SCREENS Make You Want to SCREAM?

Posted: April 23, 2024

A few weeks back, I stayed overnight with my grandkids, ages 4-11.  Screen time is a favorite there, as in almost all families. 

First off, I admit it's nice when they're occupied, corralled in the house, so I can get things done and I know they're safe. 

Oops, I just caught myself saying, "they're safe."  Are kids "safe" when they're on screens?  How do we define "safe" in the age of screen time?  

Here's how the Oxford dictionary defines "safety":  The condition of being protected from or unlikely to cause danger, risk, or injury. The word that jumps out is "risk."  Are our kids actually at risk when they are on screens?  

Yes. They're at risk of laying their own creativity aside for the engagement in others' creativity. They're at risk of missing out on experiencing the calming, invigorating, curiosity-inducing effects and physical movement of being in nature. They're at risk of missing in-person interactions that are the cornerstone of becoming healthy partners, friends, and relatives. They're at risk of being bullied on social media or being the bullies themselves. 

OK, so what are they gaining from being online, because we need to acknowledge that there's an upside, for the sake of useful conversation with them. It's fun to compete with others on video games. The games teach strategizing and achieving higher goals. It's vital for tweens and teens to stay connected to their peers. "Everybody is online and I will be left out if I don't know what they know." (You can probably ask your kids to name more of the advantages.) 

And how do you handle it when undeveloped brains don't see any downsides, but your developed brain sees them clearly?

I encourage my clients to take a stance on behalf of their families against people sitting at computers making huge money from addicting children's brains to their games.
So, now we bring the kids into the conversation.  We explain this concept of addiction, to which young brains are much more vulnerable than older ones.

"Do you feel like when you're not playing a game you're just constantly wanting to get back to it? That could be your brain being what we call 'addicted.'"  It only wants the game and nothing else feels satisfying." Note: I've recently heard stories of teens wearing adult diapers so they don't have to stop playing to use the bathroom, and even kids losing weight because they don't take time to eat. Please, please don't let this your be this kid!

Then we bring them into what I hope becomes a "movement" against corporations making money by addicting children's brains. "We realize there are game and social media creators out there, making themselves and their companies BIG money by trying to control your mind and those of kids everywhere. They create algorithms (have you heard that word?) These make you feel like the next level of a game or the next social media conversation among your peers is the MOST important thing in this moment."  

"Your brain is way too important to let corporations create a screen compulsion that deprives you of being outside, relating to people in person, your natural creativity, achieving the grades you know you can earn, and acting as a needed and valued member of our family. " We are not going to let them do this to our family! We stand united on this!"

"What ideas might you have to stop the effects of this money-making addiction on our family? I'm talking about all the kids and the adults in our family, not just you." (Parents, if you catch yourselves being on screens more than absolutely necessary, look at the message this sends to your children and make a change today.)

The kids may say, "Maybe we should have a daily or weekly limit on screen time." To which you can reply, "Great idea! Let's keep talking until we can all agree on what it should be." 

Write down what the kids suggest and what you decide together about screen limits, and then thank them sincerely for all their ideas.

Then ask, "What should we do if our plans aren't working? How do you want to be reminded if we set limits on screen time and it's hard to let go and join us in the kitchen for dinner prep?"  If they don't know, you can suggest setting a timer on their device and then PRACTICE stopping when it goes off.  They may want you to wordlessly put a hand on their shoulder when it's time to stop. You can also ask, "Would it be helpful to you if we don't leave it to you to just stop and we have more controls on access to the Internet? That way it's not all up to you, but your powerful brain is still protected."  Listen to their response respectively, as the more you do this, the more cooperation you'll see.

The best way to decrease resistance is to bring your children's voices to the solution. 

Make a weekly plan for all the non-screen time with your kids' input.  Art, sports, biking, nature walks, meal-planning, cooking, volunteering, writing their own stories, screen-free visits from friends, and other suggestions they may bring to the table.  Write these down, as well, and have the kids make a beautiful version, posting it with your screen time limits on the fridge. 

Now you've come together as a family to protect and honor your children. This crisis of screen addiction has turned into a beautiful opportunity! 

For help with this or any other parenting issue, click here.

For ways to encourage independence and reduce anxiety in your children, from a great organization called "Let Grow," click here. 

To find the latest technology for parental controls, click here. 

To learn about non-Internet phones that look like everyone else's (not flip phones), click here. 



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I See You Letter

“I See You” Letter

Another tool for helping a child with a traumatized brain, or any child who is asking for attention by showing unwanted behavior, is an “I see you” letter. When something is put into writing, it weighs more. The child can read the message without having to hear the adult’s voice, which is more effective because adult voices have sometimes not proven trustworthy in the past. I encourage caregivers to write the letter in a notebook, so the child can write back, if she so chooses, and review the letter at any time. The re-reading can be very healing. When I’ve encouraged other adults to write this type of letter, they’ve told me that they’ve found it later, stashed in a drawer or other safe spot, but never thrown away, which speaks to its significance to the child.

               You can write a letter to a child of any age. If she is old enough to read, just leave it on her pillow. If not, write it out and read it slowly, then hand it to her.

               If the child is so hurt that listening to you read a letter is too much, try posting notes that say what you see in her all over her room. Use the components below to craft your letter or your notes.
               The components of the “I See You Letter” are:

  1. I see what you've been through (in details that are significant to her, maybe just the things you know she remembers). You may want to add, "And other things, too, that we haven't talked about." This could spark a response where she shares more.
  2. In light of your experiences, I realize that none of your recent behavior is your fault. You were just trying to express your pain.
  3. I'm sorry I blamed you when I just didn't realize that your behavior was your pain being expressed.
  4. Together we'll work on making it better, and here's how: ______

An example:

Dear Ana,

I just wanted to tell you what I see when I look at you. I see a kid who has had some very rough experiences. When you were younger, your adults did not do what they needed to do to keep you safe. No child should have this happen, as every child deserves and needs to be kept safe. Your mom left you with people who hurt you, and your dad left without saying why. That must hurt so much. I want you to know that this was never, ever your fault. You were an innocent child.

I see a kid who is sensitive and smart. I see a kid who is amazing at figuring out other people. I so appreciate hearing you express what you know long before others your age can do that. I see a kid with artistic ability, and one who cares deeply for our pets. When I watch you with younger children, I am so impressed with how tender you are.

I realize I have gotten angry with you and yelled when you were upset with me. I now get that you just felt threatened, and you did not mean to hurt my feelings or disrespect me. I’m sorry and I will try very hard not to yell in the future. If I make a mistake and yell (because we all make mistakes), I will apologize and have a do-over, because no one deserves to be yelled at.

If you feel like writing back to me in this notebook, that’s great. Feel very free to do so. If not, I’m fine with that, too. I’m just happy to be able to use this notebook to say what I want to tell you in writing.

I am so happy you are in my life. Thank you for all the gifts you give me, especially your smile.


Mom/Dad/Grandma/Grandpa/Other caregiver

I encourage adults not to ever mention the letter, nor to expect him to say he read it and liked it. For a traumatized child, this may be too much vulnerability. But what often happens is that adults notice a softening in their child, a better attitude, more affection, more focus, and more cooperation. That’s the goal of writing: to see the child clearly, communicate it, allow the amygdala to register that the child is seen and therefore will survive, watch the result in a much more relaxed and relieved child and in an improved relationship. I often describe this process as being “like physics,” as predictable as proven science. It’s truly remarkable how dramatic the results are! And when you think about it, the seeing is the tool for calming the threat alarm. No wonder the child can now function so much more rationally. The more rational front brain is able to work!

I See You Letter