Are Your Kids Getting Too Much Screen Time? Try A Blackout

I often feel like this day and age we are living in is a fast-paced, real-time experiment for how technology will effect society. Computers and cell phones have become ubiquitous. If your parents wondered how TV screen time would effect their children, we have entered a whole new level with so many screens available and all able to show you almost anything you want to see, anytime! So, are kids getting too much screen time? How much screen time should children have anyway? I bet almost every parent in America wonders about what is appropriate for screen time at some point. I am going to share some basic recommended screen time limits for children, and some effects of screen time on children. I will also share something you can try with your own kids if you think they are getting too much screen time- a blackout!

Recommended Screen Time For Children

There are some nice and easy clear cut recommended screen time limits for younger children. Let’s start with those.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has these recommendations screen time media use.

  • “For children younger than 18 months, avoid use of screen media other than video-chatting. Parents of children 18 to 24 months of age who want to introduce digital media should choose high-quality programming, and watch it with their children to help them understand what they’re seeing.”
  • “For children ages 2 to 5 years, limit screen use to 1 hour per day of high-quality programs. Parents should co-view media with children to help them understand what they are seeing and apply it to the world around them.”

For children 6 and older, the American Academy of Pediatrics does not have one size fits all recommended screen time for children. This makes it a little trickier to answer, “Is my child getting too much screen time?” But I would say trust your gut on this one and if you are asking the question, the answer is probably, “Yes.” Here are the American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines for helping you set screen time limits for your children that are 6 and older.

  • “For children ages 6 and older, place consistent limits on the time spent using media, and the types of media, and make sure media does not take the place of adequate sleep, physical activity and other behaviors essential to health. “
  • “Designate media-free times together, such as dinner or driving, as well as media-free locations at home, such as bedrooms.”
  • “Have ongoing communication about online citizenship and safety, including treating others with respect online and offline.”

The AAP also offers a Family Media Use Plan Tool to help you create your own family screen time tech rules.

The Mayo Clinic aptly suggest that you “keep in mind that the quality of the media your child is exposed to is more important than the type of technology or amount of time spent.” I second this whole heartedly. Educational videos and games are preferred. I also suggest setting parental controls of some type because the kids can’t unsee some of the things they may stumble upon!

Effects Of Screen Time On Children

Why is it important to limit screen time for children? Too much screen time for kids is a bad thing. The effects of screen time on children have been documented and I will share those with you here but beyond those I believe that there are even more negative effects. Some things are hard to quantify or prove but you can feel them and if you feel your child is pitching a fit or having a bad attitude every time they get off of some screen time, take notice of those things as they are probably very real.

According to WebMD, a new study suggests, “screen time can affect how well children perform on developmental tests.”

As Psychology Today says, “parents who jump to screen time in a bid to give their kids an educational edge may actually be doing significantly more harm than good—and they need to dole out future screen time in an age-appropriate matter.” They also warn, “if your young child is spending all of his time in front of an iPad instead of chatting and playing with teachers and other children, his empathetic abilities—the near-instinctive way you and I can read situations and get a feel for other people—will be dulled, possibly for good.”

Furthermore, says, too much screen time can make it hard for your child to sleep at night; raise your child’s risk for gaining too much weight (obesity); and raise your child’s risk for attention problems, anxiety, and depression.

That is all pretty serious stuff! So if you are wondering, “Should parents limit screen time?” The answer is, “Yes! absolutely.” I thought that James L. Casale, award winning educator and author, put it well when he said, “Parents can and should control the environment and culture in their own homes.”

Try A Screen Time Blackout

Due to spending excessive amounts of time in front of screens, countless children are experiencing depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, hyperactivity. If you think your child is being negatively impacted by screen time you can do something about it.

I have previously shared tips for how to limit screen time for kids and breaking cell phone addiction but today I am going to suggest you try a blackout. What is a blackout you say? And how will it really help your family? Well, let me leave it to an expert to explain that. Stacy Jagger, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) and Registered Play Therapist (RPT) is author of the new book 30 Day Blackout (affiliate link below). In 30 Day Blackout, Stacy shares how she has helped hundreds of families turn off technology and turn on meaningful relationships.

I have been given permission to reprint the Introduction to 30 Day Blackout here and I think it will serve to inspire you to think about your family values and take action. As VeryWellFamily points out, “Many of the conversations about screen time focus on the dangers toward children. But, too much time on digital devices hurts parents too.”

The following excerpt is taken from 30 Day Blackout: How to help your kids turn off the screen and turn to their family, by Stacy Jagger with Elizabeth Adams (October 5, 2019), reprinted with permission.

I’ll never forget the Thompson family that came to see me years ago. Five children—all in the hallway outside my office—fighting, yelling, name calling, slapping each other. It was like a bad episode of The Three Stooges, except there were more of them, all young children, and the mother was about to pull her hair out.

From a well-to-do family, these children had successfully fired all their caregivers— every nanny they had ever had, quit. The parents had been working on their fast-growing company and had relinquished care of their children to nannies and screens for years. Mrs. Thompson knew her family life had reached critical mass, and the problem wasn’t getting any better. She was desperate for help. It was not only affecting their home life, but there were plenty of academic and social concerns for her children, as well. Not to mention there wasn’t a nanny in town that would take that position. Family therapy was their final hope.

Honestly, as I looked at this family swimming in dysfunction, I knew there was no way I could help them unless major changes were made. When I asked during my intake how much screen time the children had each day, I got a blank, confused stare, which I eventually realized meant ALL DAY. They watched multiple screens, with almost no breaks unless someone was snoring.

I am an expressive arts and play therapist, which means I have a way of working with children using their own language—the language of creativity and play. My office is full of art materials, musical instruments, puppets, sand trays, a dollhouse. You get the picture. Children who are in a high state of arousal from too much entertainment-based screen time come into my office thinking that I must be there to entertain them, too.

Well, I’m not. Believe it or not, everything in my office serves a purpose for facilitating a therapeutic experience.

Without the removal of screens for a time, I knew there was no practical way I could give this family what they needed. Suddenly, I was inspired. I imagined them going on a fast. Not a fast from food, but a fast from screens. I called it, “The 30 Day Turn It Off Challenge.” My private practice was new and my experience dealing with these specific issues was relatively limited. But I knew these children needed drastic changes immediately.

I somehow convinced the parents of our plan of action. Their willingness was a clear indicator of their desperation. At the time, I knew very little about the science of the negative effects of screen time on the nervous system, but I knew what I had practically observed. I knew how I handled screens with my own children, but back then, I didn’t have years of experience with hundreds of families to draw on like I do now.

What I did have were memories of a time years ago when my husband Ron and I were newly married, and we went to visit a friend’s farm that was about an hour outside Nashville. On their 150 acres sat a cabin from the 1850s, completely devoid of all modern conveniences. There was no electricity, no running water, no indoor plumbing. It had three rooms plus a loft, and we adventurously decided we wanted to spend a weekend there to experience life “unplugged.”

Now, understand we were young and had no children, and I was a frustrated adventurer who wanted to get away from my hometown. One of those nights as we were about to go to sleep, I turned to my husband and said, “I want to live here.” He looked at me like I was nuts.

“I want to live here, just for a few months, and experience life unplugged from everything.”

I didn’t understand at the time why living in the middle of the woods without electricity seemed so appealing to me. I was just young enough and crazy enough to try something completely off the wall. This trait, though severely toned-down, has thankfully followed me into middle age.

My upbringing was haphazard at best. My family was evicted from nearly every home I ever lived in. There was constant fighting, incessant chaos, my father’s drinking, my mother’s nervous breakdowns, the constant barrage of television, and my failed attempts to feel better by engaging in unhealthy relationships. My body and spirit were exhausted. Somehow, I knew that I needed a rest—a reset.

The complete calm and quiet were calling me. I felt like Jenny from Forrest Gump, who just needed to sleep a while after indulging in her partying lifestyle–except I didn’t have a safe place to rest. I seemed to find myself spinning all the time on the inside, and I couldn’t jump off the crazy train.

I needed a do-over. A reset. A calm place to just “be.”

So, being the supportive, understanding, if-that’s-what-you-need-let’s-do-it husband he is, Ron was willing to try it. About a week later, he called our friends who owned the cabin, not quite sure how to ask such an off-the-wall question.

But when our friend answered the phone, she immediately said, “Ron, I was thinking about you and Stacy just this morning when I was walking the dogs out by the cabin. I was remembering how much fun you guys had out here. I wish the two of you could come out here for a few months and live!”

Suspecting she was joking but hoping she wasn’t, Ron replied, “Well, it’s funny you would mention that.”

It was fate.

I was a ballroom dance instructor at the time, and my hair dryer, curling iron, and makeup were prime necessities given my job. So, it was bordering on miraculous, or certifiably insane, that I actually wanted to do this. I cannot really explain to you how I knew it was the right thing to do, but it’s a feeling I call God’s Delight, which usually feels like a mix of faith and crazy. We knew we needed an adventure. Well, at least I knew, and my husband was willing to orchestrate it.

We packed up every electronic item we owned, put it all into storage, and headed to the woods for what we expected to be a three-month hiatus from modern conveniences. My mom agreed to let me stay with her when I was desperate for a hot bath, and if I had a formal event to attend, I could get ready at a friend’s house.

We packed a cooler with ice and lunch meat, bought some kerosene lamps, and made our way to the farm. We had virtually no other plan but to get out there and figure it out.

As our third month was drawing to a close, we spent the weekend at Opryland Hotel following a ballroom event. We lounged around, enjoying the convenience of lights and hot water and hair dryers. Of all things, we watched a marathon of the reality show, “The Pioneer Life,” which hit a climactic point when they neared their first winter. And that gave me another crazy idea.

“Do you think we could make it in that cabin through the winter?”

“I don’t know,” replied Ron, but I could tell his engineer’s mind was already sorting out the logistics.

We decided to give it a shot. We made it to spring somehow, and then through another summer and fall. In the end, we stayed in that non-electric cabin for 18 months.

In case you’re wondering why I’m telling you all of this, you need to know that I wouldn’t take a million dollars for the lessons I learned living in that cabin. I learned the power of slow. I learned how to go for a three-mile walk with our sheepdog Max, and how to come home to the cabin and take a long nap with no clocks ticking, no refrigerator humming, nothing but the sounds of nature all around me. I learned how to listen to the wind. I learned how to sit and watch the trees, how to keep a garden, how to spend hours chatting with a neighbor. I hiked every morning and showered in a barn in a converted horse trough. I learned to enjoy those walks in the wide, open spaces.

What I didn’t know then, but I know now, is that I was allowing my nervous system to regulate for the first time in my life. I was imprinting a new pattern of mindfulness into my lifestyle that would allow my brain to notice what I was seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching—in the present moment. I was fully grounded for the first time, ever.

I was raised in such chaos that my brain perceived almost everything as a threat, as unsafe, and my nerves were literally shot, meaning my sympathetic nervous system was in a constant state of fight, flight, or freeze, which can be a torturous way to live. As anyone with trauma history knows, this is our everyday reality. Unplugging for a time was the kindest gift I could have given myself, even though my friends and family thought I had lost my mind. Some still do.

That whole experience was on my mind as I spoke with the Thompson family. Having experienced my own extreme Blackout, I intuitively knew what this family needed. Given the fact that no one even knew how much screen time the children were actually watching, much less the content, they needed an intervention. The father, embarrassed by his children’s behavior, and the mother, at her own wit’s end, were ready to do just about anything I recommended, no matter what it took.

This was the only family in my years of recommending the Blackout who repeated it six times. Yes, you read that right. Six times!

During the first 30 days, the children were basically holding their breath until it was over—counting down the days until they could have their precious devices back in their hands. The father was absolutely committed to the process, and the mother was hanging on for dear life, hoping a change was on the horizon.

They had their family meeting in my office—the father sat down with his children to explain to them that until he saw kindness and respect in their family, he would not be returning any devices, and that he was truly sorry for allowing their family to get to this point. There was not a babysitter in town that would even attempt to help take care of them, he had to work, and their mother was exhausted. Basically, he just wasn’t having it anymore. So, they did it again. And again. And again… to the tune of six months!

To this day, if those children see me in town, they turn and run the other direction.

But the father got his point across, the children had a re-parenting experience (as did the parents), and they gained much needed wisdom and insight in the process of helping their children find more productive things to do with their time than stare at a screen. And, not only did they get their time back, they got their kids back—plus their sanity, serenity, and peace of mind.

These experiences are why I recommend a 30 Day Blackout to families, and how I know full well that it will not kill them. Taking a much-needed rest from the constant barrage of notifications and screens and games will be a positive experience—eventually.

The Blackout may sound crazy to you, or to your partner, or to your family and friends. But have faith.

And hey, at least you’re not moving to a non-electric cabin.

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