Target Audience: This article is for professionals in child care, health, education looking for information about overuse of technology in young children (aged 0-6).
Dave’s Story, Part 1
Dave is a 5-yo at your childcare centre. He can be very gentle and kind at times, but lately he’s been aggressive and wanting to fight with the other kids. You suspect he watches a lot of superhero movies, and he often comes in dressed like a superhero.
You can see that he has a lot of technology in his life. When his dad picks him up, you see his dad on his cellphone in the car prior to coming in. When dad comes in, Dave wants his dad’s cellphone, which dad gives to him on the way out. In the parking lot, you see that Dave is going to be watching videos on his way home…
How would you help Dave’s dad, in order to help little Dave?
Modern technology such as smartphones, tablets and computers are everywhere in our society. There are many benefits to this wondrous technology.
At the same time, there is a growing realization that as with any powerful tools, there are also ways in which our tools can be misused and in this way, cause negatives.
Studies show the following:
- The average child aged 0-2 is exposed to 2-hrs daily of recreational screen time
- The average teenager is exposed to 7.5 hrs of recreational screen time daily
- The average adult has at least 5-hrs a day of television alone.
Recreational screen time includes watching videos, playing video games, and can include social media time as well.
Just because everyone is doing it however, doesn’t mean it’s right.
Unfortunately, the pendulum may have swung too far, as we are already starting to see the consequences of misuse and overuse of technology in our young.
From an attachment perspective, children and youth need appropriate attachments to fellow humans (and nature) so that they can have proper sensory, motor, language, social/emotional development.
The problem with young children attaching to screens is that it tends to impair sensory, motor, language and social/emotional development…
Some of the negative impacts with technology overuse appear to be:
- Sensory problems: Watching a video or playing a video provides an incredible amount of sensory stimulation, more so than non-electronic activities. As a result, technology can be overstimulating, leading to sensory overload. And if a child has a sensory processing sensitivities to begin with (e.g. visual, tactile, auditory), then adding on the overload from technology further worsens problems.
We Professionals Must Be Role Models for Healthy Technology Use
Before telling parents how to use technology properly, it is important that healthy use is demonstrated by professionals and institutions such as child care centres, schools, clinics, workplaces.
In child care centres:
- Ensure caregivers are trained in meeting children’s sensory, motor, language, emotional needs using attachment-based approaches (e.g. Circle of Security).
- Ensure that caregivers are not using behavioural-based strategies such as 1-2-3 Magic or ‘time outs’ to deal with problematic behaviour, as such strategies unnecessarily raise cortisol and do not help with brain development.
- Ensure that childcare policies are consistent with principles of attachment, e.g. such as ensuring that there are a small core group of caregivers who are consistent and reliable, as opposed to centres where there are multiple, constantly changing caregivers.
- Model healthy use of technology and establish clear rules regarding its use in childcare centres, schools and clinics such as:
- No public Wifi in childcare
- No recreational screen time for ages 0-3
- Cellphone free zones in childcare centres (i.e. no cellphone use by staff in front of the children)
- Limited or ideally no recreational screen time for ages 3-6.
- Limit music in the background. Studies show that for young children, playing background radio or television can impair language development, as young brains are not able to filter out the excess sensory stimulation. Note that neither music or singing are bad, however, they should be the primary focus of an activity, not an extra source of sensory (over)stimulation.
- Activities such as singing and dancing together promote connection with young children, ideally through live music and not recorded music.
- Passive toys, such as those made out of wood
- Passive toys promote activity and creativity in children
- In addition, there will be less frustrated children when a battery needs to be replaced
- Eliminate ‘active toys’ such as electronic or battery powered toys. The more active a toy, the more passive the child will be.
- Promote open ended materials. Although not traditionally thought of as ‘toys’, these are nonetheless what children naturally seek out to play with, such as empty boxes, buttons. Or when outside, stones, branches, leaves, etc.
- Nature time. Schedule time for children to be in nature, e.g. local park, woods, etc. Have natural, outdoor play spaces, as opposed to artificial, plastic play structures on asphalt
- Incorporate natural materials in the indoor environment.
- Consider asking parents to sign an agreement where they are aware of the childcare centre’s philosophy on technology, in order to emphasize to parents the importance of this.
- Educate parents in some way, such as:
- Information materials such as posters, brochures about the importance of face-to-face connection and non-electronic activities.
- Educational sessions for parents about technology
- Ensuring that at the childcare orientation session, it is explained to parents the rationale for the childcare centre’s rules about technology
Red Flags that a Child Is Using Too Much Technology
- You observe the parent ignoring their child in favor of a device
- You observe the parent giving their young child a device to use
- The child has symptoms of screen overuse such as
- Less creative
- More inattentive, impulsive
- More sedentary, less active
Working with Parents of the Child with Technology Overuse
What do you do when you see a parent (or child) that seems to be using technology excessively?
Principles of Working with Parents
- Changing anyone’s behaviour is not easy, particularly parenting behaviours. Parenting is a highly sensitive topic, perhaps because at the core, a parent’s worst fear is to be labelled a bad parent.
- When working with parents, ensure that you start by accepting and validating the parents.
- Even during situations when a parent is having problems with their own technology use, it is important to validate the parent’s experience, rather than making them feel shamed or a bad parent.
- Do validate parents for having taken on the challenge of deciding to have and raise children in these modern times.
- Do validate that with less social supports and a “smaller village”, parents are in “survival mode”, and often in order to keep them busy enough so that we can get our chores done, it is tempting to put our children in front of a screen. After all, the dose of adrenaline and dopamine keeps them quiet and calm, if at least in the short run…
- Do gently probe about technology
- “Children have a lot of exposure to technology these days… At our centre, more and more we see that it is challenging for parents to find the balance and we see children who use too much technology.”
- “Do you have any concerns about the technology in your home?”
- If the parent says, “yes”, you can give your recommendations to the parent…
- If the parent says, “No”, then most likely, it will not be effective to simply tell them what to do
- You will need to focus on building the relationship and gently educating the parent
- Professional: “Thank you for letting me know. This is a big concern for a lot of parents, so let me know if it is ever something you want to talk about later! Please excuse me too, if I forget we’ve talked about this and I bring it up again at another time!”
- Don’t start by telling a parent that they need to cut back on their use of technology (either parent’s own use, or their children’s use), as parents may become defensive
- It may be tempting to point out what inappropriate behaviours you have observed, however it likely would be counter-productive
If Parents Show Interest in Learning More…
- Professional: “I am happy to talk more about this area, that affects a lot of families these days. Are there any specific questions that you have?”
Here are some general advice or things you can tell parents:
- Young children (aged 0-6) need first and foremost, connections to people, activities and things that give purpose, hope, meaning and belonging
- Devices are not necessary at that age, and in fact, impair the connections with the things that they truly need.
- Spend quality time together with your children
- If you need to use your device, go to the bathroom so that you are not using it in front of them.
- Replace any of the times when you would use an electronic device with a non-electronic equivalent.
- If you have trouble knowing what to do, think back to how you grew up without all this technology.
- If you can’t remember that far back, then ask your parents, grandparents…
- Spend time together with your family in nature
- Nature is the ideal sensory stimulation that human brains require for development.
- Studies show that children probably require at least 2-hrs outside a day, and more is better.
- Boredom is good
- When the devices are first removed, during the initial detox period, it is true that children may whine a bit more than usual.
- Their brains will eventually figure out other ways to create adrenaline/dopamine such as
- Using their imagination and being creative
- Interacting with human beings, such as playing with their siblings
- Going outside and playing
- Empathy improves when not impaired by a screen
- Human beings need thousands of hours of face to face contact in order to properly learn how to read other people’s facial expressions, non-verbals, and develop empathy
- Removing the technology will improve your child’s ability to empathize
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) or Concerns raised by Parents and Possible Responses
Q. How do we discipline children without technology? I use TV and iPad as a reward for good behaviour. If I don’t do that, what am I going to do?
A. It is true, that many ‘reward’ based systems may appear to work in the short run, because children often appear able to motivate themselves to behave, in order to receive their external reward. Unfortunately, the problem is that in the long run, you want your children to behave because it is the right thing to do, not because they will be rewarded. For millennia, children learned to behave without devices…
Q. How am I going to soothe my child without using technology? When my child is upset, we distract him by turning on the TV or giving him the iPad, and it calms him down.
A. It is true, that the sensory stimulation of technology is so engaging, that when a child is upset about something, it can often distract them from their upset.
Unfortunately, this stops the child’s brain from working through their issue, and impairs the emotional regulation that needs to happen.
Try the following instead:
- When your child is upset, identify and label the feelings, e.g. Parent: “You seem really upset and angry!” “You’re sad that there aren’t any more cookies left!”
- Hug and soothe your young child
- Allow them to cry out their tears, and in fact, tears are essential for emotional regulation and grieving the loss. Whether it is a small loss (like no more cookies, or no more TV time), or a big loss such as the loss of a loved one, human beings need to cry.
Q. Are there any appropriate times that we might use technology with a young child?
A. If technology is used to promote attachment where there are no other alternatives, then it might be useful. For example, video chat (such as Facetime) allows a child to see and speak with a parent who is away (e.g. a deployed member of the Canadian Forces).
Q. I put my kid in front of a screen because otherwise he whines and I can’t get any work done! What am I going to do without technology?
A. Yes, children stop whining in front of a screen, because it gives their brain dopamine and adrenaline. Interestingly enough, these are the same reward chemicals we get from any addictive substances. So for sure, children can sit long periods in front of a screen, because their brains are getting dopamine and adrenaline.
Unfortunately, this is bad in the long run, because it rewires a child’s brain to be unable to make their own dopamine and adrenaline.
The good news is that there is a solution. Get the usual non-electronic toys that people used to have, such as wooden building blocks, drawing materials, open-ended toys such as boxes… And your age 0-6 child will eventually learn to deal with boredom by finding other things to do. Make sure that you are nearby so that your child can come to when needed… And your child will eventually figure it out without technology, like children have done for millennia…
Q. What if my child has tantrums when we take away the technology?
A. Many child do have tantrums. The devices are very addictive because of the dose of adrenaline/dopamine they give our kids. Taking away a device is like taking away an addict’s cocaine. Brain scans of video game-addicted children in fact show that their brains look like addicts of street drugs. So it’s no wonder that many kids have tantrums when their source of dopamine/adrenaline is taken away.
The very fact that your child has tantrums means that your child at some level is dependent on the devices, and, for that reason, the devices need to be limited.
For young children (aged 0-6), often the best thing to do is to:
- Explain ahead of time that there are rules and limits on the technology
- When you have to set a limit, be firm and take away the technology
- Provide empathy when a child is upset.
- As a parent, you can say: “I know this isn’t easy for you… It is hard… I’m here for you…”
- You can then validate whatever feelings they are having, and hug them and let them have their tears.
- Even if the child is angry at you, you can still say, “I know this makes you angry… Of course it makes you angry; it’s hard to stop using your device…” After all, hundreds of millions of dollars of research and development has been spent by technology companies in making their products addictive for our children to use.
Dave’s Story, Part 2
Dave is a 5-yo at your childcare centre who uses far too much technology….
You decide to speak first to his mother. Luckily, she agrees with you. Unfortunately, she acknowledges that the father is the problem…
Your centre decides to have a parenting education night on the topic of technology, because the problem with Dave’s father is a problem that many of the children are having.
Your centre offers childcare as well, which allows parents to attend.
Months later, you notice a definite improvement in Dave’s behaviour. His mother is excited to tell you about the various positive changes they have seen… At home, he plays better with his sibling. They actually want to go outside now. Without TV, he no longer pesters his parents to buy the sweet cereals or toys that he used to see in advertisements… “He’s happier, and calmer…”
Handouts for Parents
For More Information: Websites
Waldorf Early Childhood Association of North America: A traditional way of teaching and raising children based on an understanding of child development. In the Waldorf philosophy, even in schools, electronics are not introduced until Gr. 6-8. An excellent resource for educators looking to develop curriculums without needing tablets, computers nor TVs. www.waldorfearlychildhood.org
Dr. Victoria Dunckley’s website with information about electronic overuse syndrome. www.drdunckley.com
ZoneIn.ca is the website of a Canadian occupational therapist (OT) that teaches about how to manage technology use. www.zonein.ca
For More Information: Books for Parents
Reset Your Child’s Brain: A Four-Week Plan to End Meltdowns, Raise Grades and Boost Social Skills By Reversing the Effects of Electronic Screen-Time by Dr. Virginia Dunckley.
A no-cost, nonpharmaceutical treatment plan for children with behavioural and mental health challenges. Although written for older children with more severe issues, the principles are nonetheless applicable to young children as well. It is also a good wakeup call for parents on what happens when children overuse electronics…
Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids, by Dr. Laura Markham.
An attachment-based approach on how to raise children through the positive relationship and connection that you have with them, as opposed to needing complicated reward systems or behavioural strategies.
About this Document
Written by members of the Early Childhood Resource Teacher Network of Ontario (ECRTNO) and the Mental Health Promotion Committee of the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO) in Ontario, Canada. Special thanks to Leslie LeClair and Angela Louroso.
Disclaimer: Information in this pamphlet is offered ‘as is’ and is meant only to provide general information that supplements, but does not replace the information from your health provider. Always contact a qualified health professional for further information in your specific situation or circumstance.
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