As a mother and a physician I know how hard it can be to make healthy decisions for our families when it comes to digital media. In the right setting, technology can be used for great good. However when we don't set healthy boundaries it can also cause great harm.
Unfortunately, our medical knowledge of what technology is doing to our brains is lagging far behind the rate at which technology is advancing in our society.
Technology and the Brain – What We Know
In the last 15 years there has been emerging data about the impact of technology on our brain chemistry, especially on the still-developing brains of children. We've known for a while that there is a significant link with ADHD and screen time. Now there is increasing data about how gaming and social media stimulate the pleasure centers of the brain, which are triggered by dopamine.
The more exposure the brain has to dopamine, the more dopamine it needs to get the same response. This of course creates the well-known cycle of addiction. Indeed, technology stimulates the same part of the brain as cocaine. Interestingly, PET scans of the brain while gaming show about 6x the stimulation in the male brain versus the female brain (does the word "Fortnight" come to mind anyone?!)
The Impact on Your Family’s Health & Wellness
In South Korea and China, which are about ten years ahead of us technologically speaking, we are seeing hundreds of technology-addiction centers opening. This is a glimpse into where unchecked technology can take us.
From a social and emotional standpoint, we are seeing research that children and teens who spend significant times on the screen are more likely to struggle with:
- Social alienation
- A general lack of empathy and connection with others
This even expands into our spiritual lives. We know the areas of the brain that are stimulated by prayer and meditation are also the same areas stimulated by screen time. Theoretically, we become less sensitive to spiritual stimulation the more time we are engaged in technological stimulation.
Screen Time – Friend or Foe?
So what is the answer to this dilemma? Take all our devices out back, burn them and lock up our kids in a screen-free bubble? Some days we might be tempted! However we need to view screen time just like any other activity that can be beneficial or harmful depending on the context.
The Key to Success – Boundaries
In the absence of intentional boundaries, technology is just like alcohol, sex, eating and a multitude of other activities that can harm us when not kept in check. Sit down and think through the different places where technology is present in your life and in the lives of your family members. Is it creeping into any of these areas?
- family meals
- time outside
- opportunities for meaningful relationship-building
- time with God
If the answer is yes, the time has come to make some changes.
This can be challenging when children are older and are used to having their phone attached like an extra appendage. But just like we wouldn't let our teenagers have free reign to take the car out all night or eat every piece of junk food in the pantry, we shouldn't let them gorge themselves on gaming and social media. Like many areas of parenting, laying down the law with the screen will not get you on their BFF list. However, we are running a parenting marathon, not a sprint. Keep your eye on the ultimate goal - raising a healthy, well-adjusted and socially-connected adult that contributes positively to this world in which we all live.
Reign It In – 5 Ideas for Less Screen Time
It all starts with setting the right expectations. Here are some ideas to get this process going for both you and your family:
- Put the phones and iPads away when you step in the front door. Have a set location, like a charging station in the kitchen or a basket in the laundry room, where phones belong when at home.
- Have certain set times in the day that are “screen times” and for the rest of the day - stay off your phone. Set a timer to keep you accountable, otherwise you may find yourself on Pinterest an hour after your time expired (I may have experienced this phenomenon once or twice!).
- Don't allow phones in the bedroom. Sleep experts have long said that the only thing that should be happening in bed are sleep and sex. When you allow screens to creep into the bedroom it can lead to many problems including insomnia, anxiety and unmonitored internet viewing in our children.
- No phones at meals. (This means at restaurants also). This is one of the hardest for my family to enforce. Who doesn't want a quiet meal with your spouse versus being the chaos coordinator of tired and hungry kids during meal time? But studies show a clear and compelling link to quality family dinners reducing the risk of substance abuse, depression, and failing grades in adolescents. One of the most powerful things we can do for our children is carving out time during meals to show them that the relationship is significant to us. When we allow everyone to stare at their screens during dinner, we're giving up a rare opportunity for connection that we may never get back.
- Don't get on your phone while driving. We all know this one, but how often do we let it slide so we can send that quick text? Sending or reading a text takes your eyes off the road an average of 5 seconds. At 55mph, this is the length of an entire football field. According to the National Safety Council, cell phone use while driving leads to 1.6 million crashes annually. Texting while driving is 6x more likely to cause an accident than driving under the influence of alcohol. Plus, our kids are watching to see if we think using our phone in the car is acceptable. This needs to be a top priority boundary for all of us.
Don’t Let It Steal From Your Family
Technology has become intertwined into almost every area of our daily existence. It has enhanced our lives in many ways, and allows us to connect with others through avenues our grandparents never dreamed of. But like all good things, it can have a dark side. In the absence of a thoughtful and intentional approach, it invariably creeps into places it was never meant to be. It may seem impossible and impractical to implement some of these changes, but I challenge you to a one-week trial. At the end of the week, you may be surprised to find a “digital detox” was just what your family needed! It's time to take control of the screen and stop letting it steal precious life-giving opportunities from you and your family.
Listen to a short audio clip of Dr Hilary Nash discussing screen time.
As a mother and a physician, I know personally how hard it can be to set healthy limits with our children when it comes to digital media. We need to partner as physicians, parents and famllies to understand the potential negative impact of too much screen time. Put technology away, be present and live by example. This means identifying the unhealthy ways that tehcnology can creep into our children's lives. Interrupting important things like family meals, time outdoors, heallhy bedtimes and relationship building. Not just with eachother, but also with God. It starts with being intentional in setting boundaries, not only for our kids, but also for ourselves.