Beyond the
Screen Time Battle

It’s a new world. Kids growing up now have a completely different world versus generations of the past. We have new technology and the brain is being exposed to stimuli we’ve never experienced before. As a heart-based attachment parenting coach, one of Paula Kettula's major concerns is the erosion of the parent-child relationship and social skills due to screen time's impact. Paula provides insight on how to move beyond screen time battles.

By PAULA KETTULA, LCSW

Cindi Michaelson:

Paula Kettula is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who has been working with children and families for over 20 years. Paula holds a master’s degree in social work from San Diego State University. She also has a diploma in Montessori education from Association Montessori Internationale (AMI). In addition, Paula is a certified yoga teacher (RYT-200) and is trained in EMDR, Sandplay Therapy, Play Therapy and Transformational Leadership. Paula is also the creator and the host of a massively successful online parenting summit called “Becoming a Peaceful Parent.” 

 

We are delighted to learn from Paula today about how we can move beyond the screen time battles.

The Changing World

Paula Kettula: 

It’s a new world. Kids growing up now have a completely different world versus how we grew up. I’m from Finland. I was raised by the forest. My mom and dad often had no idea where I was. At 4 or 5-years-old I was off playing in the woods. I’d come home for dinner, but my friends and I were out there exploring. There were no worries about people being a danger to us, or animals. It was a beautiful way to grow up, in nature. I wish kids had more of that now.

 

Now, we have technology, but our brains are still that hunter-gatherer brain. That means the brain is being exposed to stimuli we’ve never experienced before. The battles between kids and parents are real. Being a heart-based attachment parenting coach, one of my major concerns is the erosion of the parent-child relationship. It’s such an important thing for children.

It’s only when we are bored that we can get creative. That’s another symptom of this digital world: we are losing our creativity. Let kids be bored.

- Paula Kettula

Impact on Children

Attachment alone results in such beautiful outcomes for children – trust in relationships, leadership, good academics. Social skills are so important in this world. Those skills are changing now though, because we are no longer connected face to face in the same way. Screen time battles create conflict in the family. We know that conflict erodes relationships. It has an impact on social development, and brain development as well. 

 

This is still fairly new, they are still doing a lot of research on this. They did an MRI and have found that at 3-5 years old the white matter in the brain was less in children who were exposed to more screen time. White matter helps the brian stay connected to other parts of the brain. We don’t know exactly what all that means, but we do know screens are changing the brains of children. 

 

Whatever fires together, wires together. Exposure to violent content is related to violent and aggressive behavior. The neocortex, the top layer of brian, thins sooner than it’s supposed to in children exposed to a lot of screentime. I am very concerned about that. It’s such a crucial time of development.

 

Screen time also impacts sleep. The blue light sends a signal to the brain that it’s time to be awake and disrupts the development of the hormone melatonin. When we enter REM sleep, when we are dreaming, this is when a lot of the things that happen during the day are processed and seep into the memory. Problems focusing, memory issues can all arise because of a lack of sleep. Sleep cleanses the brain. It gets rid of toxins. If sleep is impacted our body and brain are now carrying these toxins. We need to really monitor the sleep of children and make sure they are getting enough. The rule of thumb is screens should be off one hour before bedtime, so the brian has the chance to start slowing down and calming the nervous system.

 

Obesity is another issue caused by excessive screen time, because kids aren’t moving. Back aches, headaches, depression, loneliness, and vision problems These are issues kids were not exposed to before. 


Screens are here to stay. We are going to have to learn how to deal with it. How do these two worlds merge? How can we keep supporting children without being too stern and too strict? The reality for children right now is they connect with friends through video games, social media, and chatting. It’s here to stay. We need to figure out the best way to support children to be digitally savvy but still have the values and principles from parents.

Recommendations for Screen-Time

The younger the child is, the more negative impact screen time will have. If you haven’t heard recommendations from American Academy of Pediatrics as well as the World Health Organization, children 0-18 months should have no screen time at all, other than maybe video chat where they are interacting with somebody. Age 2 – 5 one hour a day of quality educational content. A lot of kids are getting way more than that. Kids 6 and older, because the brian is a little more mature and can start understanding more of what is going on, they don’t really have the same hourly recommendations. Instead, we should keep an eye on how the child is functioning. 

 

9 Warning Signs of Screen Addiction in Children:

 

The University of Michigan did a study on children 4-11 years old. It looked at how the children’s functioning was affected. They found it’s on a case by case basis. One 6-year old may have less screen time but have more impact in some of these areas than another child.  

 

They provide nine areas or warning signs you want to be aware of and keep an eye on: 

 

  • Unsuccessful Control – how hard is it for the child to stop screen time, do they fights turning the tv off, have tantrums, show aggressiveness
  • Loss of interest –  loses interest in other activities, consumed by characters of shows, loss of interest in favorite toys, other activities they used to enjoy, 
  • Preoccupation – only thing they talk about is what has happened on the screen, brain is preoccupied by that content
  • psychosocial consequences – not connecting with friends anymore, may be a lot of conflict in family, not interested in being involved in family activities
  • Problems in the family – conflict and arguments
  • Withdrawal symptoms – just like someone with drug or alcohol addiction. They now know that the brains of children that use a lot of screen time are just like those addicted to drugs and alcohol. It uses the same circuitry in the brain. They get really upset when you take the screen away. 
  • Tolerance grows higher – need more and more, no longer satisfied by small amounts
  • Deception – hiding I-Pads, sneaking somewhere to try to access the screen, lying about it – now we may be talking about screen addiction
  • Using Screentime to relieve mood – maybe before it was playing with a favorite toy or chatting with mom and dad, but now they use screens or gaming to feel better.

 

Those are 9 warning signs to look out for, rather than just looking at the time that the child is in front of the screen. I would say if you have three or more of these warning signs, you may want to get professional help. Seek out a therapist. Call your insurance company to see who is in-network for you. If your child is 12 or under, definitely look into play therapy. You don’t have to do this alone. Good Therapy is a great resource too. Have someone help you navigate this. Sometimes the use of screens is a coping mechanism, and there are underlying issues that should be looked at. 

 

When your child is playing, there is this reward system which is activated. This is a huge business. These companies know that kids are getting addicted and it’s all about making money. These games are designed to get your kids addicted. They know how the brian works. They are taking advantage of this, unfortunately. It’s an immediate reward with all the flashing lights.  The dopamine increases and it’s the same thing that happens with someone that is addicted to drugs. When you take away the device, the dopamine level drops. It’s a biochemical reaction, that’s why the child freaks out. It’s not that the kid is a bad kid or they are doing something to try to bother us, it is a biochemical reaction that’s happening. That combined with the fact that the prefrontal cortex, the executive function of the brain, isn’t fully developed yet. That is where impulse control and frustration tolerance reside.

 

Dr. Laura Markham always says, kids are not giving you a hard time, they are having a hard time.

Suggestions

  • Get adequate sleep.
  • Consume a nutritional diet.
  • Remember that kids need 3 hours a day, uninterrupted, of free playtime and movement. This is the recommendation from the World Health Organization. If kids don’t get that there may be areas of development that are delayed. Movement is related to brain development. If we aren’t moving, the brain is not developing. Rambunctious play is important. They learn social skills and social interaction through that. 

 

They’ve done some studies where rats were not allowed to play, they were isolated, withdrawn, depressed, not eating, socially awkward. One of the things I hear from parents who are struggling with online schooling is the kids just want to play. I say awesome! Let them! That’s their education. That’s their learning. If we keep engaging in that conflict with kids, we are creating chronic stress for everyone. Kids should be playing a minimum of three hours a day. I don’t know how many kids are actually getting that these days. That doesn’t include playing video games.

 

What to do then, right?

 

Make sure they are getting physical activity and that face to face social interaction. Even though we get social interaction in social media, texting only uses the left side of the brain. Language is left-sided, but the connection to the body and emotion aren’t there. Even with zoom, we can see body language, but we are flat, two-dimensional.

 

Making an intention with the family, to have family time, a family dinner. Parents should be mindful, what am I modeling? It doesn’t seem fair to them to have to put their phone or tablet away when they see mom or dad on the phone all the time. That time will have to be replaced with something. Is it walks? Board games? Reading time?

 

Although, I do want to mention, it’s also okay to let them be bored. It’s only when we are bored that we can get creative. That’s another symptom of this digital world: we are losing our creativity. Let kids be bored.

 

Modeling, encouraging physical activity, hobbies, having a solid foundation of values are all very important. What are you teaching your child? What is empathy? Kindness? How do we talk to each other? How to be authentic? How do we support one another?

 

You want them to have all of that background. When they get to age 8 or so, you will have a lot less control over their interactions with screens, so you want to set it up before then.

 

Limits, boundaries, parental controls, being aware of what your child’s brain is consuming, just like you would be aware of their nutrition. Sit down and watch what they are watching with them.

 

It’s important to note that not all screen time is created equal. If you’re watching TV, that is passive. If you’re playing a game, now you’re talking about the reward system being activated which is different from tv watching. There is also social communication. Then you also have creating videos and things like that. That’s great, that’s being creative. Not all screen time is necessarily bad. You need to ask what parts of the brain are being activated.

 

Nowadays we are just going to have more screen time, there is just no way around that. If it’s TV, we want to be very selective in what media we allow them to view. Commonsense.org is a great resource for parents to look at for guidelines on appropriate media.

 

I see the largest impact from video games. They replay these scary scenarios and often engage in really aggressive play. I remember one girl, she was 6 years old at the time, was exposed to a scary game that I wouldn’t even watch and she was having nightmares from that. She was scared to walk outside. The things that kids are exposed to really impact them.

 

But, give yourself grace too. We live in unprecedented times. Whatever you do, if you have a lot of screentime, have a lot of time together, too. Balance it out. Maybe you are going to cook together, maybe you take the weekends off, things like that.

5 C’s of How to End Screen Time Battle

  1. Caring  – Care about what your child is playing or watching. It’s a way to connect with your child and really go into their world. Check it out, they will be excited to tell you about it. Ask them questions. How did you do in this? What happened?
  2. Connecting – Caring creates connection. I’m a transformational parent coach, I’m all about helping parents become leaders with their children, we don’t have any influence unless we have that connection. Whether it interests us or not doesn’t matter, it’s the child that matters. Validate how difficult it is for them to stop. Use your words to reflect back to them how hard it is for them to stop the screen time or game. You can say things like “I see this is really hard for you right now. I get it.” Always starting with that validation. 
  3. Collaborating – we should not be a dictator, it’s important to get their buy-in. Recognize that they want to stop too, but their brain is addicted and on a dopamine high. They don’t know how to regulate their emotions yet. Problem solve together. You, as the parent, always have the power and get to decide in the end. But give the kids a chance to come up with an agreement where you shake hands. That’s powerful, when you find alignment with the child. Now it’s their word. When the time comes to stop the screen, they are sticking to their own word. Making it about the child, so you can strengthen this internal muscle. 
  4. Creating alternatives – alternative activities are huge. Creating them can be a part of the collaboration process, together come up with a list of activities, of things they could do. Post it on the wall or have it somewhere they can see it. Something for them to look forward to. 
  5. Consistency – kids are designed to test your boundaries. They just do. It’s normal. If you’re consistent. It’s the same thing every day, this creates a sense of safety and they feel protected, even if they don’t like it. When a parent is kind and firm. 

 

If you consistently do that every day, it’s not going to be perfect of course, but this approach will help you pay attention to the relationship. It helps you stay calmer in these situations. That we can get through these hard times with empathy and understanding.

 

Question: What is your feedback on using screen time as a disciplinary tool? 

 

I’m all about consequences, but they should be natural consequences. Taking away screen time is not a natural consequence. 

 

Chances are if a child isn’t listening, it is often because they don’t feel listened to. Everytime we use an arbitrary consequence that isn’t related to the behavior, it becomes about control and nobody likes to be controlled. Positive discipline yes, I see it more as being a guide and a coach to these children. What’s really going on with the kiddos if they’re not listening. Chances are one of their emotional needs is not being met. Kids have the desire to be listened to, to be in control. 

 

I talk a lot about vulnerability for parents as well. Sharing their feelings with the kids. That’s the natural consequence. Kids do have a natural desire to connect.

 

Suggested Resources: 

Commonsense Media

Children and Screens

American Academy of Pediatrics Healthy Children

Growing Up Digital

Paula Kettula Email: info@paulakettula.com

Paula Kettula Website: Peacefulparent.com

Paula Kettula is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who has been working with children and families for over 20 years. Paula holds a master’s degree in social work from San Diego State University. She also has a diploma in Montessori education from Association Montessori Internationale (AMI). In addition, Paula is a certified yoga teacher (RYT-200) and is trained in EMDR, Sandplay Therapy, Play Therapy and Transformational Leadership.
In her role as a psychotherapist and a transformational parent coach, Paula works closely with parents to help them connect with the heart and soul of their children by using a love-centered approach infused with the power of the latest research findings from developmental neuroscience and trauma research.

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