If the idea of taking a week-long break from video games, smartphones or other digital devices upsets your tweens or teens, then you may be facing a problem far deeper than their anger. They may be chemically attached to their devices. And like it or hate it, National Screen-Free Week may be just what your family needs.
Left to manage technology on their own, most children and teens will overuse it. As our culture saturates–perhaps drowns–our children with media, it is our job as parents to guide them through the overwhelming flood. We can try to convince ourselves that their media is educational, helpful, social, and healthy, but the truth is, too much of anything is never good. For many parents, setting limits on time and content is a constant struggle. Instead of getting upset and giving up, let’s do something positive and take a week off!
National Screen-Free Week is May 2-8. That’s a little less than a month away, but those who want to join the effort may need that much time to plan a strategy. Let’s start with five good reasons to take a week off from our screens. A week-long respite will:
1 - Give our brains a break.
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Adrenaline is released with exciting game play, whether it is from “killing a monster” or the fear of someone shooting you. This adrenaline rush, which activates the “fight-flight” response, draws most kids to their games. Dopamine is also released in above-normal amounts in the pleasure center of the brain during game play, causing the familiar gaming “good feeling” and providing all the motivation needed to continue playing. That feeling also leads children–and adults–to get addicted to “less exciting” games found on phone apps. Many players describe a pleasant sense of “flow” or of “being in the zone” that they don’t experience elsewhere in life. If you feel that gaming is having a drug-like effect on your child, you are right–it does, and he needs a break. (You may need a break, too, from your Candy Crush time. Your brain will thank you!)
2 - Help us reset priorities and connections.
Real face-to-face relationships are more important than screen games and social media, and we need to be reminded of this fact often. A week off will allow us to refocus on the most significant people in our lives and reset our priorities to spend more time with them. Our children desperately need to maintain strong connections with us instead of being so connected to their media and their hundreds of “friends.” Research tells us that strong family attachment is more important than IQ when predicting future success.
3 - Free up time to explore other interests.
Ever noticed how time stands still in game play? Our kids sit down to play a quick game, and before we know it, they have wasted three hours! The danger is not always in what they are doing on the game, it is in what they are not doing: daydreaming, thinking, learning new hobbies, exercising, exploring nature, or practicing a physical sport or skill. Gaming has a way of lowering a child’s motivation for other worthwhile pursuits. Imagine this: What other hobbies/interests could your child explore if he took a week off from his favorite screen? Make a list.
4 - Help children rediscover what real play is.
Many of us have bought the myth that screen entertainment is real play. But in his book Play, Stuart Brown, a physician, researcher and the founder of the National Institute for Play, tells a dramatically different story. Real play is a profound biological brain process and happens in real, three-dimensional life, not in virtual life. Real play requires interaction with the real world and a level of physical activity and movement that isn’t present in screen-play. During screen-based entertainment, your children are not moving, and without physical movement, kids and adults can get antsy and unfocused. Most important, they are not using their hands to stimulate brain development. Typing on a keyboard and manipulating a game controller are not the same developmentally as throwing a ball, building a clay model, or digging in the dirt. Screen-play will never replace real play needs. Taking a week off from your screens and substituting real play will do a world of good for your whole family.
5 - Supply a much-needed reality check.
An entire week free of screens will allow us to re-evaluate potential addiction problems in our families and reset our limits and rules. If it is impossible for your children to take a week-long break from their games, television or social media, they may be headed for trouble or already deeply engulfed in it. Help your child take a vacation from his screen and reset some habits. National Screen-Free Week is the perfect time to give it a try!
Is your child in trouble?
Can your child list three things he likes to do as much or more than his gaming? If not, then you may want to have him take the quick video game addiction questionnaire created by Dr. Douglas Gentile. We also recommend Dr. Victoria Dunckley’s book Reset Your Child's Brain: End Meltdowns, Raise Grades, and Boost Social Skills by Reversing the Effects of Electronic Screen Time in the “resources” section of our website.
A growing number of families are taking gaming overuse and addiction seriously and are going game-free for a period of time to reset and restore balance in their children’s lives. Local Charlotte workshops are available for parents to learn more about the brain science behind gaming and to get tips on how to prevent video game addiction. For more information on upcoming April workshops in the Charlotte area, visit www.FamiliesManagingMedia.com. and for tips to implement National Screen-Free Week in your home or community, go to http://www.screenfree.org/.