Breaking the Trance
The Book Brigade talks to therapist George T. Lynn and tutor Cynthia C. Johnson
Posted Oct 13, 2016
In a society where the sight of necks craned over smartphones has become ubiquitous, the risks of screen absorption are particularly acute for school-aged children. Whether they’re playing games, watching videos, or pinging away on social media, a mounting body of research warns that heavy screen use interferes with kids’ cognitive and intellectual development and inhibits their social and emotional growth. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing adults can do to reassert control, institute balance, and do what’s really best for their children.
Why do you refer to “screen dependence” rather than “screen addiction”?
“Dependence” designates the priority we put on an activity to avoid some consequence or achieve a sense of well-being. A child with moderate recreational screen dependence (six to eight hours a day using all types of screen media) will have a compulsive orientation toward his use of media and will tell himself that it is “exciting” or makes him “feel good” or helps him “forget his troubles.” He will become anxious if denied use.
The term “addiction” defines a physical “disabling impairment” associated with a biological need for more of the object of the addiction. A true addict is driven by shame and experiences physical pain when deprived of the object of his addiction. Children with recreational screen dependence do not experience shame or the severe withdrawal symptoms that afflict those with a hard-core addiction.
This being said, we have seen cases of recreational screen use so severe that they could truly be classified as an addiction. Our book does talk about the changes in brain function, behavior, and emotion that are signatures of a very serious degree of screen dependence, but our main focus is on helping parents of children who have a more moderate problem with use.
Is screen dependence different and worse for children than it is for adults?
Adults who game at night also work during the day. Children who game at night do not work (at school) during the day or spend much time at all on schoolwork at night. Screen dependence for adults engaged in a successful vocation can be compulsive, disturbing, and contributory to problems in their relationships, but is rarely disabling occupationally. And many adults know that they have a problem with recreational screen media and will ask for help or accepting limits on their behavior, often from spouses.
The impact of screen dependence is more severe for children because their brains and identities are still developing, and development may be impacted by too much recreational screen use and too little experience in the real world. Furthermore, research indicates that people who start a screen dependence later in life will experience less dependence and more control than those who began to overuse media in their youth and adolescence.
Where is the responsibility of parents to not give their kids unfettered access to screens before a dependence develops?
The problem of recreational screen dependence has crept up on parents in the last 10 years or so. When children first started playing video games such as Nintendo’s Mario Brothers, the media industry was not deliberately crafting games with “compulsion loops” to draw kids in and keep them fixated. Over the years, games and social media applications have been developed that deliberately encourage dependence.
The media industry, through product development and clever marketing, has convinced parents that screen media is harmless entertainment, and even if it is not, that there’s nothing they can or should do about it. The industry has created a set of beliefs and transmitted them to parents very skillfully so as to blind them to the damage being done.
Let’s get real instead. Although they have been entranced by the media industry to believe otherwise, parents can take back control of the situation. The process starts with assessment of their children’s screen use and identification of destructive effects. These effects include academic regression, loss of organizational ability, increases in anxiety and depression (especially with regard to social media), and lags in moral development stemming from violent gaming and social-media bullying.
What led you to write Breaking the Trance?
A full 80 percent of the children, teens, and young adults I serve now have some problem that is a direct or indirect result of screen dependence. It cannot be ignored any longer, and parents need strategies. I wanted to write a book to help them.
Cynthia: In my tutoring practice, I am encountering more and more children whose progress, in school and generally, in the area of academic and cognitive development has come to a halt as a result of compulsive overuse of screen media. Parents are befuddled by their children’s lack of concern regarding academic achievement. They are yearning for help, and no one is helping them. That is my primary motivation.
Once we started looking at the situation, we discovered that most of our colleagues, as well as people who write books about recreational screen “addiction,” believe that there is really nothing one can do about the problem. The assumption is that people are so saturated with media, so influenced by it, and so dependent on it that we’re powerless to do anything about it. I do not believe that is the case.
What is the most important point that you want to get across?
We actually have two main points we would like readers to take away. First, to parents we want to say: Please accept the challenge to look at what is happening in your home and at school and know that you can do something about it!
Second, we would like parents to understand that screen dependence is a slow burn that has been shown to have a profound impact on their children’s emotional, spiritual and intellectual development. Children grow by taking real risks “out there” in the world. Social development and social courage erode as surely as does physical strength if a child is not getting the challenge of push and pull, of frustration and problem solving, of success and failure.
Who would most benefit by reading this book?
Parents of school-age children, family physicians, grandparents, teachers, school administrators, and mental health practitioners all benefit from reading Breaking the Trance. All of these people are part of a child’s “board of directors,” and all have an interdependent part in how he or she turns out. We tried to write a useful book that contains effective and immediate solutions. We provide forms for analyzing the problem and for writing a household Screen Control Plan. We show how to conduct family meetings to clarify family values as the basis for the establishing a new way of being together. We also provide tools to help children organize themselves at school, and for those with a learning disability, to understand how special-education services may or may not be indicated for children who also have recreational screen dependence.
What would you like to see happen as a result of the book?
We would be thrilled to see the book used by teachers, doctors, and counselors. We would be happy to see it inspire parents to link up with other parents and discuss the issue and how it impacts their families. We would really be happy to hear that it helped parents deploy the courage to institute appropriate screen media controls and routines at home to restore a sense of joyful belonging in families.
About THE AUTHOR SPEAKS: Selected authors, in their own words, reveal the story behind the story. Authors are featured thanks to promotional placement by their publishing houses.
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