaching the subject of weaning your family from screens, make sure you take a collaborative approach. By developing these policies and rules together, you will have greater buy-in, and your teen will be more likely to adhere. When you are forming the policies, be clear that they apply to everyone in the family and that everyone is accountable. This approach often feels more respectful and collaborative, which will encourage your child to cooperate in the effort.

The use of screens and technology is inevitable in all of our lives. As parents, we need to be responsible users and help our teens to do the same. It takes some time and patience to make these changes, but they pay off by making parenting a whole lot easier, allowing more opportunities for connection with your child, and ensuring your child has the greatest opportunity to learn and grow.

Would you like to have your own Device Use Contract to make sure you are covering all your bases? 

Device Use Contract

 This article was originally written for The Committee For Children Blog.


About the Author: Melissa Benaroya


Melissa Benaroya, LICSW, is a Seattle-based parent coach, speaker and author in the Seattle area (MelissaBenaroya.com). She created the Childproof Parenting online course and is the co-founder of GROW Parenting and Mommy Matters, and the co-author of The Childproof Parent. Melissa provides parents with the tools and support they need to raise healthy children and find more joy in parenting. Melissa offers parent coaching and classes and frequently speaks at area schools and businesses. Check out Melissa’s blog for more great tips on common parenting issues and Facebook for the latest news in parent education.

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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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