Screen Time!: A Balanced Perspective

I did not put the Facebook app on my iPhone. Why? As a counselor who has some information on how we are wired as human beings, I don’t want to get hooked. Overexposure to screens—whether video games, Facebook, or pornographic images—can affect the same pleasure center in our brains that interacts with powerful drugs like heroin or nicotine. Clearly, heroin use comes with many more complications, but the neurobiology is similar. It’s not really a stretch to imagine social media taking people on an exhausting ride through highs and lows based on who likes their posts, who unfriends them or who writes what on whose wall. Overstimulating the brain’s reward system can burn out our natural reward system down the road and contribute to symptoms of depression. This pattern is consistent with the brain biology of addiction.

Another more practical definition of addiction would be a habit that interferes with optimal functioning. So how do we know where to draw the line with our love of screens? What is too much? How do we determine optimal functioning? I suppose grades, gainful employment, and feeling connected to other human beings without a screen as your mode of communication might be some criteria to use.

So, if adults have enough trouble putting down their phones and going to the gym, how do parents approach the subject of screen time with their children? I work with many families and children who struggle with how to regulate screen time.

  1. Be a good example. Try talking and not texting. Don’t use your phone at meals, in restaurants, or in front of your kids when they are trying to do their homework. If siblings are done with chores or their homework and are allowed some video game time, make sure it is in another area of the home.
  2. Encourage kids to go outside—especially in warmer months. Play board games with your children. Do crafts and engage them in helping with home improvements, cooking lessons, or anything you can think of that does not involve watching a screen.
  3. Let your kids have screen time every day. I know it sounds odd. I recently saw the cable tv ad that said “Everything is awesome, when you’re watching a screen….” Wow. Kind of a rude ad campaign for people struggling with screen time limits, yet oh so true. I love Netflix. I love movies. Our household has an iPad, and I just got my 10-year-old an iPod. Why? She does her homework. She does her chores, and she goes outside and plays, showing an interest in activities that do not involve a screen. I reward this balanced interest by letting her have some power over her screen time. Does she try to abuse this power? Of course. She’s 10! She’s not an adult. When I think she’s overdoing it, I take the access away and she finds something else to do—perhaps after some grumbling which I try not to take personally. When I take it personally, I let the 10-year-old win. I don’t like letting 10-year-olds win.

So, what is cool about these screens? There is an app that is teaching my daughter Spanish. There are brain teaser video games that make us think. There are movies and tv shows that make us laugh. So how do we keep ourselves and our kids from getting too addicted to the absolutely awesome world of screens?

We make a schedule about screen time. We make rules. For example: Nice out? Go outside until such and such time then you can watch a show. Do your homework first and after I check it and if it’s done well, you can play that game on the Kindle. No texting your friends while you do your homework. The Ipod does not go in your room at bedtime.

The most important part of enforcing these rules for your children is that as adults, we must be willing to place some boundaries and restrictions on ourselves. As a therapist, I have seen adults check their phones in session while going on rants about how their child is addicted to video games. If you are this kind of parent, please adjust accordingly.

So, for the sake of your health and your family’s health, take an inventory of your screen habits. And by all means, do not go too far in a restrictive direction. There are enormous benefits to using screens in healthy ways. They are here to stay and can be used to share experiences, to educate us, and to entertain us. Screens are so fun for most kids that I am completely on board with using “bonus screen time” as a motivational tool to get kids to improve on doing chores, or to give extra effort in school subjects with which they might be struggling. The goal is for us to try to find a balance and to use all these screens for as much good as we can. After all, the screen isn’t the problem. It’s the human who can’t seem to put it down for a while.

Pete Afflerbach, MA LCMHC is a licensed mental health counselor. Pete works with all ages and has particular specialties in working with teens and those struggling with addiction. Pete is enthusiastic about helping people break down the challenges they face into smaller, more manageable pieces.

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