Screens are powerful — but dangerous — attachment tools

Shoshana-150x150It used to be the television.

Back in the 1980s, Neil Postman, professor of communication arts and sciences from New York University, said that television is a disastrous influence on children because it shortens their attention span, erodes their linguistic powers and causes them to become increasingly impatient. Perhaps even more serious, it opens up all of society’s taboos and secrets, thus erasing the boundaries between childhood and adulthood, creating a homogenized culture rather than a hierarchical one.

Today it’s the smartphone, computer and iPad.

The intrusion of even more kinds of screens in our lives is having an overwhelming effect on our families. Dr. Gordon Neufeld cautions that before we put these devices into the hands of our children and adolescents, we need to put rules and restrictions in place for their use. These screens are so addictive by their very nature that even we adults have a hard time turning them off and disconnecting from them. All the more so, we need to guard our children from becoming too attached to them.

My son and daughter-in-law recently noticed that their two daughters, ages 10 and 8, were spending too much time in front of the television and the iPad. They thought the girls would react strongly to the new rules they were about to begin enforcing, but were pleasantly surprised that the girls seemed to appreciate Mom and Dad taking charge of the screens.

After a few “screen-less” weeks, I asked how their new lifestyle was holding up and the results were exciting: The girls began asking their parents to take them to the library on a regular basis, and they are spending much more time reading. They are also playing outside more. The house is calmer and quieter without the background noise from the screens. The parents themselves feel calmer and have even looked for ways to restrict their own use of their smartphones. There is more space for real human connection and also for more creativity.

Child TVFreedom from screens provides psychological rest for the brain. When we are connected to screens, we are — in essence — seeking attachment, the default setting of our brains. Screens are powerful attachment tools, but the attachment they provide is merely a “fix” — it is superficial and fleeting, and this pursuit becomes addictive. It does not satisfy the real need for human contact and closeness, so both child and adult are driven to come back again and again for another fix — another attempt to fill this attachment hunger.

When parents restrict screen use for their children, they are helping their children come to rest from this futile pursuit. The brain shifts gears and can now rest from this futile pursuit. Only parents and other caring adults can give children fulfilling experiences of attachment and bring their brains to rest. This rest from the work of seeking attachment frees the child’s mind to explore and create.

I like to write to my granddaughters by e-mail. Once a week, they can use their iPads to write to me and to other relatives. It’s just one example of how parents can show their children how to safely use screens without becoming addicted or controlled by them.

And as for the TV at my granddaughters’ house — it was relegated to a corner bedroom upstairs where it’s no fun at all to sit and watch!

Take a day off from the world

I guess I’m a pretty typical parent. I am busy and my family is busy. We do lots of fun things and we do lots of things that just need to get done. When it all adds up, we are stretched a little thin. We are tired and we need some down time.

My husband and I have recently started turning one day of the weekend into our own Day Off From the World. We spend time together with our daughters. That is the only agenda. We don’t schedule anything. We leave all screens off. We get outside. We cook a lot. We read a lot. We listen to music. We dance and play. We nap. We bake things. We paint and create things. We make a mess. We chase each other. We hide and we seek. We build forts and snuggle in them. We spend one day of the weekend just being together.

When we started this practice we saw our daughters transform from their tired cranky end of the week selves into their energized joyous selves. They love having us present and participating with them all day. Time does not rush or push. There is no “have to, must, or should.” Their creativity astounds me every time.

Today my three year old handed me a ball of yarn and said, “hold on and go hide.” She held on to the end and I let the yarn spool out behind me as I walked to my hiding place. After finishing her counting she began collecting the yarn, slowly making her way to me in my hiding place. “I found you!” she announced. “Next time hide better.”

Meanwhile, my six year old and my husband were snuggled in the blanket fort we had constructed earlier that morning. He is telling her about his adventures as a child riding his blue bike. Her questions come one after another asking for more and more detail.

These games and moments of connection need time to come about. They need unstructured non rushing time. Children have fantastic imaginations and they are naturally inquisitive. What if they were not always on their way somewhere to do something? What if the doing was just being together? Helpful for us grownups too maybe?

After our day off we feel rested. Our emotional cups are full. We have connected and reconnected. We have talked and hugged and told stories from our week. Each of us has spent time with each other member of the family. As we head into another week we are full with the feeling that we belong to this family, to these people we love.

So take a hint from ancient traditions and modern wisdom. Whether it is observing the Sabbath or listening to the advice in the book Simplicity Parenting: take a day off. Connect with your people. The world will be there when you get back.