Turning It Off: Kids and Media

Have you ever noticed what happens when you turn off your cell phone for a day or two? Maybe that question sounds silly because you’ve never tried it, but if you have, you might know what I’m talking about.

For me, it’s one of my favorite parts about going camping in the summer with the family. One of the few rules we have out there is “no electronics.” There’s something special about being unavailable to the outside world and not knowing what is going on in the current 24-hour news cycle. It creates a sacred place as it forces us to be in the present moment, focused in an intimate way on the people and environment around us.

Recently I’ve been on a bit of a fast from social media. I had been noticing that whenever I would feel anxious or bored, I would simply turn to my phone and start consuming information, feeding my brain the stimulation I thought it desired. I felt I needed to drown those feelings – after all, they were uncomfortable and it’s in our wiring to seek comfort. I also blamed it on my ADD diagnosis from childhood and shrugged it off as “Well, that’s just how my brain works. It’s under-stimulated, and it’s my job to feed it.” I know I’m not the only one either. Whenever I see someone sitting quietly by themselves they are face-to-face with a screen – it’s rare to stumble across someone simply lost in their own thoughts or daydreaming anymore.

What concerned me in my situation was a subtle shift that I noticed. I was no longer comfortable without that connection. I was only comfortable in the “consuming” part of my day. I wouldn’t even really call it “comfortable” so much as “maintaining my baseline.” Just like needing a constant stream of coffee throughout the day to simply maintain a functioning level of productivity, I was addicted to consuming information.

Perhaps you’ve experienced this with your child. As parents we need breaks sometimes and an easy go-to babysitter is the TV, tablet, phone, or video game. We live in a fantastic era of technology and can easily buy ourselves a few minutes of peace while we try to get things done around the house or have that precious “me time” in the midst of chaos. All that is ok, but maybe you’ve seen a bit of a shift like I did. Maybe it feels like your child is so connected that something in your gut is saying “Stop and look at what is really happening here.”

Is your child seeking to play games because they are fun or because it calms them down? Are they comfortable shutting it off for a while, or is there a battle that rages in your home when the idea is brought up? Maybe “I don’t have to play them, I want to play them” is starting to sound a little too much like “I can quit any time I want, I just don’t want to”.

My first day of no-media was tough. I probably picked up my phone 20 times out of habit. A knee-jerk reaction that I had conditioned myself to expect. There was just so much quiet. It was uncomfortable, but even at the end of the first day there was a noticeable difference. My wife commented and expressed how nice it was to have me be more present and calm with her and the kids. That’s what sealed if for me. I didn’t want to miss out on my kid’s childhood because I was more concerned with comparatively useless information, and I don’t want them to miss out on their childhood either!

I want them to experience life like I did and that age. “Go outside, be back in time for dinner” was some of the best guidance my parents gave me as a kid. It forced me to face challenges and adapt to overcome them. I got my hands dirty. I scraped my knees. I experienced life.

If you find yourself or your kids in the same spot this summer, I would challenge you to try to turn it all off. Force yourself to get ok with the quiet, and demonstrate mindfulness. Beyond the effects already touched on, what this communicates to your kids is that they are more important to you than the fleeting information and crises we have latched onto to comfort ourselves. It builds a strong foundation in these pivotal years as the are forming their identity and values. You are literally defining who they believe themselves to be, and they will carry that definition for a lifetime. Get outside with your kids. Nature is inherently interesting to us as humans, and our creativity and drive to explore is opened up and tapped into when we put ourselves in a position to experience it.

Evan Page specializes in providing therapy for families and teens struggling with trauma, attachment disorder, and mood regulation issues. Evan is currently a therapist with North Range Behavioral Health, serving as the School-Based Engagement Specialist.

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