Over the past 18 months, for many kids, screens have become…
- Their primary portal for learning
- Their main conduit for social connection
- Their source of entertainment
- Their preferred tool for escaping uncomfortable feelings like sadness, loss, boredom, and stress.
After years of both parents and researchers alike becoming increasingly concerned about the levels of screen time our kids are logging each day, the pandemic simply magnified that problem.
Like it or not, screens now anchor our kids’ lives, offering a reinforced, rewarded, monetized (and sometimes addictive) bond they won’t be able to simply break or “turn off” on the first day of school. This means our kids may be headed into Fall experiencing an “epic withdrawal.”
Here are four ways to help them through it.
1. Support Educators
There’s likely to be thousands of phones confiscated in classrooms across America in the coming months. If that includes your kid’s phone, keep two things in mind.
First, remain an empathetic advocate for your kid. As mentioned above, this a nationwide problem. Your kid’s brain has been trained to depend on screens for well over a year. It will take time (maybe A LOT of time) to reverse that programming and make them fully comfortable sitting quietly in a classroom with no distractions.
Secondly, support educators by working with your kids to (re)establish some tech boundaries during the school day so they can better focus. This can include…
- Setting parental controls or time limits on devices used by younger kids.
- Working with older kids to review and download apps that can help them carve out quiet windows on their devices for classwork or homework.
- Supporting school administrators should they give your kid some consequences for breaking the rules during the school day.
- Helping your kids adopt some new tech habits to curb the automatic urge to reach for a screen. (See #4 below)
2. Explain it’s OK to be Awkward and Uncomfortable
Much has been written about how adults’ communication skills suffered during a pandemic. In-person conversations can now feel awkward and stilted. Your brain might feel mushy and you may have a hard time with small talk.
Our kids will likely have this experience too (particularly the older ones). So, give them a heads-up that it’s totally normal. Explain that some face-to-face conversations may feel weird at first. Remind them that it will get better with practice. (If you don’t mention it, kids will just do what they’ve always done when they encounter awkwardness with their peers — pick up their phone.)
It may also be helpful to explain what digital detox/withdrawal feels like, that when we do something a lot and then suddenly try to stop doing it, that can make us feel strange, jittery, or fidgety. They may feel like they’re missing out on things or reach for a screen without even being aware they’re doing so. Remind them that these experiences are normal and will get better in time. Share about your own experiences trying to change a habit or quit a vice.
3. Coach Them Through Moments of Mindfulness
At least a few times a week, engage with your kid in a tech-free activity where both of you are fully present. Even just five minutes can make a big difference in breaking the screen spell. (For you too!)
For younger ones, this can be moments of imaginative play like building a fort, coloring a coloring book, or having a tea party. For older ones, it may be simple tasks like making dinner together, watching a sunset, or playing a game.
Whatever you’re doing, try to ground both of you in the mindfulness of the moment. Note the smells, sounds, and textures you’re experiencing. Explain that this is what being “present” feels like and why it’s nice not to be distracted during it. Encourage your kid to “take a picture with their mind” of the moment and to share their feelings about it.
4. Implement Some Basic Boundaries
Pulling back attention from screens is a challenging task, so start small by working with your kid to establish some basic tech boundaries within your family.
The single best boundary you can set for your kid (and yourself) is to get screens out of the bedroom. That includes using devices right before you go to bed as well as charging devices in the bedroom overnight.
Using a cell phone as an alarm clock is like installing a keg in the bedside table of a recovering alcoholic. Simply the act of turning off the alarm in the morning pulls you into notifications, updates, and planning for the day. Same holds true for having the device charging on your bedside which can interrupt sleep as well as cue immediate FOMO in the morning, causing you to start your day feeling “behind,” distracted, and overloaded.
Other boundaries to consider are no screens at the dinner table or on the toilet, or not using devices while walking or biking, etc. No matter what the boundary, start small, get buy-in, (your kid doesn’t have to like it, but they should know why you’re choosing it and respect it) and then enforce it like crazy (that includes policing your own behavior.)
The important thing here is to work together to put family first and screens second, taking small steps to reduce the power they have over our lives.