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How to unplug your kids from technology overload

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Published Aug. 18, 2016

If you're tired of only seeing the tops of your children's heads because their eyes are constantly glued to a screen, then it may be time for a change.

"They are so attached to technology at such an early age. It's changing their brain circuitry," said family therapist Elaine Fogel Schneider, author of 7 Strategies for Raising Calm, Inspired and Successful Children (Crescendo Publishing, 2016).

The start of a new school year is a good time to change things up. Helping children, especially young ones, learn how to disconnect and relax their minds may make them tremble at first, but it may also result in a less stressed, healthier, happier family.

Schneider worries that electronic devices are getting in the way of children learning about real relationships, meaningful communication and basic life skills like making eye contact and engaging in polite conversation. Her book calls on parents and adult caregivers to limit a child's use of cellphones, computers (when not school or work related), tablets and television so they spend less time playing games, texting, emailing, scrolling, surfing, listening to music and otherwise blocking out the world.

The idea is to make more time for talking and listening without electronic interruptions.

"What I've found working with families over the past 35 years is that families need to change the way they relate to one another," said Schneider, whose book has become an Amazon bestseller. "We need to do things together that reduce stress, create calm and foster personal connection, even if it's just taking a walk outside and talking about what you see around you."

While she acknowledges the benefits and convenience of electronic devices, she thinks screen time should be monitored and limited in children and should not take the place of personal interaction. Schneider talked with the Times recently from her office in Long Beach, Calif., about why limiting screen time is a good idea, especially for very young children, and how to help kids periodically disconnect. Here's more of that conversation:

People will argue that all the devices we use to communicate actually help keep us better connected. What's your response?

A lot of parents and caregivers use electronics all day long, even when they are supposedly spending time with their children. In restaurants I see families at tables, everyone on their devices, watching videos, texting, playing games, doing emails, and there's no interaction, no conversation, or it's very limited and often negative. Kids are missing out on learning how to communicate, how to get along in the world. Devices have become the babysitter. This isn't a phenomenon, it's a lifestyle, and that's very concerning.

So parents bear some of the responsibility for device overuse?

You are your child's first teacher. You are responsible for setting the standards within your home and within your family, and that extends to electronics. Show kids how to put down the devices, turn off the screens. Have conversations, foster relationships, help kids use their imaginations, play, sing, interact, read together. Your behavior shapes their behavior.

Can heavy electronic use affect performance in school?

Sure. For example, overuse of electronic games keeps your brain excited, in a state of hyper arousal, where those so-called feel-good hormones are being released constantly. You start to crave that feeling, almost like a drug high, and it makes you want to play the games more and more. It becomes distracting, stressful, can have an effect on decisionmaking, impulse control, your mood, emotions and relationships. Overuse produces many of the behaviors that we see in attention deficit disorder and drug addiction. But, there is evidence that reducing screen time can return brain chemistry to normal levels.

Many parents think it's good, educational, to get their kids using computers, cellphones and other devices early.

The American Academy of Pediatrics says children under age 2 should not have any screen time. At age 3 it should be limited to two hours a day. But the brain is still developing at that age, and loving, nurturing interaction with people is critical up to about age 5. By just looking at a machine and not a person, children are losing that back and forth interaction and eye contact which really helps with brain development and emotional growth. I have to hide my cellphone from my 2-year-old granddaughter because she already knows how phones work from watching her older brother. They know so much!

You're also concerned that kids who communicate primarily with electronic devices will become desensitized. What do you mean?

I'm concerned that they will grow up without learning empathy and without remorse — without understanding the full emotional impact of their words. They may not learn about compassion because they don't have to see and fully understand the effect they are having on the other person. Electronic communication removes feelings. People are ending relationships via text message. They have no emotional connection to what they have just done. That will affect how kids interact and perform later in life.

You have two grandkids. What's the screen time policy for them?

It was very limited when my grandson, who's now 4 years old, first came along. My daughter was very, very careful with him. But now, he has more access and his 2-year-old sister wants to do everything he does, of course. So it requires an extra effort to control. And I understand that.

I also know that parents, grandparents, need a break, and it's easy to put your kids in front of a screen. But in the long run, it's more important for the child to work on an old-fashioned puzzle, sing, read, imagine, create, interact with people rather than with a device. I don't use electronics with my grandkids. They're allowed a little screen time in the afternoon at home, but it's limited. My daughter sets the rules and sticks to them.

How about for older kids? What should the limits be?

It's about balance and moderation and knowing what your children are doing and with whom. I recommend creating screen-free zones. Keep television and other electronics out of bedrooms. Don't allow electronic use during mealtime and shut screens off at least an hour before bedtime. Also be sure to spend device-free time with your children daily — no interruptions, no exceptions.

Contact Irene Maher at imaher@tampabay.com.

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