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Parental guilt can quickly turn the power dynamic upside-down. 
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Often when I work with families, I begin by discussing the physiological impacts of screen-time, how those impacts translate into particular symptoms, and how implementing an extended electronic fast (or screen fast) can help reset the brain and clarify what’s going on.  

But let’s face it. Hearing that video games, texting, and the iPad might need to be banned from a child’s life does not fill one with glorious joy. Rather, for many parents, it creates an immediate urge to either to discredit the information or to work around it. Sometimes when I tell parents what they need to do in order to turn things around, I sense that I am losing them . . . their eyes shift away, they squirm, and they look like they’re in the hot seat. This is not what they want to hear. It’s as though I’m telling them they need to live without electricity — that is how ingrained screens are in our lives. The inconvenience of what I’m proposing can seem overwhelming.

Aside from dreading the inconvenience, though, discussing screen-time often produces other uncomfortable feelings that create resistance in moving treatment forward. For example, some folks feel as though their parenting skills are being judged, or that their efforts or level of exhaustion are under- appreciated.

But by far and away the biggest driver of parental resistance when it comes to addressing screen-time is guilt. This guilt can arise from a variety of sources, which can be loosely divided into two categories: guilt over anticipating causing the child pain, and guilt over what the parents themselves have or haven’t done.  Notably, the mere anticipation of feeling guilty is enough to create resistance.

Sources of parental guilt that can interfere with healthy screen-time management:

  1. Guilt over taking away a pleasurable activity and anticipating the immediate  despair/anxiety/distress/anger that removing devices will trigger
     
  2. Guilt over seeing or imagining the child being “left out” socially or not being “in the loop” (whether this actually happens or not )
     
  3. Guilt over taking away something the child uses to cope, escape, or soothe themselves—especially if the child is lacking in friends, hobbies, imaginary play, or screen-free interests
     
  4. Guilt over becoming overly dependent on using screens as an “electronic babysitter” to get things done or have some quiet time
     
  5. Guilt over the realization that parents themselves may have contributed to their child’s difficulties—knowingly or unknowingly—by introducing devices in the home or not setting limits, for example (“what have we done?”)
     
  6. Guilt over realization that adults model screen-time habits for children, and that the parent’s own screen-time is out of balance or being used to avoid issues or escape
     
  7. Guilt over not wanting to spend time playing/interacting with the child,   not wanting them to be in the same room, or for having negative feelings toward the child or the child’s behavior (anger, resentment, annoyance, dislike, etc); these are feelings that parents—particularly mothers—tend to perceive as socially unacceptable

The Nature of Guilt

Guilt is an exquisitely uncomfortable emotion, and, as such, it is human nature to avoid feeling it.  To further complicate things, guilt can be conscious (person is aware of guilty feelings) unconscious (person is unaware and uses defense mechanisms to make the feelings more palatable) or somewhere in between.  

For example, with the first three guilt sources mentioned above, parents are usually able to readily identify these feelings without much difficulty. However, for a parent going through a divorce, there might be an additional layer of unconscious guilt about the child being abandoned (emotionally or literally) or about the extra burden of living in two homes. This guilt may be compounded by the parents’ own early traumas or abandonments, and be out of proportion to the actual circumstances. This can lead to overindulgence which then turns the power dynamic in the home upside down.

Consider the case of Ali, a depressed thirteen-year-girl who was addicted to social media, cutting on herself, being bullied online, and failing in school.  The father had recently abandoned the family and moved in with another woman and her children.  Ali's mother repeatedly failed to follow through on removing access to the child’s devices at night and in the bedroom despite numerous talks about the links between light-at-night from screens and depression/suicidal behavior, social media and depression/low self-esteem, and social media and bullying. In fact, this mom seemed to have a good grasp on the science and research behind these findings.  

At the surface, there was the anticipatory guilt about taking something away that Ali used as an escape and to occupy herself.  But under that was another layer that took some time for the mom to admit: she imagined her daughter becoming enraged and hurling spiteful remarks like “I hate you!” and “You’re ruining my life!” (a skill girls this age are particularly good at).  This imagined scene was in turn linked to a fear of her daughter “not loving me anymore,” –which was an irrational prediction stemming not just from the divorce but from the mother’s childhood. For this family, there was a lot of conscious and unconscious guilt and anxiety going on that had to be worked through before the mom was able to set appropriate limits.

As an aside, kids—especially older children and females but boys can do it too—may pick up on these “weaknesses” and exploit them to manipulate parents. This dynamic may be particularly destructive in cases of technology addiction and in single parent homes.   

Signs that Guilt May be Affecting Screen-time Management

But if the guilt is unconscious, how can we know whether it's affecting us? As mentioned, because guilt can be so intolerable, we use defense mechanisms to mollify it. When it comes to electronics, one way parents assuage guilt is to rationalize its use: “Screen-time is the only time my kids are quiet.” “Electronics allow me to get things done.” “Screen-time is the only motivator that works.” “It’s what all the kids do, and anyway my child uses it a lot less than others.” “I only let her play educational games.” And so on. If you find yourself rationalizing your child’s use despite knowing, hearing, or reading that cutting back or doing an electronic fast may be necessary, be open to the idea that guilt may be driving the train.

Another clue to the presence of guilt is if the subject of screen-time makes you uncomfortable or anxious.  As mentioned earlier, this may manifest in avoiding the subject or in finding ways to discredit the information (“If that were the case why wouldn’t doctors know this?” or “If that were the case we’d all be doomed/addicted/raging” or “That’s what they said about TV in the past, too—and we turned out just fine!”)  A knee-jerk response of discrediting the information without looking into it may be a sign that there’s something you’re getting out of screen usage that’s painful to consider. For example, spending family time together without screens as a buffer may force parents to face problems in a marriage that they’d just as soon ignore. 

Overcoming Guilt Related to Screen-time Management

First, make a superhuman effort to be excruciatingly honest with yourself.  For example, in one family with a nine-year-old boy addicted to video games, after months of keeping video games out of the house the mother reintroduced them while on vacation. At first glance it appeared as though she’d been lulled into a sense of complacency and thought it’d be safe to try them again. But after the mother failed to remove the games again when they were clearly causing a relapse, she was forced to do some soul searching.  Eventually she shared this:  “It’s not just that he’s addicted to the games. It’s that I’m addicted to him going upstairs to his room.”

This wasn’t just a need for quiet time she was admitting to. Rather, she was admitting that often, she didn’t want to be around her son, who was still struggling with building a sense of self independent of screens and was prone to tantrums.  The solution here was not to re-educate, but to find more support—which she accomplished by asking extended family members to do weekly outings with him.

Another mother put this feeling more bluntly: when I suggested she do an electronic fast to help her son’s meltdowns and academic struggles--an essential part of which is spending one-on-one with the child--she responded, “Why would I do that? He acts like a little a—hole!”

Okay, perhaps that last mother wasn’t struggling with guilt per se since she announced her feelings without hesitation. But I tell you this story to show how common it is. Which brings me to my next point: apart from being honest and acknowledging guilt or other feelings may be undermining your screen-time management, know that almost every family experiences some combination (or all) of the points mentioned above. It’s normal.

Another important element in moving past guilt is forgiveness. This is especially important for item#5 above, and may involve either self-forgiveness or forgiving a spouse or other caregiver. Parents may dwell, obsess, or beat themselves up over what’s already happened.  Of all the guilt sources, this one may be the most painful, especially if the child has vulnerabilities such as autism, ADHD or attachment disorder and the parent begins to truly understand the potency of screen-related hyperarousal and dysregulation and the risks of technology addiction in vulnerable populations. 

Regardless, dwelling on what’s already happened is counterproductive.   But aside from that, up until very recently the public has been largely unaware of risks, and even health practitioners underestimate them even now. On top of that, there are orchestrated efforts by corporations using sophisticated marketing techniques to create doubt and confusion about risks that the public is bombarded with on a daily basis. Every risk brought to the public’s attention is countered by naysayers: “Gamers make better surgeons!” “Social media helps connect us all!”  “Technology is revolutionizing education!” and so on. Each sound bite sends parents the message over and over again that using screen-based technology is chock-full of benefits and “just how kids live today.”

But even if you can’t forgive yourself or someone else right away, don’t let that hold you back further. Start taking steps—in the form of education or by talking to other families who are mostly screen-free—and make your goal to try an experimental electronic fast for three to four weeks even if you don’t believe it’ll help. Once parents start to see the benefits and changes in their child and family, they quickly become unstuck and move from feeling helpless to feeling empowered.

For more help, see Reset Your Child’s Brain: A Four Week Plan to End Meltdowns, Raise Grades & Boost Social Skills by Reversing the Effects of Electronic Screen Time. 

About the Author

Victoria L. Dunckley, M.D.

Victoria L. Dunckley, M.D. is an integrative child, adolescent and adult psychiatrist, the author of Reset Your Child's Brain, and an expert on the effects of screen-time on the developing nervous system.  

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