I have had this theory for a few years now that it takes much less energy and effort to interact with an on-screen activity than a real life one involving real people or real toys and games. If this is so, then our children are like a river taking the path of least resistance, defaulting to an on-screen activity before thinking of doing anything else.
I found support for my theory recently in Boys Adrift (Basic Books. 2009), a book by Dr Leonard Sax, who reported on a study of 7 – 14 year old boys which showed that playing video games lights up the pleasure centre of the brain while simultaneously shutting off blood flow to the executive centre of the brain (the part that lights up when you come up with a plan and take action). In effect, these games offered boys the sense that they had accomplished something without actually having done so.
Our children’s brains (and ours too) are being rewired through increasing exposure to movies, television, music, computer games, Wii, Playstation etc. These new forms of entertainment and engagement provide us with effortless pleasure and research has shown that they trick the brain into bypassing the executive centre, making it more rewarding to pursue entertainment and less rewarding to accomplish anything of value.
Children will do more of whatever it is that makes them feel good or provides them with a sense of achievement – think star charts – which is why it is so easy for them to become addicted to on-screen activities. It’s very important, therefore, that we balance our children’s real and virtual interactions with the world so that they don’t grow up in screen gaga-land. We need to have conversations with our kids often and do real-life activities together; set regular bedtimes; encourage as much outdoor play as possible, and reduce gaming time and on-screen activities to a reasonable level.
A quick word of warning from Dr Jeff Myers, author of the paper Amused to Death, about the possible effects of reducing screen time: “An entertainment-soaked culture affects the brain in similar ways to a chemical addiction, so don’t be surprised if heavily plugged-in kids express bitterness, anger, accusation and even paranoia when they get unplugged. Many parents will cave in to the pressure because they can’t handle seeing their children be unhappy, even for a short while. A few parents, however, will find wise ways to replace screen time with real things and intentional conversation. In the long run, kids who overcome this withering addiction will be significantly better prepared to live healthy, purposeful lives.”
I firmly believe that happiness and pleasure and two completely different things and while technology may provide pleasure, happiness comes from interacting with live human beings!
0 – 2 years
- Don’t put your baby or toddler to sleep watching a screen of any sort. If you do this, they will not learn to soothe themselves and put themselves to sleep. They will always need a crutch.
- This age group needs very little exposure to screens. They should be interacting with real toys and real people. This is how they learn best.
2 – 6 years
- Ensure that your children learn how to create fun out of nothing such as kicking their way through a pile of autumn leaves, painting the brick paving with water and a large paintbrush, or making homemade playdough with you.
- Limit your child’s gaming on a screen to a few sessions a week. Ensure they are spending more time in the garden and doing activities that require lots of movement. This will assist in their development far more than a screen at this stage.
- Remember that screens provide effortless entertainment. The more children get used to this the less they will be able to entertain themselves without a screen because it just takes too much effort!
6 – 12 years
- A walk through or picnic at a local botanical garden
- A visit to the zoo
- Create alternatives to on-screen time. You might like to try some of the activities below which provide high-touch togetherness time for children of any age (just make adjustments to accommodate different ages as you go):
- Playing a game at the dinner table such as the Sweets & Sours game which is downloadable here.
- Planning family outings and making sure that you follow through and make them happen eg.
- If you haven’t already set boundaries, you need to revisit how much time you allow your child to play with tech games and use tech devices. Too much is too much as it can become addictive.
- Every now and then, play a computer game with your child, either online, on Wii, Playstation or X-box. Experience their sense of the excitement, engagement and the need to reach the next level. You need this experience so that you get a sense of what your child feels when they play with these games.
- A regular games night at home:
- Cooking with your children – and if they are old enough, having a family Masterchef competition would be such fun
- Camping, even if it is just putting up a tent in the garden!
- Eat dinner together with all devices and screens switched off. Appreciate the time you have to connect face-to-face.
- Be aware of the type of content your children are gamin with and the influence it is having on them. Also limit how much time they are gaming ensuring that they get time with real people manage to fit it around their homework and extramural schedule.
- Be very aware of the difference between happiness and pleasure this week. My personal findings are that when we spend time together, interacting, talking and playing, there is a feeling of happiness versus the pleasure that engaging in on-screen activities brings.
- Do purchase my book Tech-Savvy Parenting, co-authored with Arthur Goldstuck. It contains detailed guidelines and advice around gaming and children.
Creative parenting expert, inspirational speaker and co-author of Tech-Savvy Parenting (Bookstorm, 2014), Future-proof Your Child (Penguin, 2008), and Easy Answers to Awkward Questions (Metz Press, 2009)