The levels of anxiety and other mental health difficulties children are experiencing is at an all time high. Often this is linked to the increasingly digital world we live in, especially smart phones. Parents of children and teens speak to me about the struggles they have getting their child away from their devices. They are worried about how compulsively their children seem to seek out screen time.
|Parents are worried because of a range of negative consequences
Parents are trying to work out how to support children to have a healthy digital life. This is something their own parents and teachers didn’t contend with.
Let’s start by acknowledging that the tech industry has invested heavily in trying to get our attention and hold on to it. We are all vulnerable to that draw which can distract us from other interests. Despite this most of us would not give up screen use completely. Instead we try and make informed decisions about what healthy use is.
Compulsive use of screens, regardless of the consequences, can be a sign of addiction and is what many parents fear. If you are concerned it can be helpful to slow down and think about the reasons why children are craving screen time.
What are the positives with screen use?
As with all behaviours children display there will be an underlying need screentime is meeting. Many of the children we support at Beacon Family Services find social relationships and communication tricky. This may be because of early relational trauma, sensory overwhelm or neurodivergence.
“Screens can offer overwhelmed children some much needed respite and recovery time”
Many of us will enjoy browsing something of interest. Or maybe we prefer to get lost in a good book or a box set. Seeing children as looking for respite can help parents respond with nurturing and necessary support for quiet and downtime.
During the Covid pandemic one of my children played lots of Minecraft with known friends. They built worlds together and had a great time playing in a way they couldn’t any other way. It really opened my eyes to how children who find socialising with peers hard could have different experiences gaming. You can learn more about the benefits (and risks) of online gaming in this NSPCC blog.
Talk to your child about what they are enjoying and why. This can really help you understand their world and connect. If you haven’t read A Boy Made of Blocks its all about a father and son connecting through Minecraft. I definitely recommend it.
Being really good at something can really boost self-esteem. Many of the online games our children play take skill. Their hand eye co-ordination, problem solving, attention and memory skills are all being used. Getting alongside them and playing with them or asking them about it can really help you gain insight into what they are enjoying and how it is helping them master skills. There are some great games reviews here. Overccoked has been a big favourite across the ages in my house.
My own children loved to watch gamers on You Tube. I noticed this was like learning any sport where watching the top athletes professional skills can be completely engrossing to fans. When you want to be really good at something watching someone who has mastered the skill is an important way to improve.
So, how do I help them turn off the screen?
If we are really enjoying any activity in can be hard to transition away from it. If this is because we were enjoying switching off from other demands or we are engrossed in an interest its especially hard.
- Allow time for transition. Children need to mentally prepare. Agree a break of a few minutes half way through the screen time and then give them a 10 minute and 5 minute warning. You can set alarms. This all helps children who are playing games or browsing apps designed to be immersive to stay connected to time.
- Get them to show you what they have been doing as you close down. This helps them reconnect.
- If your child has a tendency to regularly push for more time ‘just to finish off ‘ you can use the natural consequence of reducing the next days screentime. This helps them learn to manage their time.
- Try our lumin&us app. Based on Stephen Porges’ Polygaval Theory and play therapy, this App can improve wellbeing by ‘prescribing’ the right type of play at the right time. You can pick games using the screen that help you reconnect off the screen. Using the App’s SCAN button helps parents and carers to work out which state – safe, struggling or drowning – their children are in based on their feelings, behaviours and physical response to a situation. There is also a SCAN for adults with helpful tips and tools to support, soothe and calm parents and carers experiencing stress.
Charlotte Jenkins is the founder and a director of Beacon Family Services. She is an experienced social worker supporting children and families therapeutically using Theraplay and Dyadic Developmental Psychotherapy. She is also trained in Sensory Attachment Intervention which focuses on helping children and parents coregulate their nervous systems to build their relationships.