Why we quit screen time (and how it saved our child)

Little boy zoned out on tablet

A couple of years ago, we quit screen time.

But there was a time when, as a first time parent, I thought screens were one of the best inventions ever.

Now, I have a completely opposite view

…and for good reason.

You see, there’s something about screen time and young children that don’t go hand in hand.

But wait.

You’re probably thinking, “how bad could it be?”

Or maybe you see no problem at all with screens.

But I have a story to tell you that might just change your perspective.

I was a young first time mum when my daughter hit toddler age

As many of you parents know, it’s no easy age!

We didn’t have a TV at the time but mostly used the iPad or computer for work/entertainment. So, without giving it much thought, I would let her watch videos on Youtube.

At first it was harmless. We listened to songs together and let her watch the videos with us.

Then it became something where we put those videos on for her and let her watch by herself.

Then she learnt she could touch the screen and it would respond. And she figured out how to change songs or pick a different type of video.

I really enjoyed the little freed up time it gave me to do other things or just clean up and make a meal.

But then things changed.

She started nicknaming the iPad “Bala” and wanted more and more time watching her favourite videos.

We would go out and she seemed dissatisfied with anything in the real world.

All she wanted to do was go home and watch “Bala”.

We tried educational videos or apps but it didn’t keep her attention for very long.

As she spent more and more time on the iPad, we realized that she had developed an addiction.

She was so zoned out we had a hard time trying to get her attention.

Her behaviour with us changed, her development regressed and we realized we had given her something her little brain couldn’t handle.

And we had to undo the damage that had been done.

So without hesitation or any fazing out, we made the really difficult decision and went cold turkey.

We said goodbye to “Bala” and we’ve never looked back.

But the question that kept coming to me was this:

How does a toddler develop an addiction to a touch screen so fast?

What kind of effect do touch screens have on a developing brain?

Turns out, a lot.

The frontal lobe of the brain develops in early childhood. Almost the entire brain (about 90%) is developed by age 5. So those first 5 years are critical in the development of the brain in kids.

This part of the brain is the command center of who we are and is responsible for communication, emotional expression, judgment, memory and understanding social interactions.

So imagine giving a child in this time period a tool that holds an huge amount of stimuli right at their fingertips. The kind of stimuli not found anywhere else in nature.

How would that change the development of their brain?

Touch screens are a novel invention and parents today are the first generation dealing with its effects on their kids. With a touch of the finger children can control and command a screen to stimulate and entertain them in ways not found outside of the screen.

So what makes them addicted so fast?

Dopamine.

This chemical  is what is released during screen time that induces the feelings of pleasure

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that makes a person feel good, able to concentrate and motivated.

This hormone is key to our feelings of reward, satisfaction and pleasure.

We all need this hormone as part of a healthy life. Too little can result in diseases like Parkinson’s Disease and even problems like ADD/ADHD.

On the other side, too much can result in addiction.

Having too much dopamine can result in serious negative consequences for the brain. This is especially true for young children whose brains are still developing. They simply can’t handle the kind of instant gratification from a touch screen and the results of their brains and development is pretty significant.

In this study of over 11,000 kids, significant changes to the frontal lobe were observed. In the frontal lobes, they found loss of gray matter (or tissue). Kids who spent more than a couple hours a day on a touch screen scored less on thinking and language tests. Others who spent more than 7 hours a day showed thinning of the cortex which shouldn’t happen until later on in their development.

Dopamine is addictive and will make the child choose whatever it is that gives them that kind of gratification over real world interactions.

Suddenly playing out in nature, reading a book or arts and crafts just don’t seem as interesting anymore.

So we know that screen time has some kind of negative impact on the brain but how about sleep?

Does time spent interacting with a touch screen affect a child’s sleep?

Absolutely.

Using a touch screen interferes with sleep patterns

In a study done in England, researches looked at the effects of touch screen devices on kids between the ages of 6 months and 3 years. Kids who spent time playing with these devices took longer to fall asleep and got less sleep overall.

This makes sense especially for kids who are on the screen in the evening right before bed.

Screens emit  blue light that makes a person more alert. This delays the release of the hormone melatonin which regulates the body’s sleep-wake cycle. If too much blue light is experienced at night then the body’s sleep’wake cycle will shift to a later schedule and make the person go to bed later and even have difficulty falling asleep.

Sleep is absolutely essential for everyone but especially for kids. Children, whose bodies are growing and developing, need the right amount of sleep to be and grow healthy.

Those who get enough sleep have better attention and behaviour, better memory and learning abilities and better health physically, mentally and emotionally.

Not getting enough sleep can lead to problems like obesity and high blood pressure, problems with learning, memory and attention and even depression.

Screen time encourages a sedentary lifestyle

For kids this is something to think about as parents.

I’m sure you already know that kids have a ton of energy. Once they start walking and running they seem to run/jump/bounce around all day until they finally go to sleep.

And while that might be exhausting for parents, it’s completely natural for kids. Physical activity reduces the likelihood of childhood obesity, and other serious health issues, even diseases like cancer.

Physical activity increases self-esteem and makes a person feel good overall. Being active increases blood circulation which improves oxygen flow around the body. This makes your physical and psychological health better.

For kids, exercise is paramount to healthy physical development, especially their brains.

The WHO recommends that children aged 2-4 shouldn’t receive more than an hour of sedentary screen time a day and less is better.

If anything, sitting down for long periods of time is completely unnatural for anyone, much less kids, and its effects can only be harmful.

So, what now?

Maybe you’re thinking about reducing your kids’ screen time. Or even getting rid of it.

I was in that same place when I had this nagging question going on in my head, which was this:

if I quit screen time what do I replace it with?

How am I going to get anything done without screen time?

Maybe you feel the same way.

For me the answer was to be more involved.

This meant:

  • planning out activities we could do together
  • planning ahead for meals
  • making meals that I could throw together in a pinch (or cooking while they napped)
  • having more interactive toys available
  • going out more often
  • giving our toddler natural stimulation from nature and activities that sparked curiosity and helped her development

For you it might look a little different but the truth is, screen time is an easy way to get the time we need as parents. Taking it away meant extra work for me. But you know what? The rewards were greater than what we got with screen time.

Our daughter now thrives in natural environments. Her sleep is better. Her language and memory is fully developed and her overall health so much better.

Does this mean that you need to quit screen time altogether?

No.

You need to do what’s best for you and your family. For us we found reducing screen time didn’t help our child, who had obviously formed an addiction.

The key is to limit unnatural stimulation to a minimum while encouraging lots of natural stimulation like physical activity, playing outside and/or with animals (also naturally boosts the immune system), getting lots of sleep and good nutrition and giving them activities where their brains can develop wholly and naturally just that way God made us.

All these things combined will lead to a healthier overall development especially for really young children who need the most attention when it comes to their development.

How about you? How do you feel about screen time for kids?

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