Mental Wealth

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Screen-free Holiday Challenge

Embrace the New Year unplugged, relaxed, and rested.

girl in nature smelling the roses
More green-time and less screen-time!
Tis the season…for electronics?! Again?! As a child psychiatrist, January used to represent a time of relative peace.  The holidays were over.  Children’s brains were rested due to a solid break from all that homework and busy-work, and they often had a sense of well-being from having some fun quality time spent with their parents.  Now, when January comes around I hit the ground running, as I see a lot of symptom exacerbation in the form of overstimulation and hyperarousal from new gadgets received as gifts.  Kids are spacey, listless, irritable, disorganized, and can’t sleep, so instead of starting off the New Year fresh, they return to school in a depleted state.   The iPad is my current nemesis!

So what’s the challenge?  Though it may be a little late in the game to propose foregoing electronic gifts, I would like to propose a screen-free holiday break.   Although many parents fight me on this suggestion to use the winter holidays to go screen-free (“what will he do? He’ll have too much time on his hands!”), there is a legitimate argument to do so.  Often times when I suggest parents try to do a three to four week electronic fast during the school year, I’m met with “Yes, but he needs the computer to do his homework.”  So it’s hard to get a really pure fast in during the school year.  The holidays, however, represent an opportunity to really unplug, rest, rejuvenate and reboot your child’s brain. 

Instead of going over all the adverse effects of screens as I’ve covered in other posts, I’d like to go over the benefits of going screen-free.  Here are some of the positive effects your child can experience when liberated from screens for a few weeks:

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  • Brighter, more relaxed mood
  • Improved sportsmanship (tolerates losing better, less cheating etc)
  • Increased creativity and interest in physical play
  • Improved eye contact and verbal conversation
  • Enhanced empathy (yes, this can happen after only a couple of weeks!)
  • Renewed interest in old activities (legos, models, sports, board games, jewelry making, puzzles, etc, being with family)
    girl doing crafts
  • More helpful around the house, chores are completed more easily
  • Improved sleep: more time spent in the deep stages of sleep (3 &4); reduced muscle tone during sleep; melatonin (sleep chemical) levels return to normal, which in turn affect serotonin  balance (mood and sense of well-being)
  • Reduction of neuropsychiatric phenomenon, like tics, seizures (all kinds), and headaches
  • Improved blood flow to the frontal lobe and to vital organs
  • Decreased time spent in fight-or-flight, and more time spent in healing states

It’s important to remember that doing an actual fast from electronics is different than merely moderating.  Moderating cannot achieve the same kind of biological rebalancing that a fast can—it’s impossible.  So don’t expect much if you just “cut down”.  You’ll need to go full steam ahead and eliminate all interactive screens (computers/laptops/tablets, cell phones, & video games (handheld, on computer, with console etc), as interactive screen-time seems to be what causes the hyperarousal state that I call Electronic Screen Syndrome.[1]

The screen-free holiday idea may strike you as "not worth it." But I urge you to try it, and would bet money you'll be pleasantly surprised. Instead of focusing on how inconvenient it will be to lose the screens, focus on the benefits of reclaiming your child’s brain, body and spirit.  Screens and electronic gadgets aren’t going anywhere, but time is precious and fleeting—and there’s nothing like the New Year to remind us of this.  In our hurried and hectic lives, we should use the holidays as a time to reflect on what we want for our children, and stop and let them smell the roses. 

For more information on the effects of electronic screen devices on children's mental health, check out drdunckley.com/videogames.   

 

[1] Television watching is associated with attention problems and depression, and is even more strongly associated with obesity than interactive screen-time is, but may not cause the hyperarousal syndrome that even small amounts of interactive screen-time can (see post on Electronic Screen Syndrome).   Note: Television viewing on a laptop or other device is considered interactive.

Victoria L. Dunckley, M.D., is a board-certified child and adolescent psychiatrist specializing in treating children with complex diagnoses and/or treatment-resistant conditions.

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