By JASON REYNOLDS
Tennessee Christian News
Parents: Is your child growing up social or growing up attached to a video screen? A new book by two of America’s relationship experts can answer that question for you and help you raise your child with a healthy balance of screen time.
Gary Chapman and Arlene Pellicane are the authors of “Growing Up Social: Raising Relational Kids in a Screen-Driven World.” The publisher is Northfield Publishing, an imprint of Moody Publishers.
A year spent on a screen
“Growing Up Social” reveals some startling facts about today’s tech-savvy children. The average American child, at the age of 7, will have spent one full year of 24-hour days watching a media screen. Children between ages 8-18 spend an average of more than seven hours a day looking at a video game, computer, cell phone or television. Those numbers result in some scary details about the impact on children’s development.
Pellicane spoke to me about that impact.
“By age 7, the child will have spent one whole year of his life doing this,” she said. “Think about your child and the amount of time on that phone. It’s a huge chunk of his life.”
Screen time affects the development of a child’s brain: the neural circuits that control the more traditional learning methods used for reading, writing and sustained concentration are neglected. Children begin to use gadgets to communicate instead of using face-to-face communication. Young brains are not naturally empathetic toward others. Empathy must be learned around people, and screen time takes away from that.
Have you heard of the experiments in which lab rats could not stop stimulating the pleasure centers of their brains? Guess what: Video devices can have a similar effect. While watching a cartoon or whatever, “the neurotransmitter dopamine carries a signal of pleasure to that pleasure center.” The child feels good while watching TV, and that’s why it is hard to get her to do her homework or eat dinner. The more the child consumes TV or video games, the more dopamine levels rise. But as with drugs, the feeling of pleasure is diminished. Like a junkie, the child wants more pleasure.
A “screen-driven child enjoys constant rewards and fails to thrive when he isn’t praised fast enough or often enough,” the authors argue.
Living the advice
Pellicane is the mother of children ages 5, 8 and 10, and she lives out her advice.
“A lot of my heart for the book comes from my life,” she said. “We’re a dinosaur family. We let our kids do their homework online, but they don’t play video games and don’t watch television (alone). On movie nights, we all come together around the TV.”
She’s been married 16 years, and in the beginning, her husband challenged her to turn off the TV in the first month of marriage.
“At the time I was working in television,” she said. “It was a ludicrous request. He said, ‘If you work around TV all the time, why do you need it at home?’ The lack of devices allows us to grow closer as a family.”
Her family talks more, is more active and learns more as a result, she said. When they visit friends’ homes and the TV is on as background noise, the experience is irritating.
Pellicane says she and Chapman are not arguing for everyone to do exactly what she is doing. She offers realistic advice for parents, advising them to gradually reduce their children’s screen time to a more moderate level.
“We’re not advocating people throw out all their media,” she said. “We’ve never used the TV as background noise. We are more activity driven, more book driven. That’s been a lot of fun. We’re not afraid of screen time for school.” Indeed, their children use Rosetta Stone to learn Spanish.
Many parents get into technology thinking they are helping their kids learn, she said. But most kids using an iPad are not using Rosetta Stone. The electronic gadgets end up being used for entertainment.
Bonding with kids
Pellicane said her daughter, who is in the third grade, has to deal with classmates who think she and her mother are weird.
“You say, ‘Well, would I rather have my kid be weird but closer to me and be able to talk to adults and learning about relationships?’ Yeah, that’s a fair trade-off.”
The common courtesies that were expected 15 years ago are now gone, she said. Parents excuse their kids’ behavior as being “shy.”
But job interviewers are saying they cannot find 20-somethings that can look them in the eye during interviews.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends children receive no screen time before the age of 2 to not interfere with brain development. This will allow them to make connections with people and develop motor skills.
“The best educational apps are not superior to a person, a human being pausing, stopping, listening. In terms of brain development, the less screen time the better.”
Reclaim meal time
If you do only one thing to limit you child’s screen time, Pellicane said, you should ban screens during family meal time.
“It’s specific. It’s doable. You know if you did it or not. When we come together to eat as a family, we don’t have any screens. There’s no TV in the background. Mom and Dad do not check for text messages. The child puts down the tablet. This is at home or in the restaurant. Our meal time is sacred.”
You may not think you can do all of that, but you can if you start off slow. Try it for one meal a week. Then expand it to more meals.
It’s important for parents to model screen-time restraint for their children, she said, even though it’s sometimes hardest for parents to let go of technology. Drugs, bullying and promiscuity can be prevented by having this type of strong family anchor at home.
“Bring back the meal time and make it time for everyone to have fun and not just be a business meeting.”
If you want to cut back on the overall time your child spends on screen, try cutting back a little. Since the average child spends seven hours a day on screen, try limiting that to six and a half hours. During that extra half hour, do something fun together like go out for ice cream — leave all screens at home, including your phone.
Again, model good behavior. Apologize to your child that you have not done a good job of limiting screen time, which is your duty as a parent. Most teens respond better to an apology than a direct order.
About the authors
Chapman is the author of the bestselling “The 5 Love Languages” series and the director of Marriage and Family Life Consultants Inc. Pellicane is the author of “31 Days to Becoming a Happy Wife” and “31 Days to a Happy Husband.” She has served as associate producer for “Turning Point Television with Dr. David Jeremiah.”
Since Gary Chapman is co-author, the book offers advice on using The 5 Love Languages with your children in the context of a technology-saturated world. The Love Languages are: physical touch, words of affirmation, quality time, gifts and acts of service.
The book offers five “A+” skills children need to develop to succeed in life and love. The book also offers a quiz on whether your child is receiving too much screen time and questions for discussion groups and online resources.