Why a Digital Detox for Kids is Essential

screen time away, kids, device, detox

First published on February 2017

The First Red Flag: Distractibility

When you have a Ph.D. in Child Development and Early Childhood Education with 50 years of experience in the field, you’re more than qualified to offer an opinion on how digital devices are affecting our youth.  I had such an expert, Lucinda Katz, in my living room last week and was eager to hear her perspective.

According to Lucinda, the first red flag went up four to five years ago. A seasoned PE teacher, with decades of experience, voiced his concerns about his new class of Kindergarteners. In his opinion, they were having noticeably more difficulty focusing and settling down. The disruption was cutting into class time, and Lucinda said this was the first of many signs. Children today are spending more time on digital devices and are increasingly struggling with distractibility. The impact on the educational setting is real.  

The Insatiable Need for Instant Gratification

Lucinda’s observations corroborated my own. After years of driving carpool for my elder daughter starting in 2012, I was taken aback when I starting hauling my 6-year-old and her peers in 2015.  There was a heightened level of commotion and an insatiable need for instant gratification that surprised me. Their behavior far surpassed any comparison to my elder daughter and her peers, even though they were the same age at the time. It didn’t matter which kids were in which seats when the dynamic was always the same.

At first, I was overrun by the group.  Eventually, I learned how to sidestep the chaos with clear rules and snack policies. It required a real assertion on my part. As a daughter of a neurologist, I began wondering whether it was possible that increased exposure to digital devices was rewiring our children’s brains. Were there new neural pathways forming as a result? And was it having a lasting and broader impact, driving not only their desire for device time but also more universally, their behavior?

“Mommy, I Don’t Know What’s Wrong with Me…”

Just this past week, my now third-grader, was tearful when I went to tuck her in. Prior in the day we’d had another kerfuffle over screen time. In her own words she said, “Mommy, I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I just can’t stop myself.” Certainly, learning self-control is part of growing up and the maturation process.  But I’m fairly certain the challenge is exacerbated for my daughter’s generation. And quite possibly, increased time on digital devices is the underlying root cause.

So how does an expert in early childhood education address the problem?  Lucinda’s answer is mindfulness. She has integrated the practice into the curriculum of the school she heads starting in kindergarten, continuing with it through eighth grade.

The Antidote: a Digital Detox

On the home front it’s trickier. Of course, we’d love to move through our days with the rhythmic transitions of a classroom, but our reality with kids is a lot messier. We want our kids to develop 21st Century STEM skills and healthy digital habits, but we find ourselves caught in the crosshairs. While the learning process is hard for our kids, it’s also hard for us parents.

Usually, there’s some triggering event, an overstepping of boundaries so egregious that we’re jolted into action. We know the answer is a digital detox. We brave the volcanic eruption when we deliver the news and weather the fallout that always comes with it. In a quiet moment, we look at our cherubic child wistfully, thinking, “It’s not her fault.”

Finally, days later, when our child wakes up wanting to talk about her latest beading project rather than how many coins she’s going to earn on her favorite e-game, our parenting instincts are affirmed. We all taste the sweetness of genuine connection and know that the digital detox was well worth it.

The Digital Experiment and Silicon Valley’s Culpability

Often I reflect on this ongoing digital experiment that often comes at the expense of our kids. Revelations that these devices were intentionally designed to be addictive are infuriating, as are recent reports that Silicon Valley executives have long banned their own children from using them. No digital detox needed for those privileged enough to have an insider’s view!

Silicon Valley is gambling with the high stakes of our future. We can no longer tolerate these secretive cultures that leave the rest of us on the short side of asymmetric information. We must make our voices heard.

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