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Wired Parent, Wired Child

Breaking the cycle of parenting with screens and children's bad behavior.

Source: Aleutie/Fotolia

Last week, Jane Brody‘s NY Times article “Screen Addiction Is Taking a Toll on Children” struck a nerve, going viral while generating nearly 700 comments from readers. This week, she tackles parents’ role in children’s use of electronics: “How to Cut Children’s Screen Time? Say No to Yourself First.”

As an integrative child psychiatrist who looks at lifestyle factors to optimize treatment and minimize the need for medication, I've long been observing the negative effects of electronic screen time that Ms. Brody notes in her articles. In fact, I find that addressing screen-time provides more robust benefits than any other intervention, so I focus on that heavily. I've been prescribing strict several week-long "electronic fasts" for about 15 years now, and it's often the missing link in successful treatment.

The problem is, screens and parenting become a vicious cycle: Bad behavior in a child prompts exhausted parents to "escape" with devices, which leads to reduced interaction and more electronic babysitting, which leads to overstimulation and more bad behavior, and so on. Because of this, it's extremely difficult to get parents to cut back or follow strict rules themselves—especially if that parent is stressed out.

Over the years, I’ve found there are several factors that facilitate screen management for both parent and child:

  1. Education regarding the harmful physiological effects of screen-time. Even if the parent doesn't thoroughly read through research studies, they like to know they exist, and they take notice regarding effects like dopamine dysregulation and melatonin suppression. Research on screen-time’s negative influence on empathy development also garners attention. Though clinicians often avoid being too technical with parents, I find that when parents grasp what's going on "behind the scenes" in a more concrete way, they're more likely to change.
  2. Realizing that interactive screen-time (video games, iPad, etc) is more problematic than passive (TV). Interactive screen-time (video games, texting, internet use, iPad use, etc.) is more stimulating, more addictive, and more likely to cause mood, sleep, attention, or behavior changes. Parents often don't realize that even "educational" screen activities disrupt and overstimulate the nervous system, and tend to not restrict interactive screen-time in general, thinking it’s less harmful.
  3. Appreciating the quality-of-life improvements related to screen restriction. Because of benefits like better blood flow to the brain's frontal lobe, restricting screens can dramatically reduce disruptive behaviors like meltdowns, homework refusal, and impulsivity. When parents get a glimpse of this during the electronic fast, they're more likely to continue to strict limits. They’re also more likely to spend quality time with their child and to enjoy it because the child is in a better mood, is more engaging, and more compliant.

Parenting and screen-time is a tough issue, and it takes time to digest the information, work through emotional and logistical resistance to solutions, and build adequate support. I've written Reset Your Child's Brain to provide a ready-made source of help, which includes the above elements as well as a guide for how to manage screens based on a child's individual developmental and mental health needs rather than vague guidelines.

Every child is different, but by knowing what to look for, parents can learn to figure out each child's screen tolerance and adjust accordingly. Once the parent sees positive changes and has a renewed sense of relationship with the child, they’ll be in a better place to start working on their own device use.

For more practical help on how to keep everyone—including parents—accountable regarding screen-time rules, see chapters 5 and 10 of 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.