The Trouble With Screens

Last week I did the most dangerous thing I have ever done as a parent.  I took away everyone’s screens.  Currently I have 4 frustrated children.  They must hate when I order parenting books.  If I had my way I would have 5 frustrated children but the oldest I cannot control that much as he doesn’t live under our roof.  It’s the bravest, smartest, and scariest thing I have done in a long time.  While I believe it’s the right thing, I’m not sure it will get me to where I want us to be.  I know it’s too soon to tell.  If my 16 yr old doesn’t kill me in the next few weeks, that will be a not-so-small miracle.  

When the kids were young I had this vision that we would be a screen free household.  I lived that out for the first few years and my babies did not see a screen until they were at least 2.  We had a single laptop that they could occasionally watch dvds on when they got older and it was most definitely used exclusively as Mommy’s Little Helper.  Mostly I only let them watch if I desperately needed quiet time.  Because they didn’t watch much, it was a great babysitter.  As the kids got older, I frequently got the cultural message that if I didn’t let them grow up with screens, they would be behind their peers and wouldn’t know how to function.  

As all parents know, whether you started out like me or were on board from the beginning, we are all now in the same boat.  

Slowly electronics have crept in, eating up our children, their attention, our attention, sucking out the will to live, the will to connect, us all pretending this is just how life is now and we just need to figure out how to be on board with it.  

As it crept into our home, I saw it was a coping mechanism I couldn’t take away.  I saw the pandemic freak out rob our kids of the very last vestiges of human connection and lock them forever into virtual worlds.  I watched my kids slip into the virtual world for good, perhaps never wanting to get on a bike again.  I felt I had no control.  The devices were sold to me with the promises of more connections, more time with parents, more checking in, more safety.  I got none of that.  That did not happen.  The lie I believed.

I saw it as the only way kids were connecting and I couldn’t take that away.  And, like most adults, our kids were not just lazily watching endless hours of You-tube or playing Candy Crush.  They were doing those things,yes, but weaving in FaceTime with friends, gaming forums, small businesses, editing movies they had created, editing video clips, drowning in TikTok while also researching for school.  It’s impossible to sift out concrete chunks of screen time and the reasons behind it. 

I could use it as a way to control behavior.  Chores.  Activities.  Do XYZ and you can do this.  As long as you get A’s you can have all the screen time you want.  I think this is the number 2 reason parents cave to screens. Don’t do these things and I’ll be forced to play a role I never wanted in the first place.  I hate every second of the monitoring, the wondering, the enforcing.  It’s my job but I didn’t want it.  No one asked me to have this job.  I hate it.  I’m tired of being the bad guy, the control, the manipulation needed to keep this monster in check.  

There’s a million ways parents have dealt with it and I am sure most parents out there have figured it out.  But I am not them.  Some parent’s I’m sure have simply installed the right parental controls and get their kids to hand in their devices at the right times each and every night.  Maybe I overcomplicate things but it never seems that easy to me.  Take away my kid’s coping mechanisms?  Destroy her virtual social life?  Stop their TikTok videos from going viral and receiving at least some satisfaction out of life?  Just manage it.  Just use it as a leverage tool.  Simply shut off the WiFi.  Simply MAKE THEM COMPLY.  Easy, right?

I bought the book, “Reset your Child’s Brain” by Dr. Victoria Dunkley, recommended to me by my therapist as I was lamenting the challenges of the slippery slope of screen time, what should be allowed, how to reign it in, if it’s an issue or not, and how to balance their lives.  Within a few pages I was convinced to try it.  Her method is completely eliminating screens for at least 3 weeks, track the changes in behavior you note in your child, and allow their brains to heal.  She goes into depth in the science of how addictive and behaviorally influencing screens, interactions, bright lights, sounds, and size affect everyone’s brains, but mostly children’s developing brains, causing addictive issues with dopamine releases, messing with the circadian rhythms of their bodies.  She really doesn’t even address the content of what they might be seeing (i.e. the dangers of what they might run into on social media or in chat rooms, etc), rather just the physical ramifications on their brains.  Apparently the more interactive the game or screen, the more detrimental effect.  Many children with issues like ADHD, bipolar, ODD, etc can have large impacts from screens, some even to the point of misdiagnosis.  As a parent, you get a few pages in before thinking, well, fuck.  

Fast forward:  Now, we have finished the 4 week challenge.  In terms of noticing a grand change in behavior, well, we did not really have a whole lot of trouble that way anyway.  Sure we had chore compliance issues and 2 hrs that slowly bleed into 3 or the kid who hopes you won’t notice that it’s past 8.  But that’s just normal kid stuff.  Unfortunately, because of custody arrangements, we did not get total compliance and thus we did not get a whole 4 weeks of total withdrawal.  That being said, I sure did enjoy the peace and quiet.  We did a LOT of puzzles, family games every night, more laughing, more talking.  Yes, there was upset about screens and that didn’t necessarily go away.  Once I ran to grab one kid from Pickleball (more on that another time) and left the 10 and 8 yr old for a few minutes.  Within 10 minutes the 8 year old was calling me from our resurrected landline and asking me if they could watch something since I had left them on their own.  Nice try, kid!  And yes, I DEFINITELY noticed the impact of screens after a weekend of binging.

We had the older kids get important numbers off their phones before they handed them to us so they could still connect with friends, dad, and grandparents.  

Technically the 4 weeks is over.  If I had my way, it would be indefinitely.  I’ve enjoyed the reconnection.  The kids reading more.  Mostly, I’ve enjoyed the break from being asked if they can watch something, the nagging to put down the screen, the debates about if they should have screens in their rooms, how late they can watch, how much are they consuming, etc.  The constant negotiating of what seems reasonable.  It seems as though screens are an endless supply of complicated conflict, mostly because there is no ultimate authority on them, no set in stone magical number of hours ideally consumed.  There really is no amount of parental controls to ensure complete safety and compliance.  Some kids will spend hours each day just trying to get around the controls.  Some kids don’t need controls.  Some kids do fine with 3 hours a day,and others throw fits after just 30 minutes.  For one kid facebook or Snapchat is a danger, for another kid the danger lurks in the dopamine addiction of fast-past interactive games they are playing with kids they go to school with.  I get that screens have made life complicated.  I also get that we can’t go completely into a cave and banish them from the house.  

My kids noticed I still had my phone a lot.  Oof.  At the beginning of the fast, I had cut my screen time from almost 6 hours down to 1.  It slowly crept back up to 3.  However, I do most of my work on my phone.  Many times I would switch to a laptop to register them for lacrosse, or buy play tickets, or to write an email, just so my phone wouldn’t register the numbers, but that isn’t really the point.  I think my biggest addiction is still feeling somewhat restless and disconnected when I wake up in the morning and around dinner time.  I crave connection, and often reach to respond to a text a friend sent rather than pay attention to the kids.  In my defense, there always seems to be some kind of dance to this dynamic.  When I am ready to connect to them, they are headed to their rooms to decompress from their school day.  After I get restless I pick up a book or my phone, and it’s like a bat signal to them to suddenly need me and to prove that I am not paying any attention to them.  Or, the times I actually do have a crisis (much of my small business work is not a 9-5 so I get things I have to deal with as they come, not to mention that I have zero memory capacity so if i don’t respond instantly, it’s not that I feel the need to, it’s that I won’t remember!), they desperately need something!

Did a 4 week fast fix all of our problems?  Of course not.  Were there problems with kids and chores and boredom and responsibility and attention, and avoidance of work before screens were invented?  Absolutely.  I think we also realize that for some of our kids, screens were not the “problem” to begin with.  The “problem” (Covid, pandemics, isolation, teenage-ness, being a large family, having big feelings, school, you name it) led to excess screen time.  When kids are loud and bored and the only thing they can think of doing is to harass each other and run screaming through the house and proclaim their suffering of boredom for the millionth time today, it’s so easy to plunk them down in front of a screen.  It’s super easy to use the screen as a carrot, the one thing you can bribe/control to get kids to do just about anything.  

Now what?  We’ve been talking with the kids this week of what they think things should look like going forward.  My wife has been awesome about giving them each a visual.  How many hours a day are you at school?  How many are spent with (much needed) sleep?  Dinner?  Chores?  How much play time?  Exercise?  What do we think having a balanced life might look like?  

My intent is never to externally control how much each (older) kid gets on their screen.  (I do think it’s imperative to physically limit younger kids’ access, yet as they grow, learn self-regulation, just like I do with their choices of clothing, hair cuts, sleep time, etc)  I want them to learn the crucial task of being able to balance their life, get their work done, find equilibrium, know when to pay attention, be responsible and exercise some level of self control.  Yes, I tend to migrate toward my phone throughout the day.  I’ve stopped addictively checking facebook and emails hundreds of times a day.  I’m figuring out how I can use social media to promote my work without letting it suck me in.  Yet it was important to me as a stay-at-home mom for 18 years never to turn on the tv in the middle of the day.  We all have different levels of will-power.  There’s no one way that’s better than another.  It’s like me and candy.  My wife can sit in front of a jar of Jelly-Belly’s for the better part of a year and not touch one (is she even human????). If I don’t want to eat a jar of Jelly Belly’s I do not bring any home from the store.  They are both will-power strategies.  My wife disabled her facebook account to prevent herself from being tempted to waste her time there.  I simply erased my facebook app on my phone.  I still check it occasionally, but maybe once or twice a day instead of 100.  What’s been the most fascinating to me is that since I only now check it 1 time a day (sometimes I have even forgotten for a few days!) I notice there are rarely important notifications I have “missed”.  Which means the goal of apps and notifications did exactly what they were intended to do.  Create a system of addiction to keep me on facebook for hours, believing I was accomplishing things and making sure I didn’t miss anything important, only to find I was rarely, if ever, missing anything.  Especially when I had convinced myself I was checking “for my business”.

Kids today (I’m old enough to be able to use this phrase constantly now, lol) have a much bigger challenge than we did.  They are growing up with extremely addictive items, that are hand held, fit in their pockets, everyone has one, and are now almost vital for survival.  I suppose it’s akin to the generations that became introduced to shelf-stable “american diet” food.  Our bodies were not (and will never be) equipped to handle the overly-readily available, infinite supply of sugar, wheat, and chemicals.  Food is also not something we can avoid, so there is no easy answer to avoiding the bad.  It put our bodies into shock.  Americans became obsessed and diseased almost instantly.  Our teeth rot out.  We are now several generations in and are still trying to come up with ways to balance the supply (which can be seen as originally a way to feed the world…another topic for another post) and how we can limit our exposure to it.  Like food excuses and trying ways to force ourselves to be healthy, we swing in every direction.  We try to ignore the problem (we don’t really know if screens are detrimental, you can’t beat progress, screens are something we can’t hide from, etc.) We try external controls.  We add apps that “help” us balance.  (Such a clever way to add to the problem!) We try quitting cold turkey.  We try to justify the use.  We try placating our choices, like, we can’t stop it!  All of those reasons are valid as much as they are invalid.  

I see babies in restaurants watching movies on an iPad.  I have no judgment for those parents.  I know exactly why they went down that path.  The only way to eat in peace in a restaurant is to give your child something that will distract them, quiet them, and not cause a problem.  Who I judge is our culture for judging parents, especially mothers.  We judge families of small kids for bringing their kids to restaurants.  We judge a mom if her child is throwing a fit.  We make all kinds of assumptions.  We assume she isn’t controlling them enough.  We think she shouldn’t be bringing kids to restaurants.  But perhaps she is in the middle of teaching her kids to sit quietly and this is their first lesson.  Perhaps this is the first night she has not had to cook a meal in 45 days and she finally put her foot down and said “we are eating out tonight!”  Perhaps her spouse is not willing to step in and help.  Perhaps children are just noisy and wild sometimes and we’ve all been there.  

There’s no good answer.  Except trying your best.  Know better, do better. I told my 16 year old yesterday that I really had no idea what I was doing sometimes and I’m sorry that he has to be my guinea pig.  It was the first time in months his eyes shifted up to look at mine before shifting back down.  

All I know is that inside me is the parent I want to be.  The parent I had dreamed about being before I had kids.  Then there is the reality I did not expect.  The external forces, culture, ex-spouses, co-parents, grandparents, peers, all exerting their own pressures.  Enough to mold things differently than I pictured.  Which is ok sometimes.  Other times I have to rise up and find that fearless woman inside me and decide something no one else wants to do.  Like a 4 week screen fast.  Another thing it did was all for me.  I benefitted from making an executive decision that I did not feel forced or pressured to make by anyone.  Like finding my power, tapping in to who I had wanted to be from the start.  It was like remembering that mom inside of me that wasn’t squishy and unsure.  She came back.  Maybe not permanently, but perhaps we will see her more often.  

I do know that ripping the bandaid off like we did (I really did gather up every screen, box, and remote in the house and put it in an undisclosed location, much to my daughter’s dismay) has made it easier to put the brakes on for a moment and re-think what control we do have, what we want it to look like going forward, and offer glimpses for our kids of a life without screens.  And, to be honest, they know the threat is real now.  😂 

One thought on “The Trouble With Screens

  1. Sarah, you are an amazing writer! I applaud your courageous decision to care about your kids with a screen fast that teaches that there’s more to life, but also creates space for recovery from the addictive nature of social media. Thanks for continuing to show love to your children…even when they don’t recognize that’s what you’re doing. Me

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