There is a lot of fear out there. Do people actually believe that ‘screens’ are like heroin for kids? Apparently they do. Apparently a lot of people do.
Well, we have no limits on screen time and I am not worried about screen addiction in my home. I am assuming that the vast majority of you have found your way to this article on my blog because you are interested in respectful parenting. If that sounds like you, good news! There is a great chance you don’t need to worry either. What a relief!
A lot of research around addiction is built around substance abuse. And considering there are click bait articles out there likening gaming to illicit substances, the research there is probably a good place to start.
Portugal decriminalised all drugs in 2001. Contrary to the vocal fear campaign, ‘decriminalization in Portugal did not lead to an increase in drug use, addiction, and related problems. In fact, the opposite occurred. [Sixteen years on] problematic drug use is down, drug use among adolescents is down, drug related deaths and other drug related harms are down.’ Thanks Portugal! Now we know that making something ‘legal’ doesn’t contribute to a rise in addiction rates, so no need to ‘ban’ screens.
We also have a solid bank of research about scarcity theory in psychology. The scarcity principle refers to the human tendency to value rare commodities and devalue abundant ones. Basically, when you limit something, you turn it into forbidden fruit.
Research by psychologist Eldar Shafir and economist Sendhil Mullainathan has taken scarcity theory one step further to show that it also makes people more likely to make mistakes and bad decisions. They found ‘that when people feel they are lacking something, whether it is money, love, or material items, their mental abilities are less efficient and more prone to errors. Shafir and Sendhil suggest that since so much of a person’s cognitive resources are consumed with scarcity, there is less brainpower available for other aspects of life.’
Ever had a child deep in an activity (let’s assume that activity is on a screen, but this is widely applicable), only to have you step in at some artificial time limit to declare times up? Maybe the reason they struggle to ‘redirect’ themselves after this activity, or show a lack of interest in other things, is because they were already doing something really flipping interesting! Maybe they are preoccupied with what is now unavailable.
What we call ‘new scarcity’, tells us exactly that. Our irrational desire for limited resources increases when we move from a state of abundance to a state of scarcity. Sound familiar?
Hmmm, call me crazy but it sounds like we should just do away with limits altogether and start a healthy conversation around mindful use of screens and modelling self regulation.
But what about ADDICTION?! Those crazy spikes in dopamine levels controlling our children?? I’m so glad you asked. Here is where the rats give us some really good insight.
For a long time, studies on addiction were conducted on rats in isolation who were offered two water options. One was pure water, and the other laced with heroin. Without exception, the rats chose the heroin water, became addicted, and would eventually overdose. Heavy, right? This led us to believe that the experience of getting high was enough to cause addiction. But this was also confusing, because we know that most people (at least 90%) who try addictive substances don’t become addicts.
Canadian psychologist Bruce Alexander started to question whether or not there was more than this experience of pleasure that would cause a person to keep using a substance to the point of addiction and death.
Rats, like humans, are social creatures who need social interaction and stimulation to stay happy. In the cage of isolation, of course they were going to turn into bingeing rat junkies. But what about in paradise? He set out to replicate the experiment in an oasis he called ‘rat park’.
Rat park was much, much bigger than your standard lab cage. The rats had friends (there were twenty of them of mixed gender), there were fun games and wheels to run on, they had plenty of food. All the good stuff. They also had access to heroin water. Turns out isolating yourself through addiction is pretty unappealing when there are a whole other range of stimulating activities and rat friends calling your name. The rats ignored the heroin. In this experiment, social stimulation and a healthy environment were pretty good addiction deterrents.
Hey, that’s great news. Why would I worry about my kids drinking the digital heroin when our house is the metaphorical rat park?
Now look, rats and humans share similarities which is why they are used in so many psychological experiments. Humans, however, add an extra layer to this equation. We need to be able to trust and to emotionally attach.
So, when you put all of this together, as a few other people have done, ‘a really strong antidote to addiction is connection.’ High fives all round respectful parents out there!
Respectful parents prioritise trust, connection and relationships and these are the ideal conditions to nurture your child towards self regulation.
But hang on, I hear you say, I’m a respectful parent and I let my kids have free reign of screen time for two weeks and they watched youtube all day! Well, it turns out that should be expected. Lots of work on opportunism and reactance theory shows people will participate in extreme behaviours when they perceive that their options will be limited in the future. It is going to take a while for your kids to accept that this state of abundance is the new normal. It is also going to take a long time for mutual trust to be restored. Your children need to trust that you will not impose arbitrary controls on screens and you need to trust that your children are capable of choosing how they spend their time.
Guess what that means? Communication! Just like any transition, there is going to be a challenging period. If something is creating problems in your family you discuss it in a healthy and respectful way. If someone’s needs aren’t being met, talk about it. Let everyone feel heard, including you.
If you are interested in making this change, firstly, stop viewing ‘screen time’ as a problem and start viewing it as an interest. And to support this interest you need to connect! Find out what is interesting about it! Get in there and play the video game as well. Sit down and watch the youtube channel too. Find out what it is they are researching endlessly. And then work out how you can nurture that interest. Shockingly, so much of that support and expansion happens off the screen. By sitting down, joining in and asking questions, I have learnt my kids are watching science experiments (let’s do our own!), giant lego builds (let’s try it too!), documentaries (let’s head to the museum and find out more!), minecraft (I heard we can get you access to your own realms so you and your friends can connect and build together. Let’s get skype so you can chat and plan while you do it!), movies (I am actually enjoying this too).
And, obviously, model the behaviour you want to see. The more your children see you off a screen and pursuing other interests, the more inclined they will be to follow suit. Guess what, my kids have what I see as a really healthy and broad range of interests, on and off the screen.
So respectful and connected parents, the next time you think that your kids would literally want to do nothing else away from a screen for the rest of their lives if you dared to remove the limits you have set, remember, scarcity, not abundance increases desire. After all, Portugal did it with actual heroin, and it worked. But, most importantly, you have already built rat park.