A Four-Week Plan to Reset Your Child’s Brain by Reversing the Effects of Electronic Screen Time
In the June 16, 2016 post on Reset Your Child’s Brain, I promised to devote the July 2016 newsletter to the 4-week program that psychiatrist Victoria Dunckley, M.D. has developed to reverse the impact of too much electronic screen time on the developing vulnerable brain in children and teenagers.
Here’s a re-statement from that post of the problem:
From the introduction to Reset Your Child’s Brain:
“Children aged two to six now spend two to four hours a day screen-bound – during a period in their lives when sufficient healthy play is critical to normal development. Computer training in early-years education – including in preschool – has become commonplace, despite lack of long-term data on learning and development. According to a large-scale survey conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation in 2010, children ages eight to eighteen now spend an average of nearly seven and a half hours a day in front of a screen – a 20 percent increase from just five years earlier.
“[And…] In a mere ten-year span from 1994 to 2003, the diagnosis of bipolar disorder in children increased forty-fold. Childhood psychiatric disorders such as ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), autism spectrum disorders, and tic disorders are on the rise. Between 2002 and 2005, ADHD medication prescriptions rose by 40 percent. Mental illness is now the number one reason for disability filings for children, representing half of all claims filed in 2012, compared to just 5 to 6 percent of claims twenty years prior.
“Now consider that this rise in childhood psychosocial and neurodevelopmental issues has increased in lockstep with the insidious growth of electronic-screen exposure in daily life. Not only are children exposed to ever-increasing amounts of screen-time at home and in school, but exposure is beginning at ever-younger ages.
“Handheld and mobile devices account for most of the more recent growth. These devices compound toxicity due to the fact that they are held closer to the eyes and body, are used more frequently throughout the day, and tend to be used during activities that previously facilitated conversation (such as riding in the car and eating out). From 2005 to 2009, cell phone ownership among children nearly doubled; about one-third of ten-year-olds now have their own mobile phone. Two thirds of American teens now own cell phones, and 70 percent own an iPad, tablet, or similar device with Internet capability. According to a 2010 Nielsen report, U.S. teens text over four thousand times a month, or about 130 times a day.
“Many youngsters exhibit ill-defined but disruptive symptoms that baffle clinicians, teachers, and parents alike – meltdowns, falling grades, or loss of friendships – leading to premature or wrong diagnoses in a misguided attempt to name the problem and take action. In a word, these children are dysregulated – that is, they have trouble modulating their emotional responses and arousal levels when stressed.
“But what if [these] disorders characterized by dysregulation is not some mysterious new plague, but environmentally related? If we ask ourselves, “What has been the biggest change in our children’s environment compared to only one generation ago?” the answer is not gluten, pesticides, plastics, or food dye (all offenders of mental health, but they do not constitute the biggest chance in one generation) but the advent of the Internet, cell phones, and wireless communication. The constant bombardment from electronic screen devices [may be causing] the young brain to short-circuit.” [italicized by LG]
“Screen-time affects our brains and bodies at multiple levels, manifesting in various mental health symptoms related to mood, anxiety, cognition and behavior. Electronic Screen Syndrome (ESS) is essentially a disorder of dysregulation. Because it’s so stimulating, interactive screen-time shifts the nervous system into fight-or-flight mode, which leads to dysregulation and disorganization of various biological systems. Sometime this stress response is immediate and obvious, such as while playing a video game. At other times the stress response is more subtle, taking place gradually from repetitive screen interaction, such as frequent texting or social media use. Or it may be delayed, brewing under the surface but managed will enough, then erupting once years of screen-time have accumulated.
“Regardless, over time, repeated fight-or-flight and over-stimulation of the nervous system from electronics will often eventually culminate in a dysregulated child. Importantly, ESS can occur in the absence of a psychiatric disorder and yet mimic one, or it can occur in the face of an underlying disorder and exacerbate it. One way to think about the syndrome is to view electronics as a stimulant (in essence, not unlike caffeine, amphetamines, or cocaine): electronic screen device use puts the body into a state of high arousal and hyperfocus, followed by a “crash.” This overstimulation of the nervous system is capable of causing a variety of chemical, hormonal, and sleep disturbances in the same way other stimulants can. And just as drug use can affect a user long after all traces of the drug are out of the body, electronic media use can affect the central nervous system long after the offending device is actually used.”
In the Reflections below, I offer the highlights and results of Dr. Dunckley’s research-based solution, a strict 4-week electronic fast that Dr. Dunckley calls the Reset program, with additional quotes, stories, exercises, and resources that follow.
I will say, I’ve reviewed many wonderful books for these monthly e-newsletters, 36 to date. Reset Your Child’s Brain is one of the few I feel I haven’t done justice to. Dr. Dunckley is impeccable in reporting emerging research findings, empathically attentive to parents’ doubts, hesitancies, resistances to the electronic screen fast, thorough in the details of planning and implementing the Reset Program, clear about troubleshooting the common derailers of the fast, and passionate about the significant impact on the developing brain of reducing/temporarily eliminated screen time.
Using the sometimes necessary clinical vocabulary skillfully, the book is extremely well written and very accessible. The book offers many moving case studies of real children making real progress. The concerns raised are relevant for the optimal functioning of adult brains, too. May any wisdom I’ve conveyed here spur you to dive into the book – and your own version of a brain reset – itself.
PART ONE – IS YOUR CHILD’S BRAIN AT RISK?
The Inconvenient Truth about Electronic Screen Media
Dr. Dunckley assesses behavior, mood, and cognitive symptoms that indicate a child may be having trouble remaining focused, emotionally regulated, and relationally engaged in this electronically saturated world. [See Exercises to Practice below for a sample checklist.] Something is irritating the child’s nervous system, making it difficult to handle everyday life.
She then assesses how much time the child spends on computers, televisions, video games, smartphones, iPads, tablets, laptops, digital cameras, e-readers, and so on. This assessment includes any screen-related activity, whether for work, school, or pleasure. This includes time spent texting, video chatting, surfing the Internet, gaming, emailing, engaging in social media, using apps, shopping online, writing and word processing, reading from a device, and even scrolling through pictures on a phone. “Research further suggests it’s too much time spent on interactive (rather than passive) devices that causes the most harm, not the content – educational, adventure, entertainment, etc.” When too much time, regardless of other diagnostic hypotheses, Dr. Dunckley works with the family to implement the Reset Program.
Chapter One, Electronic Screen Syndrome: An Unrecognized Disorder
Dr. Dunckley acknowledges, “Let’s face it. Hearing that video games, texting and the iPad might need to be banned from your child’s life does not fill one with glorious joy. Some folks feel as though their parenting skills are being judged, or that their efforts or level of exhaustion are under-appreciated. Other parents feel guilty or irresponsible for not setting healthier screen-time limits to begin with, or they become actually aware that their own screen-time use is out of balance.” She carefully walks parents through their sincere resistances. [See Exercises to Practice below for the most common resistances.]
Chapter Two: All Revved Up and Nowhere to Go: How Electronic Screen Media Affects Your Child’s Brain and Body
Here, Dr. Dunckley makes the full case of the impact of over-use of electronic screens on the young child’s developing eyes, brain, and body acknowledging that research linking causes and correlations is still very young. [See Resources below for some of the latest research.] Essentially, children experience more hyperarousal and chronic stress, sleep disturbance, cognitive dysfunction, impaired social interactions, and mood dysregulation.
Chapter Three: Insidious Shape-Shifter
Dr. Dunckley gives a brilliant exploration of “How ESS Mimics a Wide Variety of Psychiatric, Neurological, and Behavioral Disorders” – irritability, anxiety, OCD, panic attacks, arrested social development, depression, decreased empathy, trauma and attachment disorders, addictions, bipolar disorder, ADHD, cognitive impairment, psychosis, oppositional defiant disorder, autism spectrum disorders, violence and delinquency.
Chapter Four – The Brain Liberated: How Freedom from Electronic Screens Can Change the Brain in Days, Weeks, Months – and for Years to Come
The Reset Program fosters mental health by strengthening the integration of brain functioning, leading to what Dan Siegel, child psychiatrist at UCLA and developer of the field of interpersonal neurobiology, calls FACES – flexible, adaptive, curious, energetic and stable.
Constant stress is NOT helpful to the brain; the downtime to process experience and emotions is nurturing to the brain. Personal interactions with eye contact, talking and sharing of feelings, touch, being held or hugged, feeling understood and having basic needs met – is essential Varied appropriate stimulating is nature is helpful. Moving the body in both gentle and vigorous exercise is healthy for the entire nervous system.
[See Exercises to Practice below for measured benefits demonstrated in Dr. Dunckley’s research with 500 children, teens, and young adults.]
PART TWO – THE RESET SOLUTION
A Four Week Plan to Reset Your Child’s Brain
The Four-Week Reset Program is typically one week of planning and three weeks of an electronic fast. Dr. Dunckley’s instructions are very clear, comprehensive, with further guidance about dealing with resistance (or sabotage).
Chapter 5 – Week 1: Getting Ready – Set Your Child Up to Succeed
Ten steps in planning fosters ease and compliance with the program.
1. Define Problem Areas and Target Goals
Dr. Dunckley provides a checklist of difficulties in five areas:
Emotional: meltdowns, irritable mood, depressed mood, fearfulness, nightmares, separation anxiety, isolative, withdrawn, doesn’t enjoy activities, easily frustrated, compulsiveness, obsessiveness
Behavioral: oppositional, defiance, argues a lot, yells/screams, aggression, defensiveness, hyperactivity, can’t stay on task, messy room, refuses chores, impulsiveness, can’t “get ready”
School-related: forgets homework, easily distracted, disruptive in class, trouble learning, poor concentration, fights reading, struggles in math, procrastination, under-achievement
Social: poor sportsmanship, blames others, annoys peers, lacks empathy, can’t read others, inconsiderateness, poor eye contact, avoids face-to-face, no/few friends, immaturity
Physical: headaches, stomachaches, migraines, body aches, back/neck pain, low energy, out of shame, overweight, craves sweets, tics/stuttering, trouble sleeping, oversleeping.
The parent(s) then prioritize the top three problems to track and record results; “Which of these problems would bring the most peace if they were resolved?” When progress is measured for the top three goals, very often other problems resolve themselves, too.
“Once you’ve identified what you will track, start measuring, counting or rating the problems the week before the fast begins, in order to create a baseline for evaluating gains. Tracking only one or two areas works just fine. Track something to help you remember why you’re doing the Reset in the first place. Goals help keep your eyes on the prize, so to speak.”
“Once you’ve chosen three (or even two) problematic areas to focus on, assign related goals for each. For example, if the three biggest problems are meltdowns, forgets to turn in homework, and trouble falling asleep, your goals might be few meltdowns, turns homework in more often, and falls asleep earlier. If possible, quantify the problem and make the goal to reduce the intensity or frequency. Completely eliminate the problem is usually unrealistic in the short-term, and it can be self-defeating to target specific reduction amounts if the choses amount or level is not met.”
2. Get Your Spouse and Other Caregivers on Board
“As with any parenting issue, it’s important to approach the Reset – and screen management in general – as a “united front.” If your child senses that the adults in charge have differing views, or that one parent is clueless about what the restrictions are or will “give in,” you can be sure that he or she will take advantage of this – that’s one of the things children do best! Even worse, the dynamic can cause parents to fight, which makes it that much harder to keep the Reset on track.
“In order for the Reset to go as smoothly as possible, both parents should be able to appreciate how interactive screen-time contributes to mental health issues, and should understand not just what the fast entails but the rationale behind it. Parents who are more involved in the education and planning states are more likely to stay involved throughout the Reset and beyond. Writing down who will do what and holding each other accountable helps both parents feel commitments will be taken seriously.”
3. Set a Date and Create a Schedule
“For the electronic fast, it’s very important to plan ahead: pick the soonest start date you can, and then structure your child’s time to minimize or eliminate downtime that would typically be filled with screen activities. I suggest getting a monthly wall calendar, writing everything on it, and posting it where everyone can see it. Some parents try to avoid doing the program during holiday vacations or summer because there’s more unstructured time, but from my perspective, these can be good times, since you don’t’ have to worry about schoolwork contribution to screen-time. That said, if you know of a trip or event coming up that you can’t control – such as a vacation with cousins or friends where you know there will be lots of gaming – wait to start the fast until after it’s blown over. Then, set a firm date and start preparing.
“By planning fun events and doing things together as a family, you send your child the message that the electronic fast in not meant to punish. Putting in the effort to plan interesting activities demonstrates that you’re an active partner in the Reset, too, and that you want to spend time with your child. Many children today feel ignored by busy and preoccupied parents and long to spend more time with them.
Plan to go on family bike rides, hikes, or picnics. Play catch, tag, Frisbee, or handball outside. Take your child and a friend or two to the park, to a swimming pool, or to play basketball. After dinner, take a walk together. Try out climbing gyms, explore nearby parks, or have a dance party at home. Check your town’s parks-and-recreation department for affordable classes or lessons like swimming, tennis, racquetball, sewing cooking, chess clubs, and so on.
“Each week plan special family times or outings that involve everyone. An easy one is to make an event of dinner: cook the meal together and then have a “dress up” dinner. Family times doesn’t need to be any more complicated that having “game night.” Other good ideas are doing a home-improvement project together, going fruit picking in season, visiting the zoo, and so on.
“Aside from family time, schedule some one-on-one time with your child. Kids thrive from having a parent’s undivided attention. Bonding helps children feel grounded while calming the nervous system and engaging the right side of the brain, and one-on-one interaction facilitates sustained eye contact and nurturing touch, which is crucial to optimal brain development. One-on-one time doesn’t have to always with a parent either; have the child spend the night alone with a grandparent or other relative. If visiting relatives is typically done with siblings, this provides the child with a special experience of individual attention.
“Whatever you do, make your child feel special. Make them your focus. Dragging your child along while you grocery shop or run errands doesn’t count. A once-a-week parent-child “date night” is a highly effective and underutilized way to achieve focused bonding time, and it lets your child know they’re important to you. Also, commit to ignoring or turning off you phone during these times. (Even better, leave it elsewhere so you won’t be tempted to sneak a peek.) Doing so strengthens the message you’re sending and ensures you’re listening. Think of these dates as precious time you’ll never get back; ones you child will likely remember into adulthood.”
Step 4: Inform Relevant Adults in Your Child’s Life
“The more people who know about the electronic fast and support you, the more likely the plan will succeed, and the less likely that opportunities to cheat with present themselves. Talk to any relevant adults who interacts with your child, such as teachers, coaches, grandparents, and so on. Coaches can be particularly helpful, as most of them hate the idea of kids being inside playing video games!”
Step 5: Obtain Toys, Games, and Activities to Replace Screen-Time
“Don’t’ be afraid of unscheduled, unplanned time, but prepare for it by collecting a range of non-screen items your child can play with. Boredom is an essential instigator of natural, creative play. Remember, creative activities, movement, and exercise will stimulate and engage the underused right side of the brain, as well as support whole-brain integration.
“So, during the week before the fast, go through your closets, borrow from friends, and buy whatever toys, games, puzzles, drawing pads, magazines, and activities you think your child might find interesting. Your child will become interested in these things again once the electronics are gone. Legos, books, models, jewelry-making, art, comic books, and so on are all helpful to have around. Checkers, chess, backgammon, card games, dominoes are terrific. Anything kids can build or make with their hands is good. Also anything that provides kinesthetic input, like working with lay, playing marbles, juggling, arranging sand trays, and anything that promotes physical movement, such as a swing or trampoline.”
6. Schedule Breaks or Treats for Yourself
“One of the reasons – perhaps the biggest reason – parents don’t like to give up screens is because screens act as an electronic babysitter. I get it: when kids are occupied and quiet, Mom and Dad can get things done and have a little peace. Many parents protect that screen-time is “the only time when all the kids are quiet.” Thus, removing screens may mean more work for you, at least initially. So, just like you’re replacing your child’s video game with healthier games, you need to replace the breaks you’ve been getting through screen-time with other types of breaks. Self-care is very important and is essential for avoiding burnout. Try to schedule in “me” time at least once a week. Do something that you used to enjoy before the kids came along. Date night with a spouse or an adult evening with friends certainly qualifies, but schedule some “alone time” as well, whether that’s attending a yoga class or working out at the gym, going to a café and reading a book, or indulging in a scented bath.”
7. If Possible, Enlist a Playmate’s Parent to Join You
Enlisting the parents of one of your child’s friends to do the Reset with you can be exceedingly helpful. It’s not necessary, but it can be a great strategy when your child has one or two close friends he or she plays with on a regular basis. When families to do the Reset together, they can share the burden of scheduling activities and can support one another with self-care. Each family can take turns with activity days – allowing the other to have a break. Organizing screen-free play dates is a win-win for everyone.”
8. Inform Your Child and Involve the Entire Family
“However you present the fast to your child and the rest of the family, you should be crystal clear with all the practical details. Depending on how upset your child is upon hearing the news, you may not want to discuss everything in the first conversation, but eventually your child will want and need to know the exact parameters. Tell your child the start and finish date, tell them exactly which devices they cannot use, and explain whether (and if so, how much) TV or movie time will be allowed. Show them the calendar of fun activities you have created and the toys and games you have gathered that will replace screen-time. Let them know who has been told of the electronic fast, including other caregivers, relatives, parents of friends, and so on.
“Finally, once you inform your child of the plan, they are likely to feel anxious at the loss of screen stimulation. Having already arranged replacement activities will help ease some of that anxiety and then you can also invite your child to come up with his or her own ideas.
“An electronic fast involves everyone who lives in the house. To what degree you as a parent want to fast is, obviously, up to you, but there are several important reasons to try to limit screen-time as much as you can: by removing devices and eliminating unnecessary screen-time at home, parents will model good habits, demonstrate respect for the child’s needs, and remove temptation. In fact, parents benefit mentally and physically from reduced screen-time in the same way children do.
“The critical rules are to keep all electronics out of the bedroom and to be screen-free during meals and any family or one-on-one activities. It’s helpful – not to mention more efficient – to corral all your computer “errands” like answering emails and paying bills into one or two designated time periods during the day (rather than scattered throughout) and to designate a single place (such as a family workstation or home office ) to do them.
“If you don’t want to give up screen-time entirely at home, consider making this a point of negotiation in which children can name some terms; perhaps that parents must match their screen-time with playtime with the kids or with time spent exercising, or that Mom and Dan have to be off their devices during certain hours. This conversation helps shift the Reset from a behavioral issue to a family issue. Parents need to follow through on the things they promise to do, especially spending more time as a family and playing one-on-one with a child. Often, when a family is in my office discussing activities, the child will say to the parent, “You say that you’ll play with me, but then you never do.” That’s why I like posting all the planned activities and outings on a calendar – it’s a visual concrete reminder.”
9. Perform a Thorough “Screen Sweep”
“The day before the fast begins, start your screen sweep by removing any and all screen devices. I suggest making another round on the first day of the fast because inevitably you’ll find devices you missed. Devices need to be removed – not just hidden. I recommend taking devices to work and stashing them in a drawer. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard stories of kids finding video games that Mom “hid” in a closet, or who reconnected games and computer that the parents swore they’d disabled, or who figured out or got around passwords blocking Internet use. If a child wants to play a video game or use the Internet badly enough, he or she will sniff out a device and set it up, I promise you.
“From your child’s room, remove all electronics, including games, computers (including desktops), mobile phones, e-readers (even Kindle and Nook), laptops, tablets, digital cameras, and iPads. Also remove any television sets and DVD players, since any allowed TV or movie watching shouldn’t be done in the bedroom. Check under the bed, in the closets and drawers, behind curtains, and so on. Then inspect every room in the house, top to bottom. Search through piles of “forgotten” toys in a playroom or basement, scour the garage, and remove any gadgets from your car. Disable all social media accounts your child has: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and so on. Then, even if a child sneaks a device, these accounts won’t be accessible, which lessens the temptation to cheat.
“Finally, do not make the mistake of believing that merely telling your child not to use certain devices will be enough to do the trick. Whether because they don’t want to go through the hassle of unplugging, disabling, and hiding devices, or because they truly trust their children (or want to), parents sometimes think that simply telling or asking the child not to play on a device will be enough But remember that a child’s frontal lobe is not fully developed, and thus even a trustworthy child who promises not to play anymore (and really, really, really means it) can’t be expected to check urges or control impulses when temptations arise. Trust me on this one. This mistake is also likely to occur when parents don’t’ take away cell phones during the fast and want to trust that the child won’t use them during homework or after lights out, or when they want to allow a child to use a computer in the bedroom for homework. Don’t feel guilty that you’re not allowing the child a chance to be “responsible.” That’s putting the cart before the horse.
“If your child must use a computer for homework, have your child use a stationary one, preferable a desktop, in a common area where you can see what he or she is doing. Ideally, the whole family will share one computer, which both forces everyone to schedule computer time wisely and reduces the number of computers in the house. If this isn’t feasible, reduce the number of computers to the bare minimum and make then stationary. This may seem hugely inconvenient, but see if you can do it at least for the fast – it’ll save you headaches in other ways.
“I cannot stress enough how risky it is to leave a smartphone in the mix. Even if you delete all preloaded and downloaded games and disable the Internet access, there are often apps and files that are impossible to remove that the child can interact with, and not removing this screen defeats the purpose of the fast. (Really, using a smartphone is the epitome of interactive screen-time. You don’t want to go through all the work of a Reset and have it undone by one device.
10. Set Your Intention
[This step includes valuable adjunctive advice about policies around TV and school-based computers.]
Chapter 6 – Weeks 2-4: the Electronic Fast
“While resetting or rebooting a computer may take a matter of minutes, the brain is immensely more complicated and thus needs more time to rest and turn things around. These three weeks allow your childs brain the chance to rejuvenate by obtaining the deep rest it needs to reset out-of-balance systems and redirect energy, blood flow, and nutrients to the brain’s frontal lobe. The Reset is the first leg in a bigger journey: improving your child’s quality of life by helping you child develop a more rested, balanced, integrated and organized brain.
“When informing your child of your decision to do the Reset, in your manner as much as your words, communicate that the intention of the fast is to help everyone; it’s not a punishment. Be sympathetic and understanding with whatever your child’s emotional reaction is, but at the same time, be firm and clear that the fast is not up for negotiation. In other words, you want to balance two messages: that you love your child and empathize with what he or she is feeling, but that you’re not going to give in or backpedal on the terms. Nearly all children will have a negative emotional or behavioral reaction when they hear their beloved devices will be gone, but know that if other parents have survived it, you can, too.
“The first things I advise parents to say when kids ask “Why?” is that it’s “an experiment,” which is the truth. You’re trying this out for a short time to see if everyone feels better when they have less screen-time. Remind your child that it won’t be forever, and console yourself with the knowledge that your child is reacting to whatever he or she imagines is going to happen, which is far worse than what the reality will be. This answer also sidesteps many traps of argument because it doesn’t provide much to argue against.
“If you feel obligated to offer an explanation in terms of brain health or functioning, keep it simple. You might say something like “Doctors are finding that video games and screen-time can sometimes be bad for our brains, particularly children’s brains, which are still growing. So we’re going to give up electronics for three weeks to see if we feel better.”
“Young children will typically have a bit of a panicky reaction upon hearing the news that all screen devices will be taken away. The child typically starts to cry, attempts to negotiate, or tells the parents why they think the plan isn’t a good idea. Sometimes the child may seem okay with it at first, but as the conversation continues and the news hits them, the tears begin to flow. Expect this, and expect a fair amount of arguing. Children may also become angry or agitated. Whatever the reaction, empathize with how the child feels, acknowledge that you know it feels like it’ll be hard, but that you’re going to help them through it. Remember, from their perspective, something significant and substantial is being taken from their lives, and children have no idea how they’ll fill the void, so it’s appropriate to comfort them around this.
“Adolescents may cry, too – but they’re also more likely to get mad. Not uncommonly, teens will make threats – sometimes out of desperation to get you to change your mind, and sometimes out of an intense fear of feeling lost or unanchored. With teens, another huge concern is social media and texting, both in terms of communication and the so-called “fear of missing out.” You could respond with something like: “I know it feels like you’re going to be cut off from everyone, but you’ll still see your friends in person and you can talk to them on the landline.”
Week 1: Unplug in Order to Rest
“Removing the bright screen helps initiate a resynchronization of the circadian rhythms, allowing melatonin, the sleep hormone, to be secreted earlier in the evening and in larger amounts. Melatonin is also a powerful antioxidant in the nervous system – one of the most potent actually – helping mitigate chronic stress-related damage cause by inflammation. Melatonin is also the precursor to the brain chemical serotonin, which keeps us calm and happy.
“Thus brain chemistry and hormones enjoy an immediate shift toward normalization once melatonin is no longer suppressed. Likewise, dopamine is no longer forced into a “surge and deplete” pattern, which serves to improve mood and attention span. Upon the removal of unnatural and intense sensory and psychological stimulation, the nervous system will seek out more balanced stimulation through physical interactions with the environment. The brain has taken shelter from the storm, and instead of being in a protective state of reacting and defending, it shifts to a proactive mode and begins to self-organize.
“This leads to:
– A return to healthier, more imaginative, and more physical forms of play as creative energy returns
– Improved mood and less-extreme or less-frequent meltdowns as dopamine and serotonin regulation begin to normalize
– Improved compliance and less oppositional-defiant behavior as the brain moves away from protective-defensive mode
“It’s important to track changes in the target areas of difficulty, and to fill in any gaps in alternative and family activities that provide nourishment in place of the screens.”
Week 2: Allow Your Child’s Brain Deep Rest for Rejuvenation
“By the second week, your child’s brain chemistry and biorhythms are a lot closer to normalizing, thanks to deeper sleep and reduced exposure to unnatural stimulation. Brain waves become more coherent and less erratic, and stress hormones diminish. Fight-or-flight symptoms or reactions may still be present, but these should start to ebb.
“In week 2 you can expect:
– Deeper and more restful sleep
– Earlier bedtime or less resistance to bedtime and more energy upon awakening
– Continued improvement in mood swings and meltdowns
– Better organized behavior (child gets ready for school more easily, keeps better track of belongings or schedule)
– Improved impulse control, “cause-and-effect” thinking, and attention due to improved frontal lobe function
– Less arguing and negotiating about returning screen devices
– Increased spontaneous play and use of imagination
“Continue to track changes in target areas, review and revise the schedule of alternate and family activities as needed, check in with everyone in the family, is everyone getting enough support?”
Week 3: Reset the Nervous System, Heal and Reclaim the Brain
“By now, biorhythms, and brain chemistry may be close to normalizing, and as healing continues, stress and sleep hormones rebalance and promote calmness rather than hyperarousal. From the cell to the entire brain, oxidative stress and inflammation lessen, due to reduced stress load, and hormones will start to rebalance. As your child moves out of a state of chronic stress, the brain’s energy is freed up to do other things – like learning new concepts ad processing emotions.
“In week 3, your child may experience or display:
– Dampened stress response and improved coping due to ongoing deep rest
– Reduced signs of anxiety, like nail biting, nightmares, headaches, or stomachaches
– Heightened curiosity and improved retention of new information
– Better manners and more respectful attitude
“A “virtuous circle” of improvement begins, in which better rest begets better mood and attention, which begets improved self-image, which begets better sleep, and so on.
“Continue to track changes in areas of difficulty; notice changes in other areas as well; notice all positive changes in mood, behaviors, and cognitive functioning. Journal your impressions of the entire fast as preparation for plans for “after.”
“As for yourself, the fast will likely feel much easier to manage at this point. Your own stress levels will likely be significantly lower in general. Particularly if you’ve reduced your own screen-time, you may feel an enhance sense of being “in the moment” with your child.”
In the remaining chapters of Reset Your Child’s Brain, Dr. Dunckley troubleshoots some of the most common saboteurs of the fast – failure to track improvements in behaviors, overlooking “hidden” devices, ending the fast too soon (some children may require more than 3 weeks to reset their brains), doubting the efficacy of the fast, softening the rules, providing/receiving too little support, not giving one’s self permission to buck the culture and do the fast. She offers “house rules” for continuing or modifying the fast after the fast is over. She pays special attention to the encroachment of screen-time and the disappearance of developmental support in our modern education system.
And answers the question “Does screen-time affect adults as well?” with a resounding yes! “As an adult, you need to be able to do two things regarding screens: tolerate and moderate. We all have a screen-time “dose” we can tolerate without experiencing any negative side effects, though determining when this threshold has been crossed in adults may be more difficult than it is in children. Many adults don’t notice immediate effects, making it harder to appreciate a link between screen habits and health or functioning. Some red flags that electronics may be impacting you may include an inability to relax or feel rested in spite of getting enough sleep, an inability to follow through on commitments, and feeling as though you can’t get anything done.”
May rebalancing screen-time with relational, recreational, creative time bring you more well-being and joy.
POETRY AND QUOTES TO INSPIRE
[all quotations from Dr. Victoria Dunckley unless otherwise noted]
The very subject of screen-time touches a collective nerve. It triggers anxiety about parenting practices, guilt over allowing screen-time to cause negative effects in our children, and defensiveness regarding one’s own screen-time habits. Parents feel helpless and angry when schools make sweeping changes that leave them without a choice, and they feel alarm when they hear their children’s data is being mined and sold. Some resent that the medical community hasn’t’ been forceful enough regarding screen-time warnings, while others resent being told how to live how to parent.
At the same time, innovation in general is often tied to screen-based technology, and we’re told so often that technology holds such promise that questioning its role in any arena feels almost unpatriotic. All these conflicting feelings – felt at both the individual and societal levels – produce burning questions for parents: Is screen-time truly dangerous or are fears overblown? Does it affect all children or just a few? Does it help learning or hinder it? What options do I have if it’s affecting my child? Meanwhile, screens are everywhere. We use and rely on them more every day, and the idea of limiting screen-time – much less following a strict fast – can seem like folly.
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The system of nature, of which man is a part, tends to be self-balancing, self-adjusting, self-cleansing. Not so with technology.
– E.F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful
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Interactive screen time refers to screen activities in which the user regularly interfaces with a device, be it a touch screen, keyboard, console, motion sensor, and so on. Passive screen-time refers to watching movies or television programs on a TV set from across the room. What is counter-intuitive is that interactive screen-time is much worse than passive. Many families I work with already limit passive screen time (such as television) but not interactive. This is because we associate passive viewing with inactivity, apathy, and laziness. In fact, parents are often encouraged to provide interactive screen-time (particularly in favor of passive screen-time) with the rational that surely this type of activity engages the child’s brain. Children are forced to think and puzzle rather than just watch, so it must be better, right?
But interaction is in and of itself one of the major factors that contributes to hyperarousal, so sooner or later, any potential benefit of interactivity is overridden by stress-related reactions. Furthermore, interactivity is what keeps the user engaged by providing a sense of control, choices, and immediate gratification, but unfortunately these attributes are the same ones that activate reward circuits and lead to prolonged, compulsive, and even addictive use.
Allowing even small amounts of gaming or computer play often renders the Reset useless. Thus for the Reset Program, we are primarily concerned with eliminating interactive screen-time.
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So why is it that reading a book before bed is soothing, while viewing an e-reader can be just the opposite? In either case, we are reading the same content, whether that be an adventure story or an historical account. It’s that the medium itself affects the amount of energy needed to process and synthesize information, a factor researchers call cognitive load. Parents often ask if e-readers like the Kindle or Nook “count” as interactive devices. After all, these particular devices do not emit light, they use electronic “ink,” and they are supposed to read like a regular paper book. Only they don’t.
Studies show that reading is slower and that recall and comprehension is impaired when using an e-reader [italicized by LG], suggesting that the brain doesn’t process the information as easily. Conversely, research suggests that the sensory feedback of a real book helps us incorporate information: the weight, texture, and pressure felt from holding a book; the cracking of its spine and flipping of its pages; the buildup of turned pages that provides a sense of how far along you are in the story – all reduce the cognitive lead needed to absorb the information. Finally, while e-ink displays are less visually fatiguing than LCD screens, they are still hard to visually and cognitively process because they are pixelated, display a “flash” when refreshing between pages, and don’t provide 3-D input.
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Liberation from screens seems to provide not only a myriad of mental health benefits but also developments benefits that are realized over time. When screen-time is removed, brain chemistry re-balances and circadian rhythms resynchronize. Over-stimulated networks are quieted, stress hormones ebb, and blood flow is redirected back to the frontal lobe. These changes begin with the removal of dysregulating influences, and they are reinforced by better sleep. At the same time, in a beautiful synergy, these effects are multiplied by what takes place instead. When screen-time is eliminated, it most often gets replaced with the very activities and interactions children need for healthy development: families bond, and children engage and play in the natural world around them.
Many of the factors [that lead to brain integration and mental health] are related to right-brain functions. Fittingly, the right brain is the more holistic side of the brain, and right-brain stimulation heals us both psychologically and biologically. Bonding, movement, creativity, emotion and abstract thought all stimulate the right brain, and they also help integrate the entire brain, including the frontal lobe, as well as help connect the brain to the body. The left brain, on the other hand, is much more literal. It likes information. When you read a story, your right brain takes it all in and makes sense of it. When you read about dopamine or melatonin, your left brain remembers the details. In general, because screen-time if information packed, it tends to overstimulate the left brain and under-stimulate the right, which makes the entire system more fragmented and less connected. Thus, when the nervous system begins to dysregulate, we need to emphasize right-brain activity [relating to people, playing and moving the body, spending time in nature] to get back on track.
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Not uncommonly, considering and discussing screen-time effects and the fast of the Reset program raises buried issues and emotions. Suggesting that a fast is necessary may produce anxiety or deep-seated guilt about past or ongoing screen-time allowances, so a parent may minimize, rationalize, or deny the problem rather than face these uncomfortable feelings. Parents may also silently recognize that their own computer or social media use isn’t health and feel anxiety about having to pare down usage. Intimacy issues or conflicts that have been avoided may also come to the surface, so family members may resist because they realize they won’t be able to hide behind screens anymore and will be forced to spend more time interacting with one another.
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When discussing the possibility of eliminating screen-time, or even just video games, parents often protest that “all my child’s friends do it. It’s their culture.” Parents fear that if their child stops playing or participating, they will be left out, won’t have anything to talk about or do with friends, or worse, will be ostracized and left with no friends at all. However, I’ve worked with a wide range of children – some who were former gamers and some who never played much at all – and I’ve never seen a child’s social life suffer from restricting screen-time. [italicized by LG] If anything, the opposite happens.
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When parents contemplate extending screen-time restrictions to the classroom for their child, some worry: “What if my child gets left behind as other children learn and know more about computers?” I understand where this fear is coming from, since no parent wants to potentially handicap their child’s future. But the concern is unfounded, since it is frontal lobe functioning that determines academic and social success. Supporting brain integration by being screen free means you’ll be optimizing you child’s learning ability, no matter what the subject matter. In contrast, a child who has great computer skills but poor frontal lobe functioning will have trouble advancing in anything, since good frontal lobe function is needed to “get things done,” tolerate frustration, and develop a strong social network.
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Accompanying the steady increase of technology in the classroom has been the steady decline of gym class, art and music lessons, recess, free play outdoors, and occupational therapy services. Because of tighter budget and pressure to “teach to the test,” schools have cut back on these areas. They have also cut back after-school sports and coaches’ salaries, making it difficult for children to have regular and free access to organized sports. Further, there is altogether too much sitting, too much “busy work,” and too much homework. All these factors contribute to declines in movement, creative expression, healthy socializing, and time spend outdoors – the very things known to support mind, body, and brain development. These are the “right brain” activities that help integrate the entire brain, including the frontal lobe, by providing all the proper ingredients: utilization of all five sense, human interaction that fosters a sense of competence and of feeling cared for, exposure to nature and sunlight, and actively experiencing a three-dimensional physical environment. By emphasizing and putting resources into more technology, schools undermine the cheapest and most effective ways to foster development in our children.
STORIES TO INSPIRE
[from Reset Your Child’s Brain]
Billy’s story nicely demonstrates the powerful changes in maturity and development that are possible in a matter of months.
When I first met Billy, he was ten years old and getting straight A’s in school. The son of two Ivy-League-educated engineers, Billy was quite bright, but his parents were concerned because he seemed socially immature. He was a poor sport, and he frequently lied and cheated when playing board games, playground activities, and team sports. If he lost at anything, he’d have a major meltdown and blame everyone but himself. He hung out with a circle of friends he’d known since kindergarten, but as the children had grown older, their patience with Billy had worn thin. Billy essentially had to “rotate” whom he spent time with, and his parents were worried that if this continued, he’d eventually be ostracized. Billy had no insight into his behavior, and he couldn’t see how his actions might be off-putting to others.
On the surface, Billy didn’t appear to be suffering from concentration problems, since he was a straight-A student. He also had no mental health history, and nothing concerning enough to warrant any other kind of professional evaluation in the past. When his parents told me what they’d been observing, I naturally asked about video game play. I’ve found that with particularly bright children, they can develop ESS and still maintain their grades.
Billy’s parents said he played a handheld Nintendo DS every day on the school bus, and after school he often played computer games as well – including MMORPGs, or multimember online role-playing games, which are known to be particularly addictive. In addition, Billy’s parents reported they’d caught him “sneaking” play during restricted times. To Billy’s parent, none of these screen-time behaviors seemed unusual or out of the ordinary compared to his peers, but to me, Billy’s reactive mood swings told me his nervous system was overstimulated and hyperaroused, and the “sneaking” suggested that cravings and dopamine dysregulation were at work. I also wondered if Billy’s immaturity was because his frontal lobe development was being suppressed. After discussing these concerns, Billy’s parents agreed to try the Reset Program.
When informed of the plan, Billy apparently cried, but his mother reported that he also appeared relieved. I spoke to his parents again approximately one month later.
“We were shocked,” his mother told me. “His mood seemed better almost immediately, within a few days it seemed. He just seems happier overall. He still is having trouble losing at games on the playground, but in general he’s not having complete meltdowns over minor things like he was doing before.”
After continuing the program for the next couple of months, Billy’s parents decided to let Billy play a computer game of thirty minutes on the weekends. Immediately after his first time playing, Billy picked a fight with his mother out of nowhere and sobbed uncontrollably, yelling at her that he hated her. Two days later, Billy seemed to have re-regulated and his mood stabilized. He didn’t play computer games again for another month, when again his parents allowed him thirty minutes. This time, not only did he pick a fight with his mother, but he lashed out at his father. Billy then ran down the street over to a friend’s house and got into a physical altercation – totally new territory for him.
Because of these two incidents, Billy’s parents decided to maintain their strict no-gaming policy for awhile, since he seemed so sensitive to the electronic-screen trigger.
Six months later, they reported that Billy had decided to run for class president, for which he had to give a speech – something that previously would have terrified him. Billy had never shown leadership skills before; this was an unexpected development. Additionally, he spontaneously and successfully organized an elaborate neighborhood game of hide-and-seek. His friends were no longer avoiding him, and his sportsmanship had improved markedly. Billy’s parents reported feeling “blown away” by the changes in Billy. “He’s matured in leaps and bounds,” his mother told me.
Billy’s new behaviors – leadership, organization, planning, communication, and initiative – are all aspects of healthy frontal lobe development, an area Billy had clearly shown a lag in before. Were these changes mainly due to the electronic fast? We can’t say for sure, but the sequence of events makes it look that way. It is certainly not unusual for parents to notice “spurts” in maturity, but Billy went from being socially and emotionally immature to doing things that are mature for any child his age. This was more like a quantum leap – and certainly a larger than expected jump for normal development. It was as though his frontal lobe went from being suppressed to being nourished. Billy’s natural intelligence and formerly suppressed strengths and leadership skills had been liberated.
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Diagnosed with autism, six-year-old Michael was receiving in-home behavioral services. When he suddenly developed severe obsessive-compulsive symptoms, his treatment team called me for a consult. Upon learning he was earning video game time daily as a reward, I convinced the family and treatment team to try the Reset Program before initiating any medication. Four weeks later his obsessive-compulsive symptoms had diminished substantially, and as an added bonus he made better eye contact and displayed a brighter mood.
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Calla was a high school junior who struggled with severe mood swings and insomnia. Calla’s treatment providers suspected she was bipolar, and her defiant attitude and dramatic displays of emotion had recently landed her in a class reserved for kids with emotional problems, which only made things worse. Frustrated after a particular medication trial caused a rapid weight gain, Calla and her mother wound up in my office. After much discussion, they agreed to try the electronic fast as part of an overall treatment plan. Six weeks later, the sweet girl underneath all that turmoil resurface. Within six months, Calla was sleeping soundly, following the rules at home and school, and had lost ten pounds. By the end of the school year, she was back in mainstream classes.
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Eight-year-old Sam with a typical kid with no formal diagnosis who had always enjoyed learning. But in third grade, Sam’s math and reading achievement scores dropped inexplicably, and he began to dread going to school. He was nearly constantly in trouble for being disruptive, and both his teacher and the school psychology suggested to his mother that Sam might have ADHD. Yet within two months of completing the Reset Program, Sam was turning in more assignments, getting glowing reports from his teachers about his “attitude change,” and making steady progress in math and reading.
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Based on utilizing a strict electronic fast in over five hundred children, teens, and young adults, and observing the changes during and following the fast, I have found that in children with diagnosed psychiatric disorders, about 80 percent will show marked improvement (symptom reduction of at least 50 percent) across all psychiatric symptom and diagnostic categories. In children without an underlying disorder, the percentage may be even higher, and of those who respond positively, about half will show a complete resolution of symptoms (that is, cessation of tantrums, chronic irritability, poor focus, and so on), and the other half will show marked improvement. You can expect to see a happier child with better focus and organization, improved compliance, and more mature social interactions. Beyond relief from the worst aspects of ESS, [there can be] optimization of brain, mind, and social development.
EXERCISES TO PRACTICE
Parents can begin with this sample checklist of behavior, mood, and cognitive symptoms that might indicate ESS:
– Does your child seem revved up a lot of the time?
– Does your child have meltdowns over minor frustrations?
– Does your child have full-blown rages?
– Does your child become irritable when told it’s time to stop playing video games or to get off the computer?
– Does your child have a hard time making eye contact after screen-time or in general?
– Do you ever feel your child is not as happy as he or she should be, or that your child is not enjoying activities like she or she used to?
– Does your child have trouble making or keeping friends because of immature behavior?
– Do you worry your child’s interests have narrowed recently, or that these interests mostly revolve around screens? Do you feel his or her thirst for knowledge and natural curiosity has been dampened?
– Are your child’s grades falling, or is he or she not performing academically up to his or her potential – no one is certain why?
– Does your child seem “wired and tired,” like they’re exhausted but can’t sleep, or they sleep but don’t feel rested?
– Does your child seem lazy or unmotivated and have poor attention to detail?
– Would you describe your child as being stressed, despite few or no stressors you can clearly point to?
It’s also useful to anticipate how parents can resist the radical treatment of a strict digital detox
– Parents feel overwhelmed by the sheer pervasiveness of screens and are convinced that removing them all will be “way too hard.”
– Parents fear the child’s reaction and worry that a fast will be met with rage, despair, and tantrums.
– Parents feel guilty about taking away a pleasurable activity, and/or they are concerned the child will no longer fit in with peers.
– Parents worry about, and even resent, losing their “electronic babysitter” and they wonder how they will get household tasks done without it
– Parents worry about what others in their family or community will think. Will others undermine their efforts to limit screens, or view them as extremist or alarmist – and therefore not take their concerns seriously?
– Parents are annoyed by the inconvenience of removing or restricting laptops, iPads, and mobile devices they themselves use.
What to expect during and after the fast:
– The child’s initial negative reaction to the plan – tearfulness, anger, arguing, and so on – subsides.
– The child’s mood, attitude, and compliance begin to improve.
– The child begins to sleep better, and may go to bed earlier.
– Play begins to become more creative and more physical.
– The child’s initial preoccupation with restoring screen-time diminishes.
– Meltdowns become less frequent or less severe, or both.
– The child’s mood becomes brighter and more stable.
– The child’s attention improves, sometimes dramatically, and the child stays on task more easily.
– Grades noticeably improve.
– Sleep depeens and becomes more restorative, promoting the healing process and allowing the brain to reset biochemically.
– The child’s body clock (circadian rhythm) resynchronizes to daylight hours, which helps normalization of the sleep-wake cycle, stress hormones, the immune system, and serotonin levels.
– The brain reclaims lost cellular energy due to decreased inflammation
– The blood flow in the brain shifts from primitive/survival areas to higher learning centers, including the frontal lobe.
– Increasingly more homework is completed, and in less time, and doing homework becomes less “tortuous” for both parent and child.
– In interactions, the child’s eye contact improves, conversations are longer, and the child “listens better.”
– The child exhibits better sportsmanship and better manners in general.
– Sensory processing often improves, such that the child becomes less sensitive to environmental stimuli and is less likely to become over-stimulated.
– Meltdowns diminish further and may resolve completely, and mood stabilizes further.
– Grades may markedly improve
– The child progresses more quickly when learning attention-sensitive subjects, such a math and reading.
– Learning new information solidifies or “sticks” better.
– Signs of social improvements become more apparent, such as enhance empathy, increased tolerance for sustained eye contact, and a stronger social network
– Self-reflection improves, particularly in teens and young adults.
– The child’s ability to accurately read others’ emotions and actions improves, and the child is less likely to inappropriately attribute hostile motives to others.
– The child becomes more self-aware; some (but not all) will attribute feeling or functioning better to being screen-free, or will realize gaming makes them “feel bad.”
– The child may prompt friends to engage in screen-free activities or may prefer friends who rarely use screens.
– Coordination may improve as motor-sensory-vestibular systems integrate.
Within the Family:
“I see marked changes in family dynamics when families follow the Reset Program and remain committed to very limited screen-time, and I observe similar traits in families who are conservative with screen-time to begin with. The following list describes traits or dynamics in these families:
– The parents become less worried about the child’s future, and they have more trust that the child will achieve milestones like going to college, getting a job, and living independently.
– The family members spend more quality time together, both one-on-one and as a unit, and tend to talk more.
– The children are less likely to complain that parents don’t’ spend time with them, or that a parent is “on the computer all the time” or “always on the phone.”
– Parents are less stressed and are less likely to “avoid” family time through overwork or other activities.
– The parents are less likely to undermine each other’s authority, and they are better at communicating with each other when parenting styles differ.
– Family members are less likely to mock one another or put one another down.
– The children are more likely to tell their parents if they’re worried about something of if something bad happened (and less likely to broadcast problems on social media.)
– The parents don’t walk on eggshells around their children, they aren’t afraid to discipline, and they aren’t afraid to say no.
– The parents become unconcerned with “keeping up with the Jones’s” regarding technology.
– The child expect to earn privileges rather than feel entitled to them.
“Though it may seem a stretch to attribute all the positive family dynamics listed above simply to good screen habits, research supports these observations. Studies regarding television and Internet use show that higher levels of screen time have negative effect on parent-child interactions, and that video games that emphasize role-playing can contribute to children developing pathological attachment styles, including dissociative tendencies that create emotional barriers. Other research has shown that families talk more than they don’t watch television during dinner, and that children in families who eat dinner together without screens on a regular basis have better grades, higher self-esteem, and a lower likelihood of getting into trouble. If we combine these findings with what I’ve already shared about how screen-time impacts emotional regulation, empathy, and impulse control, it’ not hard to see how a screen-liberated family will function in a much healthier manner.”
Victoria L. Dunckley, M.D. Reset Your Child’s Brain: End Meltdowns, Raise Grades, and Boost Social Skills by Reversing the Effects of Electronic Screen-Time. New World Library, 2015.
The 30 pages of endnotes for Reset Your Child’s Brain are a wealth of references to research articles relevant to the effects of too much screen-time; well worth perusing.