Victoria L. Dunckley M.D.

Mental Wealth

Going Screenfree: Sheer Madness or Sheer Genius?

The electronic fast is never the nightmare parents fear it will be.

Posted Nov 21, 2015

M Gove/Fotolia
Source: M Gove/Fotolia

“Doctor, my ten-year-old son, Justin, is really struggling. He comes unglued over the littlest thing, and it’s driving his friends away. He used to love school, but now he hates it. Homework time is torture, but even when he gets his work done, he forgets to turn it in. His teacher thinks he has ADHD, but I think he might be depressed—he’s so irritable! His dad and I divorced two years ago, and his dad thinks all his problems are related to that. How do we know what’s really going on?”

As is my usual practice during an evaluation, I ask this mother about her son’s screen-time habits and for a timeline of when various devices were acquired over the last several years. I explain to her how electronic screen-time, particularly the interactive kind, can overstimulate and stress the nervous system. I tell her that even though we can clearly identify other circumstances that would stress out any child (e.g. his parents' divorce), this just means that Justin's brain is even more vulnerable to electronic stress than it would be otherwise. She nods; this makes sense to her. Yet when we start discussing what to do about it--a strict electronic fast in which there is no gaming, computer use, iPad or smartphone use for at least three weeks-- she becomes uncomfortable and starts shaking her head.

“I’m a single mom…I don’t think I can do that by myself,” she says. “Besides, how on earth do I get his dad to go along with it?”

*    *    *    *

This scenario is not unique. When I explain what parents have to do regarding restricting electronics to “reset” a child’s brain, nearly all of them balk: “That is impossible, Doctor. There is NO WAY. Isn’t there something else can we do?”

"Sure there is," I say. "But why not do what works best first?"

Since I know we’ll likely be wasting time if electronics are not addressed, I always try to unearth what’s behind parents' resistance:

Does the parent doubt that electronics are having an effect, or do they doubt the intervention I’m proposing will be worthwhile? If the conviction is there but they believe what I’m proposing is too daunting, what is it that they are envisioning or predicting that is so scary, so difficult, or so overwhelming?  Is it the logistics? The fear of how a child will react? Guilt about taking something away that the child is attached to—that is in fact a huge part of kids’ culture? Worry about the child being “left behind” in the future?  And so on. In fact, there is no end to the reasons why strictly limiting electronics can seem unpleasant, unrealistic, or unorthodox.

Yet despite all these worries, once parents are on the other side of the electronic fast nearly all report that the intervention wasn’t anywhere near as difficult as they had imagined. In fact, they’re often shocked at the relief it’s given their child, themselves, and the entire family. They also typically report side benefits that they hadn’t anticipated: their child is sharing more, laughing more, exploring nature more, and helping more. Not uncommonly, they express that they didn’t quite believe that a smartphone or iPad could have been causing so many symptoms and so much dysfunction—especially when there were other issues or preexisting conditions they could clearly point to.  They also feel much more committed to sticking to whatever screen restrictions we decide on going forward. 

Some report feeling a little shaken about how close they were to medicating their child because they thought it was the only option left. They know they still have work to do, but feel they’re in a place where it’s now manageable. As time goes on, many say that their child seems to be “maturing before [their] very eyes.” And I tell them that makes sense, because indeed being liberated from screens supports blood flow to the brain's frontal lobe, where everything from paying attention to emotional control to compassion occurs. It also helps the entire brain and the brain and body to become more integrated, more connected. 

Because addressing electronics use can be so powerful, I like to accomplish it as quickly as possible. As I share in Reset Your Child’s Brain, although every family and situation is unique, I’ve noticed certain steps or mindsets help many parents move away from resistance and toward taking action. Here are three tips to help make that shift:

1. Understand the physiology of how electronics use can wreak havoc on a young person’s brain. Being able to envision the powerful impact of interactive screen-time on brain chemistry, addiction pathways, stress hormones, and brain blood flow—as well as how these changes result in an inability to regulate mood, pay attention, and sleep deeply—can help parents make the leap from device to dysfunction. Knowing the “why” boosts motivation for change.

2. View the electronic fast as an experiment. Framing the fast as a trial reduces overwhelm about needing to make changes “forever”; these decisions can be made later, in a thoughtful and methodical way once benefits are realized. An experimental mindset can also convince others, such as a spouse, to try the program.

3. Do a cost-benefit analysis. Parents often over-value the convenience of the “electronic babysitter” without weighing this against the “cost” of a child who is out of control, unfocused, and miserable. Other costs include spending money and time on ineffective treatments and feeling paralyzed by confusion. In contrast, the electronic fast can help clarify diagnosis, improve symptoms and functioning, reduce need for medication, and optimize other treatments—all without risk or spending any money. 

Even moderate amounts of regular screen-time can throw the developing nervous system out of whack--especially in a child with vulnerabilities. By resetting and resynchronizing a child’s brain through aggressive restriction of screen-time, parents can begin to get their child back on track in school, at home, and with friends. Think of the fast as the perfect first step—one that’s so crazy, it just might work.  

For more on the physiological impact of screen-time, the electronic fast protocol, and what to do after the fast, check out Reset Your Child's Brain: A Four Week Plan to End Meltdowns, Raise Grades and Boost Social Skills by Reversing the Effects of Electronic Screen-Time