If you are a parent in America right now, you won’t be shocked to learn that children's screen time is on the rise. As The New York Times recently reported, with digital alternatives to education and socialization reaching critical mass, addiction experts are growing increasingly concerned for how this is affecting kids' brains and behavior — including creating a type of withdrawal syndrome at points in the day when screens are taken away, like for dinner or to play outside. According to Cathi Cohen, LCSW and Clinical Director of the D.C. area counseling center In Step, “There is no doubt there has been a significant rise in screen time and major meltdowns when withdrawn.” Of course, parents don't have much of a choice regarding screen time when school is virtual and in-person social activities are slim, but hope is not lost! We gathered expert advice on how you can weather this strange time, and reclaim some calm in your household.
Follow a chore-chart.
As screen-time addiction impacts kids' chemical reward centers, it's critical to be mindful of ways that you can build in some ways to practice delayed gratification. One tried-and-true method? The good ol' chore chart.
According to the Center for Parenting Education, having kids help with household chores (typically starting around 4 years of age) develops self-esteem and results in children who "are better able to deal with frustration and delay gratification, all of which contribute to greater success in school." Be mindful of how you talk about chores, and make sure your kids know that this isn't something they're being forced to do as punishment, but something that they get to do because they're an important part of the family. Brainstorm some ways that you can also keep your kids motivated to accomplish chores by bestowing greater decision-making power, rather than simply tying it to allowance or more screen time (which they likely already have enough of!). For instance, as they stick to their chore chart, they get to choose where to take the next family road trip, or what color to paint their bedroom. You set the boundaries, and give kids freedom to choose.
Make a shared family calendar with a focus on the "controllables."
The benefit of school has always been the discipline and structure it creates for students, said Cohen. "Now everything is thrown out the window. Kids are online on the computer, parents are working, it's really difficult." She suggests that parents assume the role of imposing boundaries and structure. In other words, there's nothing you can do about schools' reopening plans, but you can decide that every Wednesday afternoon at 3pm it's piano practice.
Establish WiFi-free hours.
Now that previously doled out screen time "reward" activities are all jumbled with "focus" activities like school work, it's increasingly difficult to create boundaries. When the screens melt together, the games no longer feel as joyful, and the work feels like it never ends.
One way to combat this is to impose a boundary on your time and how it is used within the household, with a mechanism similar to time-chunking: no wifi hours. Decide that every day between 6pm and 8pm (perhaps while you eat dinner and do other family connection activities), you unplug the router. This also helps prevent the dread social media hole that sneaks into our down time, which Cohen reminds us is a powerful force for unhealthy comparisons you might make to other families and what they are doing. "If your social media use is resulting in bad feelings, minimize it. They are curated images, they aren't real," she said.
Add music to your mornings and dance it out at breakfast.
If you used to hop in your car or on the metro to work, it's likely you had music playing on your stereo or in your earbuds. But what about lately? Research shows that music can help humans process emotions and serves as a regulating or calming agent for anxiety. And dancing is known to promote social bonding and release feel-good endorphins and serotonin as well. Get the kids involved and have each member of the family DJ on different days of the week. Sure, that might lead to some revenge selections ("I see your Friday morning old-school Taylor Swift, and raise you a Monday morning dose of Swedish death metal."), but it's all in the name of mental health, promise.
Schedule some physical education in the day.
"Once complacency sets in, it very quickly goes from complacency to loneliness and isolation," said Cohen. So replace complacency with proactive intention. Consider building in anchors to your week that promote physical movement, which promotes stronger bones and muscles and better sleep. If it’s too cold or unsafe to go outside, set a timer for 15 minutes and create a challenge for your kid in the house: maybe you see who can hold a plank for longer or how many times they can run up and down the steps in that time. Don’t be afraid to switch it up from week to week, just make sure every day has some movement that gets their heart rate up (and yours too!).
Create a regular bedtime ritual.
As Cohen explains, it doesn't matter what age your kids are, it's a good idea to establish a routine where at the same time every night, you go into your child's room and check in on their day. That way, "they can predictably know that you are thinking about them." It's a great time to remind them why you are proud of them or something specific they did that day that made you happy. "This is a really hard time, and it is for kids too, they just don't have the voices to express it," she said.