Endorsing “unplugged” family time may seem like a no-brainer. Of course, we all spend too much time in front of a screen of some sort. But how bad is it for us…really? And what can we do about it? We decided to ask our brain trust of experts to delve into why unplugged time, family time and unplugged family time is so important for our health and well-being. In this article, you’re sure to reinforce what you already know, discover something new and pick up a few good ideas!
We interviewed three of our regularly referred providers to give us answers to the following questions: Why is “unplugged” time important? Why is family time important? What are the obstacles that parents must overcome to achieve this time? What are some of the best ways for families to spend “unplugged” time together? Our panel participants were:
- Dwight Franklin, DOM and founder of Franklin Family Wellness Institute
- Carol Miller, LCSW and director of Social Bridges
- Sharon R. Thetford, Psy.D. and founder of New Objectives Psychology, Counseling & Neurofeedback Center
“All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.”
“Imagination decides everything.”
– Blaise Pascal
Monsieur Pascal was a French mathematician, physicist, religious philosopher and master of prose in the 17th century. He died almost 358 years ago, yet his statements still ring true! What do you think our friend Blaise would say if he saw us in our state of continuous artificial stimulation today? He’d probably frown and tell you the same things our experts told us! And then he’d find himself a nice spot at a café and start working on a theory or piece of writing.
WHY can’t we stand a bit of silence and nothing to do? ARE we in danger of losing our imaginations? What has being “plugged in” done to us and can we save ourselves and our families? Read on to see what our panel had to say.
Why is Unplugged Time Important?
The members of our panel all agreed that unplugged time is important. To have a healthy life, less screen time is best, if for no other reason than to avoid the consequences of TOO MUCH screen time. These consequences include:
1) Increased anxiety. Social media especially affects our self-esteem and our perception of societal norms. Research has shown a correlation between the amount of screen time and an increase in anxiety, especially in children and teens. In addition, it may surprise you to know that the tendency to compare ourselves to our peers affects both kids and adults!
As Dr. Thetford adeptly summed it up, “On Facebook, everybody just posts the highlight reels of their lives. They don’t post the ‘real stuff’ so everybody feels like everyone else’s life is so much better than theirs. This leaves people feeling ‘less than.’”
This is particularly true for parents of kids with disabilities. For example, scrolling though social media during prom season and seeing groups of teen couples while your kid sits at home (or goes to the dance alone) is an especially heart-rending experience for these parents.
2) Constant stimulation. When you’re plugged in to your computer, tablet or phone your brain is constantly being stimulated, which eventually depletes your neurotransmitters.
Neurotransmitters like dopamine, norepinephrine, epinephrine and serotonin excite the brain and stimulate the parts of the brain that supply focus and impulse control, drive, motivation, learning, memory and feelings of well-being.
According to Dr. Franklin, “Neurotransmitters are created by vitamins, minerals and amino acids. So, your body is busy making more and more neurotransmitters because you’re burning through them. You’re going to end up not having enough nutrients in your body to make more. This is no different than if you drive your car 100 miles per hour. You’re going to get there quicker, but you’re going to run out of gas faster.”
It’s no wonder why kids can’t play video games and then do their homework. That plan just doesn’t work for the brain! Besides, video games are much more fun than homework!
To learn more about the brain, read Dr. Franklin’s popular article on our blog: ADD/ADHD: A Chinese Medicine Perspective.
3) Increased behavioral issues. In general, behavior issues in children increase when they are “plugged in” too much, because of the aforementioned overstimulation of the brain. The bulk of parents struggle with the issue of “how much is too much?” because each child is different. A good rule of thumb is to be vigilant. If your child’s emotions, demeanor or interactions with you change, it might be time to cut screen time!
4) Imagination and creativity suffer. If you’re a parent of a certain age, you remember your parents telling you to go outside and play. You didn’t need instructions on what to do next. You found a game to play, or you made one up. Kids don’t have to use their imagination because video games serve up fantasy lands on request. Watching YouTube celebrities doesn’t require any creative thinking, just observations of OTHER people living out THEIR lives.
Humans don’t like to be bored and they like to do things that stimulate the pleasure centers of their brains. But we also love to master activities—that’s what having a hobby is all about! The trick is encouraging kids to use their brains by unplugging them and forcing them to be imaginative and creative.
5) Social skills suffer. Screen time takes away from social interactions with peers, which enable children to hone their social skills. According to social skills expert Carol Miller, children are having more challenges with:
- Reading social cues (facial expression, body language and tone of voice) which lets us know whether or not others want to interact.
- Conversation skills, including starting and joining in a conversation, matching the topic, and the ability to talk about subjects that are not of interest.
- Emotional regulation (handling and expressing feelings appropriately)
- Being flexible
- Turn taking
- Handling losing
- Working cooperatively
These are skills adults use every day, and if you’re in the workplace, it’s probably a lack of these skills that annoy you the most about the “Millennial” generation. Of course, there is much more to say about the importance of social skills, so read more about that topic in Ms. Miller’s article, Improving Social Skills for Kids.
Why is Family Time Important?
As expected, our professional panelists all agreed that family time promotes connection, bonding, stability and peace within a family unit. However, it’s important enough to mention a couple reasons in particular:
Protecting Kids from Danger: If kids are in their rooms for long periods of time with their electronics, parents don’t know what’s going on in their lives; kids are potentially going to strangers for their emotional support. There are many other areas for concern: online gaming can be grooming for abduction, human trafficking, cyberbullying and more.
Reinforcing Social Skills: From a social skills perspective, non-distracted family time (meaning both children and parents are off of their devices) is a wonderful opportunity to practice the social skills needed for life. It also enables parents to:
- Provide feedback and share observations that a child is using social skills to be successful, e.g., “I notice how you congratulated the winner of Jenga.”
- Remind their children to use the social tools they need in the moment to be successful. For emotional regulation, social coaching can look like: “You can use deep breathing to calm down if you feel frustrated you are losing the game.”
So, if we know there are so many consequences associated with overexposure to electronics, why do we continue to allow it? What’s keeping us from fixing this issue? That was our next question for our panel of experts, so keep reading.
What Obstacles Do Parents Face When Limiting Screen Time?
1) Push-back from kids. When you tell Johnny that he can’t play his video game for three hours straight anymore, you’re probably going to experience a teensy-weensy bit of push-back! After all, he liked his schedule just fine, thank you! Also, video game creators purposely make the games addictive and build in personal and even social consequences if Johnny ends his game too soon. First, he loses his progress towards the next level in the game (playing on the human motivation to master a skill). Second, because of online group play, Johnny’s departure affects others’ characters in the game. Nevertheless, it is a game, and of course your child’s health (and your rules) are more important. If you need some help dealing with the ensuing tantrums, check out Dr. Thetford’s Confident & Empowered Parenting article here.
2) Failure to lead by modeling. Truth be told, you might have liked the fact that Johnny was busy playing video games, so you could get some work done, watch TV or well, maybe see what is going on in Facebook Land for yourself.
You may have noticed that kids care more about what you do than what you say. A casual look around any playground will reveal parents with their noses in their phones, not watching their kids playing and interacting with the other kids. If Johnny looks back to see that you aren’t paying attention when he goes down the slide, that sends a huge message: screen time isn’t only acceptable, it’s more important than being together at the park!
Even though they complain, kids crave structure and rules. They WANT to spend time as a family, but it’s up to you as a parent to lead the way. Staying off your own electronics during family time sets a good example and leaves no room for misinterpretation about your priorities as a family.
3) Lack of planning. Family time doesn’t have to be expensive, but effort is required to make it happen. Your time-starved schedule may have you not feel like planning fun activities, but if you don’t plan, your whole family will fall back into the easiest source of entertainment.
What are the Best Ways for Families to Spend Unplugged Time Together?
Spending time together can begin with simple things like leaving electronics at home when going to the grocery store. Ten minutes of conversation in the car together counts!
Make it a rule that all family activities like game nights, TV or movie time and especially dinners are 100% device free. Put your phones on silent (and, better yet, in another room) so they don’t distract or tempt you.
Find things to do that you all find interesting. You may not love all your child’s interests but telling him that his video games are dumb or a waste of time isn’t exactly a conversation starter!
Make a list of activities NOW for when you’re looking for things to do later. This eliminates the inertia that comes with not being able to think of anything to do in the moment. Make a list of both free and paid activities. Use the internet for something useful and do this as a family! You can search for “fun things to do this weekend” or go to Groupon for ideas.
There are countless other options, but here are a few ideas:
- Show interest in your child by talking about the games they play or YouTube channels they watch.
- Build on the themes of the video games your kids enjoy:
- Build Lego structures found in the video games they play.
- Create a continuing story where each family member adds on, based on a theme from a video game.
- Go to the science museum if they like fantasy games.
- Create a Family Olympics where family members compete in fun activities. Ideas can be researched together online.
- Cook together. Plan, shop for and create family favorites or new recipes. You can even work together to create a family cookbook.
- Have a baking day where family members work together to bake and decorate cookies.
- Channel your inner artists to create family projects together, e.g., stepping stones for the garden. Pinterest has countless ideas.
- Plan and plant a family garden—flowers, veggies or both. May we recommend the Juice Plus+ Tower Garden®?
I Gen by Jean Twenge, Ph.D.
Irresistible by Adam Alder. This goes into great detail about the addictive nature of technology in a language that is understandable to parents. Thanks to Lynn Arnold, owner of Life Strategies, LLC for this recommendation.
Image Copyright: 123rf/altanaka