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#19: Balancing Screen Time with Kids and Teens

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Suri delves into the effects of screen time on kids and teens, drawing insights from expert interviews and the Tech-Wise Parenting Summit. As the holiday season nears, what are your plans around screen time?

This episode was made using:

TRANSCRIPT – edited for clarity

INTRO: Hi, welcome back to Doing Things on Purpose, the podcast that empowers women to take charge of their time, health, relationships, and money by doing things on purpose. I’m your host Suri Stahel, and I’m so glad that you can join me again today.

It’s a few days left until Christmas. And as we move into the holiday season, you’re probably making plans and your kids are having expectations about what those school and work-free days might look like. For some of us, it’s about just having the time for quiet companionship, or long conversations over meals with family and friends. For others, it might be about binge watching Christmas shows or unlimited iPad time for our kids.

So today I wanted to talk a little bit about screen time. What’s the latest research? What should parents be aware of? And what kinds of rules can we experiment with setting, when it comes to screens, with our kids and teens? 

CHECK-IN: Let’s start with today’s mom check-in. It’s going to be a shortie.

If you follow me on social or listened to last week’s episode, I spoke about taking care of our health and well being as we reach midlife in our mid 40s and beyond.

I shared a graphic listing down the 9 health checks women past 40 need to be aware of. So I do hope you’ve scheduled all the tests that you need to do to take care of you.

I actually had my gynecologist appointment last week and everything including my blood sugar levels look good. Although this month, my menstruation came much later than usual (perimenopause?). I learned that if you haven’t had your period after 3 months, check with your doctor. And if you’ve not had one for over 12 months, you’re officially considered menopausal.

3 books on perimenopause and menopause which I’ve been recommended:

👀 I’ll be picking one of those up because god knows, it’s really helped me to be prepared for things that are sure to come. I find myself asking better questions, instead of just hoping that my doctor will inform me of everything I need to know, in due time.

🏋️‍♀️ For daily maintenance, I hope you’re still doing your daily self care, whether it’s yoga or something else. 

Do consider joining me for Yoga with Adriene’s 30-day yoga challenge on YouTube this January. 

Balancing screen time with kids and teens

A few months ago, I had the chance to catch some (not all) interviews on Susan Stiffelman’s Tech-Wise Parenting Summit. It was a series of talks from experts in the field of parenting, mindfulness, neuroscience, technology, habit formation, and innovation. They shared their thoughts and strategies on how parents and kids navigate today’s increasingly digital world. I’ll include a link to it in the show notes.

I really enjoy listening to these kinds of multi-speaker events, because I love the idea of looking at things from different perspectives. It helps me form my own views and strategies for my family. 

From what I’ve gleaned in that summit, and through other interviews and related articles I’ve run across lately; I’ve been meaning to do a little summary, which I hope can benefit moms and dads out there, who are looking for simple advice and concise information when it comes to screen time. 

The first thing kids and parents probably already know is that our electronics are extremely engaging and fun to use. We just can’t get enough of it. 

Why is that?

What causes excessive screen use?

Well if you look at the science, this is because screen time releases a feel-good chasing chemical in our brain called dopamine – which is also called the pleasure hormone. I think it can be more accurately described as the craving hormone.

Some people are more sensitive to this chemical than others. Maybe you know someone who seems to have a more “addictive personality.” So what do we know about dopamine?

  • Dopamine is far from a harmful chemical. We get it in normal doses when we do things we enjoy like dancing, singing, cuddling babies, exercising, eating chocolate, having sex, and falling in love. In healthy doses, dopamine helps us with our motivation, memory, movement control and even sleep regulation.
  • In higher doses though, dopamine can start to become quite addictive. Because we all want to feel good, and if possible, we want to feel good all the time! Dopamine is what we humans have learned to stimulate and enjoy intentionally, through substances like sugar in our sodas, alcohol in our wine and beer, and nicotine in our cigarettes.
  • And when we talk about even larger doses of dopamine – capable of inducing feelings of euphoria, we’re talking about highly addictive substances like opiates used to treat pain, amphetamines to treat ADHD, and recreational drugs such as cocaine and meth.

Measuring dopamine levels

Measuring the exact percentage increase in baseline dopamine is actually challenging, due to the complex nature of neurotransmitter regulation in the brain. And effects on individuals can vary. 

But here are some general numbers I’ve found from my research so far – if you’re a neuroscientist, please feel free to correct me.

But here are some general numbers I’ve found from my research so far – if you’re a neuroscientist, please feel free to correct me. From what I’ve read, this is how different stimulants can increase our dopamine above our individual baseline levels (NPR, National Geographic, LHSFNA):

  • Chocolate raises it by approximately 50%
  • Sex by 100%
  • Nicotine, sugar and alcohol by around 150%
  • Cocaine by 300%, giving the brain a sense of euphoria.
  • Drugs like heroin (an opioid) and meth can increase it up to 1,000%

So where does screen time fit in? How strongly does it stimulate dopamine in our brains?

Circulated knowledge can be a scary thing (i.e. misleading). Because people we trust, can also just be regurgitating the latest, most convincing research, from an expert, or a seminar that they happened to have most recently attended. 

As a society, we need to practice taking time to pause, process and to actively seek out counter arguments that might help balance out the information that we’ve just received.

So although we might have heard about gaming and sugar being compared to drugs like heroin and cocaine, we should all take this with a grain of salt. We’re talking about how these substances affect the brain in similar ways, and not equivalent ways.

For instance we all know how some screen activities like TV might be less stimulating, immersive and euphoric-inducing compared to gaming for boys or chasing social media likes for girls. 

Personally, I haven’t found any convincing studies in this new area, to really pinpoint how much dopamine the different kinds of screen activities actually induce. 

But there has been one PET scan study (Positron Emission Tomography) from 1998, which was quoted as showing that gaming for instance, doubles dopamine levels to about 200%. I’ll link to this study in the show notes – but to be honest, it was hard for me to make heads or tails of it. So if YOU can read scientific research articles , please have a look and let me know if this is what shows. 

A 200% increase in dopamine would place it slightly more stimulating and potentially addictive than nicotine or alcohol, but less addictive than cocaine. That’s actually pretty high.  

What do experts recommend?

 General paediatric guidelines for screen time limits are as follow:

  • No screens for kids under 2
  • Max. 1 hour per day for kids from 2-5
  • Max. 2 hours per day for children from 5-17

There are no official guidelines for adults over 18, but some experts recommended that we keep the  2 hour limit as well, which I think makes sense. It helps us set a good example, as we monitor screen time alongside our kids.

Effects on child development

Excessive screen time can also have negative, and less obvious trickle-down effects that many parents might not be fully aware of. Keep in mind that what affects our kids, will most likely have similar effects on us too, as fellow humans.

Here are some things parents might want to know before allowing their kids to increase their use of screens, above the recommended guidelines: 

  1. Screen overuse affects brain developmentThe Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study (ABCD)along with a small but growing body of research now show (sources: 2014 and 2017), that screen time changes the normal development and thickness of white and gray matter in the brain. How this will affect our kids over time, only future research and observation will tell. But observed atrophy in certain areas of the brain suggest that screen overuse can negatively affect our kids’ language and cognitive skills, as well as their ability to plan, prioritize, organize, exercise impulse control, adhere to social norms, and even their ability to develop empathy and compassion. All pretty important things.
  2. Repeated stimulation eventually increases our natural threshold of experiencing pleasure. So just like any other addiction, regular supply of it eventually requires us to increase our amount of consumption, in order to feel satisfied. Remember the 200% over-stimulation of dopamine from gaming that I mentioned earlier? Many child development experts are finding kids becoming more easily agitated and less able to enjoy the normal pace of life. As the brain gets regularly rewarded by higher doses of dopamine, it gets used to it, and more and more stimulation is needed to experience that pleasure. This makes small everyday joys like reading, visiting the museum or playing board games seem boring in comparison. So we automatically reach for that phone or that game console without really thinking about it. Even activities that our kids might previously enjoy, can quickly fall to the wayside. Meanwhile, our brain starts to reduce its own natural production of dopamine, making us more and more dependent on artificial means of external stimulation.
  3. Screen overuse is linked to addiction, anxiety, depression, and loneliness – Screen use negatively impacts impulse control and can lead to feelings of isolation. There is evidence that adolescents who spend a lot of time on screens, are more at risk to developing substance addiction later on. Mood is obviously affected, as the high feeling caused by gaming or screen time unavoidably leads to low crashes before the brain can have a chance to recalibrate itself. 

We can imagine how hard it is for our kids to develop and practice emotional regulation and to learn how to tolerate discomfort, when they’re consistently dysregulated in this way. 

It then becomes so much easier for us parents to just let them grab that remote, that phone, or that gaming console to make the whining and boredom go away. I know how that feels.

 But we have to do something don’t we?

Even if it’s hard. We have to try.

Because if not us, then who? What’s a parent to do?

Well, be assured that the brain is a malleable thing. So, it’s never too late to shift things for the better. 

What is screen time?

Let’s start with a clear definition of what screen time actually includes:

Screen time is a term used for all activities done in front of a screen like iPads, mobile phones, laptops, computers and even your TV. You could be using it for work, to do homework, to send text messages, go on social media, or play video games.

Screen time control is about limiting time spent OUTSIDE of two things:

  • Work 
  • Homework 

✅ So anything beyond work and homework is what we’re trying to control here.

That includes limiting fun and seemingly harmless things like gaming, watching comedy skits, nature documentaries, news cycles or feel-good movies with your family. Because we do often see these activities as educational or bonding activities, don’t we? 

I think, yes, and no.

Yes, they can be in small doses, but no they’re not, when they become over consumed. Which they so often are, without us realizing it.

For example:

Where I grew up, I have good old memories of watching horror films with my cousins in the space underneath the staircase at my aunt’s house, when we were left watching tv during big family gatherings – so our parents could spend the night chatting away, uninterrupted. 

Sure, in our home, we also watched TV after dinner most days. That was the house I grew up in. But when I think about it, those daily chilling-out screen times didn’t really give me that same warm fuzzy feeling that the horror films special occasion events did. It’s probably because too much of a good thing equals a problem.

It was nice to have special occasions when we could binge watch movies with each other. But on a daily basis, that same activity can seem like a big waste of time in hindsight. 

Time that could have been better spent doing other things. 

Ways to control screen time

There are tons of advice out there, like setting up parental controls, which actually drove me and my husband crazy because we constantly had to be on our phone to monitor it. I like to keep it simple. 

Here are some approaches that we’ve tried and liked so far:

  1. Follow the screen time guidelines that I’ve mentioned as best as you can. Just do your best and don’t stop trying: Which means no screens for kids under two, one hour per day for kids from two to five, and two hours per day for older kids, teens, and adults. You can shift, combine or reduce these hours by the week, based on what works best for your family.
  2. Reserve a fixed spot to store portable screen devices out of sight and out of mind when you have screen-free time, to avoid temptation. I store it in a basket inside my bedroom.
  3. Keep a charging station for all electronics in your room or in a public space, out of your child’s bedroom.
  4. Don’t let your kids sleep with a tablet or mobile phone in their room. Trust me. You can’t expect them to keep their promises to put down their screens before bedtime, just like you wouldn’t leave cigarettes on your child’s bedside table and expect them not to reach for it. Taking devices away is the kindest action you can take. This will also help them keep a healthy sleep routine, as they enter their early teen years – which has been proven to positively affect mood, help reduce stress levels, increase concentration, and improve their overall sense of wellbeing.

How much sleep do we need?

  • Children between 6-12 need 9-12 hours
  • Teens from 13-18 need 8-10 hours
  • Adults over 18 need 7-9 hours

It’s okay to allow your kids to complain and be bored:

  • It will be uncomfortable at first, but show them through your own actions that there are other activities that you can enjoy together, without the use of screens.
  • Let them help out in simple house chores like cooking, setting the table, hanging the laundry, watering the plants. Let them read, craft, make a mess, and get dirty outside. 

How we manage screens in our family

Here’s how much screen time our family currently uses:

  • Screen time has evolved as my kids grew older. When they were small and needed more attention, they used to get one hour of screen time per day while I prepared our dinner. 
  • Now that they’re 9 and 11 years old, have more homework, hobbies, responsibilities, and can keep themselves busy, they get 2 hours of screen time, twice a week – one for watching a show (or gaming if you have a boy), and another for doing something productive. 
  • Sometimes on Saturdays if we have not any  evening plans, we might watch a film together as a family. 
  • On Sundays, we have screen free days. No mobile phones, iPads, TV or video games. I store all our digital stuff away. And we even bought a small digital radio, so we don’t have to use our phones to stream music.

I hope this has helped you think about how you can plan and tweak your family’s screen time to help everybody thrive. 

Keep the conversation going

Remember that this is an ongoing conversation. Talk to your spouse, talk to your teens. Show them that you care about what they think, and invite them to take these action steps with you and discover together how it feels.

OUTRO: So that’s all I have for you today. If you found this podcast helpful:

Thanks for listening in to the Doing Things on Purpose Podcast with me Suri.

I’ll try to get another podcast out before the new year. But I can’t really promise anything since our plans are still up in the air.

I hope you’re going to have a wonderful Christmas with  your family. May your spirits be bright, as you wind down and make beautiful plans for the coming year ahead – and I’ll catch you again next time.

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