Teaching your children how to manage their stimulation is an investment in their brain, their relationships and in their future. Kids are inundated with hectic schedules and constant stimulation from their phones, games, and iPad.
Mental health therapists know that it incredibly helpful to “unplug” from the stimulation and converse with each other to improve relational skills. Children and adolescents feel the need to be connected to their world on a 24/7 basis. They want to know what is going on in the lives of their friends. They don’t recognize that these brief images and descriptions are not reflective of their friends lives or feelings. It is an image that the world is presenting, and not realistic in its portrayal. Kids get a snapshot of what they think is occurring when they don’t necessarily have a clue as to the real situation behind the scenes.
In addition to this fervent need to know, they are always checking in because they want to see what they are missing. The “not knowing what else is going on” becomes an addiction.
Researchers and brain scientists are recognizing that when kids compulsively check their accounts, their phones and the internet they are being flooded with dopamine. Every time they look at their phones, snapchat and Instagram pages, it also can set them up to develop compulsive behaviors that will predominate their thoughts and create an obsessiveness that feeds a feeling of wanting more. This obsessiveness can feel like an addiction. It is not just psychological, but it is also physiological. Dopamine is the chemical that is produced when heroine, cocaine and stimulants are ingested. In many ways, there are many parallels to drug addiction and internet usage.
So, what do you do as a parent to help monitor this activity? It is important to create a structure that includes “family unplug time.” Adults can be equally obsessed with the internet and social networking sites. Explain to your kids that too much stimulation can be harmful to the brain and that it is important to protect the brain by replacing the screen time with family time filled with exercise, the outdoors, and cultural events.
It is equally important to stop sharing screen time at least one hour before bedtime and children should never be allowed to take their phones to bed as there is too much temptation to chat after hours.
You will likely meet with much resistance because you are taking away their stimulation (drug) and their brains will be craving that dopamine hit. But don’t despair, because the more you implement this structure, the easier it will get for the brain to unplug. And just like with other forms of addiction like gaming, overspending, working, and shopping, there will be less cravings and urges too.
A secondary gain from unplugging is that you are reinforcing relational skills that will be necessary for their future. Encourage the kids to invite their friends over to play soccer, or kickball or make cookies or do art projects. When engaged, kids really do enjoy the option of being together and getting creative. It is a different way to produce dopamine without activating their compulsivity and obsessiveness.
Lastly, social researchers have found that children are less anxious when they have more down time from their screens. They also exhibit less attention deficit behaviors which allows them to focus and set goals.
As a parent, you are responsible for protecting their brain development. It’s an arduous task but somebody has to do it and you’re the perfect person for the job!