Disclaimer: Boundaries are difficult to establish during “normal life.” During a pandemic, they are even harder to set, but in some ways, more important. Uncertainty provides fertile ground for us to feel discombobulated; boundaries help us restore some normality. Over the next few weeks, I will continue to highlight ways boundaries can help us stay sane during this time.
Right now, it is difficult to know where to set limits for our children. Work can be complicated enough, but also having children at home presents additional challenges. In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) worked hard to establish Gaming Disorder as an actual diagnosis in the ICD-10 (the internally recognized resource for medical and psychological disorders). During the pandemic, the WHO has encouraged parents to relax previous guidelines, to let children play video games as encouragement to get people to stay home.
I see both sides of the WHO’s statements—on one hand, acknowledging electronic usage can become a problem and on the other hand, using electronics as tools: connecting us to others and helping us maintain sanity during a pandemic.
As a psychologist, I am keenly aware of the addictive nature of electronics. Electronics are a frequent topic in therapy sessions and also, in my own home. Research shows that electronics often act like hard drugs, acting as stimulants by creating dopamine-hits to a child’s developing brain. Furthermore, excessive use impacts neural pathways, altering addictive centers in a maturing brain.
In a July 2017 article titled “Parenting in the Era of Addictive Electronics,” Dr. Victoria Dunckley validates these findings, and also adds:
“It’s not realistic to expect the brain to adapt to intense and artificial stimulation it was never meant to handle.…It’s also not realistic to expect a child with still-developing frontal lobe to control their screen-time, whether that means managing how long they play a game, how they use or misuse social media, or how they behave afterward.”
Parents often create worst case scenarios before taking action. Fear and anxiety creep up. Parents worry that if they set boundaries regarding electronics, their children will go into overdrive mood. They might think they are a bad kid. They might try to hurt themselves. They might retaliate. As a response to this fear, some parents will ask me, in therapy sessions, to set guidelines for their children.
Parents often forget they are the ones leading the charge; they have the authority and ability to set and enforce the rules.
Children need boundaries. Yes, even during a pandemic. Limits are not only needed, they are wanted. Parents want the best for their children, but sometimes it is difficult to know where and when to draw the line.
I’ve seen many teenagers in my practice who are practically begging for rules. No, this does not look like them quietly walking into the dining room and saying, Mom, dad, I’ve been thinking…I really need you to take my phone away. I’ve been noticing that I’m feeling stressed and I’m going to make it easy for you because I’ve figured out the connection.
The desire for a boundary tends to look more like this…you notice your child is angry, isolated, doesn’t have any interest in family activities anymore and when forced to do spend time doing other activities (that take them away from electronics), they are unable to adapt. You might notice their grades slipping. They might be tired because they have been up all night texting with their friends. They might be angry and agitated most of the time and you notice a sudden change, a burst in energy and positive emotion, when they are able to connect with electronics. Sometimes it is difficult to determine if the behavior is electronic-driven, normal teenage behavior or depression–the key is if the behavior correlates with screen time.
I’ve got two children. One of them is very stimulated by electronics. This is a constant challenge for us. Electronic-time has turned into the only friend-time lately. While we’ve relaxed some guidelines, we have had to set new ones. This is trial-and-error; we still do not have this figured out. I say this to normalize-there is not a perfect system.
Limits and forced breaks do work. I’ve seen it in our own family. We’ve had family discussions about reasonable time limits and what the consequences will be if time limits are not respected (i.e., not getting off when asked, disruptive behavior escalates after use, attitude shifts impact behavior). It’s not easy to set boundaries and often, you can expect behavior to get worse, before it gets better.
Figure out what works for your family. Have discussions. Let your children be a part of these conversations. I’ve found that children often have good ideas—even for their own consequences. Electronics are a privilege. While they are fun and provide a much-needed connection with friends, especially now, they can become addictive quickly. Children are at greater risk because of their developing brains.
Structure and rules equal normalcy right now. They help our children know what to expect, which ultimately brings comfort. And comfort and certainty are needed, especially right now.
Until next time…