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That block of time between 5 pm and 8 pm might be the most difficult time of day for parents. Kids return from school spent — and for good reason. If they’ve done their jobs, they played hard and learned a ton (even if they aren’t very forthcoming with the details around the dinner table). Rest assured, weekdays are exhausting for parents, as well, I must say.
In that time crunch to help with homework, prepare dinner, and make it through the bedtime routine, kids sometimes turn to screens. Television, video games, or YouTube videos can feel like helpful tools to keep busy parents moving through these trying hours with ease. Though, it’s worth examining what is actually happening to our children and ourselves, on both physiological and spiritual levels when we turn toward a screen.
I’ve heard a lot of arguments in defense of a quick cartoon show or a timed session of video games. Of the many, one in particular stands out to me: He’s so burned out after school; he needs to unwind just as much as I do. I completely follow this logic. But, let’s take a closer look at what’s going on here on an emotional level.
When we’ve had a busy day, it’s natural to feel the need to “check out,” especially if your average day requires you to engage with others. We all need to refuel and chill — grownups and kids alike. We love TV because it’s the most convenient way to pull our consciousness away from ourselves and focus outside of our realities. Just plop down on the sofa and hit a button. Instant relaxation.
The funny thing is, that is precisely what is not happening in our brains when we are sitting in front of a screen. You probably already know that the AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics) recommends limiting screen time for children. Scientists have long warned about the possible negative effects of prolonged exposure to the rapidly flashing lights and stimulating sounds of video games and cartoons. If you’ve ever tried to get the attention of a child glued to a screen, you may have thought to yourself, This can’t be good for young, developing brains. The truth is, it’s not.
Recent studies have given us a clearer picture of exactly what’s going on internally when our children are “tuning out” in this way. As it happens, our kids’ brains respond to video games and stimulating television very much the same as they do to using cocaine. Yep, you read that right. Screens and drugs have something very significant in common. They both interfere with the release of a chemical called glutamate, a neurotransmitter. An increase of glutamate accelerates neuron activity in the brain and acts as a stimulant. In addition, both screens and drugs increase the release of dopamine, which makes us feel good, boosting the likelihood of addiction. This may be why kids want to return to the screen again and again.
What does this look like in children? Some parents report that when their children are exposed to long bouts of TV, video games, or internet use, they have trouble retaining information, perform poorly in school, have difficulty interacting appropriately with peers, and are unable to self-soothe. The consequences for teens are even more dire, as researcher and psychology professor at San Diego State University Jean Twenge found in her famous study. The study shows an increase in depression and suicidal thoughts for teens who spent an exorbitant amount of time on social media a day. The more time they spent chatting, scrolling, and playing games online, the more likely they were to experience negative emotions. This kind of “checking out” just doesn’t leave kids feeling rejuvenated. Quite the opposite.
The same study found that there is a direct correlation between decreased social media use and happiness. The happiest teens were those who had more than an average amount of face-to-face social interaction time throughout their week and less than average time spent on social media — a point worth taking note of. As kabbalists teach, when we connect with others, we increase opportunities to share. And sharing leads to the deepest form of joy and fulfillment.
It’s our job to rethink what it means to recharge. Downtime can be as simple as playing quietly alone with non-stimulating toys, like blocks or puzzles. Or sometimes kids just need a change of scenery. If they have spent the day indoors, send them outside. If they have spent the day outdoors, bring them inside. Parents or caregivers can orchestrate these things with just a little planning ahead.
Look for patterns in your child’s behavior that give you a clue as to when they are likely to need some chill-time, like after school, after a birthday party, or after a visit with their cousins. If you can anticipate it, you can provide alternative ways for your child to recharge. This doesn’t need to be an extra chore on your to-do list. Model for them by pulling out a book and reading in a comfy chair. Show them what it’s like to practice mindfulness outside, noticing the weather, the plants, and the sounds. And here’s a little secret: by teaching them how to recharge in a healthier way, you get to recharge too. Win-win.