Back to School and Back to Screens

Making home a place of regulation, calm, and moderate tech use.

Posted Sep 11, 2019

Summer is over and we’re all back to class. More than ever this means that we are juggling screen use for homework in addition to its everyday uses for entertainment and connecting. With the average American spending more than 10.5 hours a day with screens the research is clear that our engagement with technology is far from benign. Children’s brains, bodies, relationships, and very sense of self are impacted in ways that are not yet fully understood. We must take this seriously and help the young ones in our midst develop an ability to be calm and regulated in and of themselves.

As school systems require children, youth, and young adults to spend increasing amounts of time learning with screens, it’s especially important that the rest of us offer compelling, fun, and engaging opportunities away from technology. This is far from easy. Most of us have families that have habituated to high amounts of screen time and breaking those habits can be a real challenge. For children and young adults to be able to face a new school year with all of its commensurate risks and challenges, however, there is a strong need for them to have skills related to focus, self-soothing, and self-regulation. Each of these high-order skills requires the ability to tolerate stillness, boredom, and discomfort enough to be able to bring the self to a state of calm. Screens rarely encourage this.

doreen dodgen-magee
Source: doreen dodgen-magee

Here are some tips to empower you to help the students in your life develop the kind of grit, resilience, and contentment that come from being able to self-soothe in the face of new academic and life challenges.

  1. Have difficult conversations wherein you don’t have the answers. Demonstrate what it looks like to struggle with information and to tolerate relational discomfort while maintaining connection. More than ever we are focused on having “the” answer. When it comes to how to balance technology and life, there is no such thing. There is also no one-size-fits-all answer to how to be healthily engaged with devices. For that reason, it’s important to ask lots of questions about the place of technology in your child's life and to listen well. It’s crucial to understand the supportive role that social media, gaming, and streaming have come to play in their lives so you can help them navigate toward healthy use. Rarely will it work to simply pull tech away. That will likely backfire, creating an even stronger desire for tech time. Instead, dig in for the long run, ask the hard questions, and work to build buy-in and equity in setting tech limits. Your child will feel soothed by you working to understand them well.
  2. Understand that limiting technology is never enough in and of itself. We must balance our attempts to dial back on tech use with a concerted effort to beef up our embodied experience. To do this, offer embodied experiences that speak directly to each child. These can often be informed by where the child spends their time with screens. If your child loves video games that tap into strategy, find some board games or single-player hand-held manipulative games that require strategic thinking. If they binge on social media in order to be connected, find some embodied spaces where they can interact with a wide range of people or create this in your home. Take them to “fiery” political or spiritual events, find interesting book groups or unique classes or lessons, or encourage get-togethers in your home. If you live in a rural setting where diverse opportunities for connection may not exist, help children find safe and reliable places to encounter those experiences online. If your young student binges on dance videos or live streamed athletic events, take them to some dance lessons or athletic events in person. Live theater is also a great option as are classes in improvisation. Learning how to be in our skin in the world helps us learn how to soothe our selves.
  3. Tend to the sensory experience of your home. Afterschool time is a time filled with a lot of sensory stimulation. The smells of dinner being prepared, the light changing, people's exhaustion levels peaking. Take inventory of how you might make home feel inviting and calm. If you live in a home where the television is on most of the time, consider turning it off between school and later evening. Add lights that sit at eye level and forego turning on overhead lights. Place some engaging, interactive toys out and about. Kinetic sand in a big bowl, a bin of Legos, an Etch-a-Sketch, a Kendama or diabolo, or finger labyrinth would all be great. To go further, install a pull-up bar in a door way or place balance boards in strategic places. Serve warm milk or herbal tea before bed. Diffuse some relaxing oils. When the body is fully invited into a space we are much less likely to stay tethered to our phones. We are also much more calm.
  4. Get serious about modeling and teaching self-soothing skills. What our children see us doing is much more instructive than what we tell them to do. If we ask them to be emotionally and physically regulated without screens but model life with a cell phone permanently attached to our hand, our efforts will fail. There are many ways to practice self-soothing. Finding music or books that help us find center is one. Developing the ability to tolerate doing nothing for a short period of time is another. Stretching, warm baths, or using foam rollers to give oneself a massage of sorts also work. A short 10-minute mindfulness meditation is an almost sure fire way of restoring calm*. The important thing is to offer ample opportunities for experimentation and repetition. We don’t just “fall into” the ability to bring our bodies, minds, and hearts to a regulated state. Self-soothing is a difficult skill that must be practiced.

There are few better times to establish a new norm or routine than when a new season is upon us. Working with the young people in your life to establish balance with technology and comfort with calm is one of the best gifts you can give them.

*  Many people use apps to learn mindfulness meditation. This is fantastic. The overall goal, however, would be to practice mindfulness away from technology. If you need help getting started you can find a few meditations here or here.