Young Children Are Using Screens. 10 Guidelines for Parents

What’s actually going on with young children and screens? According to the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, 64% of babies between 1 and 2 watch TV and videos for slightly over 2 hours daily and estimates of how much time preschoolers use screen media is between 2.2 hours to 4.6 hours a day on average.

In 1999, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that children under 2 not watch TV. In 2011, the Academy updated the recommendation to limit the exposure of children younger than 2 to any kind of screens, citing the lack of evidence there’s educational benefit (despite educational claims by game makers) and potential developmental negatives. Children benefit most developmentally from sensory-motor play and social interaction, not touching a screen or pushing buttons that light up and ding.

 In my experience, TV and screens (tablets, phones) are what occupies/calms kids when they’re grumpy/overly demanding at a bad time/need to settle down from high levels of activity. To say this is “bad” isn’t really going to change much of anything.  Saying, “Don’t” is kind of like Prohibition: it may be right but it just doesn’t work. 18 month olds in my office scroll through an iPad like a pro.

I could say “No screens under 2,” which many of you would think is the right thing to say. But I’m pragmatic, and recognize the reality of what’s going on. Given that children are using screens, it’s important to think about how to do it. Research is new and it varies, but some basic guidelines are helpful.

What do parents need to know? Here are some important ideas:

1.     The body’s inner clock responds to light as the signal for waking and sleeping. An electronic screen generates as much light as there would be at noon. So using videos as a way to get ready for bed is not a great idea even if the passivity quiets children down. Maybe use music instead?  Obviously, personal interaction such as reading and singing are the best.

2.     Different kinds of electronics have different impact on the brain. Watching TV is passive. Research indicates some amount of passive experience can allow time for creative daydreaming, which can lead to having ideas and making “aha” connections. Playing with an IPad is different- it's interactive and is stimulating the brain as children make choices to scroll, touch pictures, play, etc. Research suggests too much of this kind of play can be over-stimulating.

3.     Research also suggests that children don't learn language skills from TV or screens as well as from real people, which doesn't seem like it should be a surprise. Actual social interaction with people on screens is more positive. Skype or FaceTime are good – an obvious hint from this grandmother. Children's TV programs have picked up on this, and characters often talk as if they are talking to the viewer, and pause for a response as if it's two way. There's not enough research to show this is as effective as real two-way interaction.

4.     Some researchers recommend limiting screen use to thirty minutes at a time, with a 5 to 1 ratio of non-screen time to screen time. Allowing unlimited entertainment time on screens (video, tablets, phones) is like letting toothpaste out of the tube. You won’t be able to put it back. As your child gets older, you will want to limit time so they actually play with friends, are part of the family at dinner and don’t binge during homework time. Limit time now.

5.     Think about the educational value of what you’re allowing your child to see. While research hasn’t demonstrated actual educational benefit despite the claims of manufacturers, if you’re going to allow games, use ones that are potentially good. Commonsensemedia.org rates games, videos, etc. in terms of educational value and appropriateness for different ages.

6.     Make sure your child has electronics-free solo playtime. A child needs to learn to entertain him or herself. Children who are “addicted” to the immediate gratification and fast pacing of electronics often complain of boredom when they could use their own creativity or interests.

7.     As your child is old enough for play dates, limit electronics use. Large motor skills of playing, creativity, social skills and exploration are not achieved by side-by-side playing on tablets.

8.     Don’t have the TV always on in the background. You can have music playing instead. Sing along.

9.     Interact with your child when using electronics rather than having them only babysit. Talk about videos, pictures on the tablet, games, etc. Fun activities can be an opportunity for interaction if you use them. Ask questions, share memories of the pictures on the phone, talk about what’s happening on TV or when they might have seen the things being named in the games. Often children’s shows have messages built in; this is a great chance to talk about them. Just sharing and short comments is fine.

10.  Most important: monitor your own use of electronics. Are you on your phone at dinner with your child? Are you attending to your child’s play or your text messages? With adults this is rude; with children this is deprivation. How often have you been at a restaurant for dinner and seen the adults on their phones while their children are basically ignored? This is a bad model and poor parenting, no other words for it.

In this electronics-driven world, we need to carefully balance children’s developmental needs with the lure of technology as entertainment, education and babysitting. There are real reasons for caution - there are already some 4 year olds being treated for addiction to screens. Children are using screens at a younger and younger age, so parents have to carefully think about what they do and don’t allow.

Instant cure for procrastination? Dig deeper.

Helpful steps to handling procrastination are pretty established – break things into manageable chunks, use structure and support from others when you need it, prioritize and don’t take on too much at once – but there’s another question. Assuming we learn these steps, why do we still procrastinate? Procrastination usually gets us into trouble. We get nagged at home, sweat the deadlines at work, maybe even miss out on opportunities. Wouldn’t it be easier to just get it done? Sometimes, despite these strategies, there’s another factor in unrecognized anxiety that gets in the way.

 In his excellent book, “The Now Habit,” Neil Fiore, Ph.D. offers valuable insights and strategies to address anxiety. Some of these insights I’ve used here, as well as adding my own experience and perspective. In my work with stress management, I define stress/anxiety as the perception of threat beyond our coping skills. What’s important here is that stress is a perception. If I have a phobia of spiders, I’ll see one and panic. If you collect insects, you’ll see one and be fine. Dealing with procrastination means finding a way to deal with the anxiety we’re avoiding.

Lets explore different kinds perceptions that might lead us to feel anxious and procrastinate.

-We might have anxiety about our ability to do the task well enough, up to a high standard.

-Our anxiety might be about understanding how to do the task, feeling we’ll “mess it up.”

-We could feel anxious if a task seems too big and overwhelming.

-We feel anxious and resentful that someone else is telling us what to do. Often we feel we “should” or “have to” do something that’s someone else’s agenda.

-We can fear success. If I do this task well, someone will always expect me to do it this well.

 An approach to anxiety that’s very successful is used in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Remember stress or anxiety is based on a perception. A perception is a thought. The basic model of CBT is that our thoughts lead to how we feel and what we do. If someone thinks, “I’m going to fail,” he’s likely to feel upset and is less likely to do well. If he does do well, he writes it off as a fluke; if he does poorly, he feels it proves his expectation. In the case of procrastination, we have a thought that makes us feel anxious which leads to not doing. These thoughts are an automatic response; we might not even be aware of them. What’s important is that these thoughts are usually extreme, a distortion or untrue. Recognizing that we have automatic thoughts allows us to realize they’re an exaggeration, and lets us substitute a more positive way of thinking.

 I’ll give examples of possible automatic negative thoughts underlying the anxious feelings I mentioned, and the positive thoughts that could help. This is called "cognitive restructuring:" we reframe the situation in a way that works for us.

-Our anxious thought of not living up to a standard might be “I have to be perfect.” This is a real burden! The fact is nobody’s perfect. We can calm ourselves down with breathing, counting, or anything that works, and substitute, “Nobody’s perfect. I can do a good job.”

 -Our worry about not understanding how to do something right can reflect a thought like “I’m not smart enough, I don’t measure up.” Calming down is first, and then we substitute, “If I need help, it’s OK to ask. I can do fine.”

 -If a task seems overwhelming, we might have a thought, “I fail at things. There’s no way I can do this.” After we calm ourselves, we can substitute, “I do fine when I take this one step at a time.”

 -If we fear loss of control because we’re doing what someone else wants us to do, we might think, “People are always bossing me around. I never get to pick what I do.” We might calm down and think, “I have reasons for choosing to do this. I can make each choice separately.” Sometimes we have to do activities we don’t like for a job or school and feel it’s unfair. We make a choice: we want the job, or we want to graduate.

 -Fearing success is more common than it sounds. “People expect too much of me” or “I always have to be the best and I can’t.” are common automatic thoughts. We can substitute, “I do a good enough job” and “I can handle this,” which are probably true.

 If we realize that our avoidance is a way of handling anxiety, we can consciously do what calms us down, and address the perception that makes this task stressful. Getting started really helps because if we have something done, even if it's only a part of the task, beats getting nothing done. We feel relieved. We need to think about this good feeling because it’s part of the reward for facing down that nasty thought with positive self talk. We can tell ourselves“I know I can do this for (time limit) and I’ll feel so much better … about myself.” Piece by piece, the job gets done. Add in that we get rid of the hassles created by avoidance, and it’s a definite win-win.

10 Rules to Improve Communication with Your Child or Anyone Else

Kids sometimes feel more criticized than understood. In our eagerness to help, we sometimes try to fix problems, correct behaviors, or give feedback before we fully understand the child’s perspective. Following are some guidelines I recommend for parents; I also use these rules for friends and family, since these ideas work for spouses, partners and friends as well.

1. I will listen to my child’s point of view until l really understand it. This doesn’t mean I will agree with what is said. It means I will take the time to really “get it” before I respond. Showing that you understand what someone actually intends before you respond is more likely to lead to a productive outcome.

2. I will respect what actually interests or is important to my child, rather than expecting him to share my views of what is important. This means acknowledging that what they think is legitimate even if you have to ask or tell them to do something else.

3. I will listen to expressions of feelings and communicate understanding if my child is upset, rather than immediately trying to fix them. How often do we jump in and try to make things better, rather than acknowledging we care? Doing that can inadvertently invalidate feelings: “Oh, you shouldn’t take that so seriously.” Sometimes our kids don’t tell us what’s bothering them (like teasing) because they’re afraid we won’t just listen and our “fixing” will make things worse.

4. I will not offer solutions unless asked for them. This takes a lot of self-control. Older children won’t listen to your solution anyway, and they’ll think you’re a pain or do the opposite of what you suggest. If a solution is necessary, link it to what your child wants, even if that’s just to get someone off her back.

5. I will decide how to respond to behavior that upsets me when I’m calm. Responding impulsively out of anger can make things worse, or be unfair. I can’t control a fight, but I can control my timing.

6. I will recognize problem situations that happen repeatedly. That will enable me to find a calm time to talk with my child, and together come up with a strategy to improve the situation. 

7. I will put away my cell phone and pay attention to those I love and care about when we’re eating or spending time with each other.  I understand and will tolerate symptoms of electronic withdrawal.

8. I will be clear and specific in my expectations and requests. Complaining “You’re not being thoughtful/helpful” necessitates mind reading. Saying, “I wish you would ask me if I need something when you stop by the store” is a lot more meaningful.

9. I will give my child a chance to take risks and experience consequences (within reason).  It’s the only way he can grow.

10. I will take responsibility for my own choices and actions, and not blame someone else for them. For example, if I drop what I’m doing to fill a request whenever someone asks, I have only myself to blame. This last idea is critical, because it means you will take care of yourself. You need to feel OK yourself. This means knowing what you need (sleep, self-care, R&R) and taking the responsibility for getting it—you have to make the time.

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Can "Her" Work? Can AI relationships help real ones?

In the movie “Her,” dating and relationships between humans and operating systems were not considered unusual. It’s not giving away the plot of the movie to say that it involves the relationship between Theodore, played by Joaquin Phoenix, and his OS. The movie is provocative and interesting, but it is portrayed as occurring in the future. In fact, the future is rapidly becoming the present.

 A technology development group called Emoshape is developing what they call "the first A.I. home console," called EmoSpark. (A.I. refers to “artificial intelligence,” computers that think.) It's a device that uses facial recognition software as well as verbal input to understand our emotional responses, and to respond in a way designed to increase our happiness. It can do tasks and find information like other devices, but it also is designed to give us more nuanced personal feedback and even advice. It can even develop an emotional profile of its own. Assuming it works, this raises a fascinating question: to what degree could such a device meet a human need for relatedness?

 Scientists since the late 1800’s have been aware of a physiological basis for empathy. We now specifically talk about “mirror neurons,” receptors in our brains that allow you to share someone else’s experience and emotions. These neurons operate based on visual stimuli; it’s important that this is a nonverbal interaction.  In fact, Nowiciki and Duke (1992) found that 70 - 90% of social/emotional communication is nonverbal. This “emotional” AI device might use cameras and sophisticated algorithms of facial recognition to understand our emotions. But... without nonverbal observable cues, we would not be able to fully return that empathy.

 We are sensory beings. We respond to multiple sensory experiences when we are together with another person: smell, touch, and taste as well as our visual and auditory senses. Harry Harlow’s experiments with rhesus monkeys in the 1960’s demonstrated their preference for tactile experience, even over food.  Since the late 1990’s research has discussed the role of our biological scents in sexual attraction and in early bonding between mother and child.  We use scent purposely when we use perfumed products; we sometimes describe each other as having a characteristic smell.  All these multi-sensory experiences of our relationships are stored in memory. When we have a long-term relationship, memories and our sense of shared history becomes a critical part of our bond. Can we truly experience shared history with something not embodied?

In “Her,” Samantha, the OS system, had a voice (with appropriate tone and expression) but no other sensory information. If EmoSpark is able to really understand our emotions, can we fully empathize with the emotions only verbally expressed by a cube? Will this be a two-way relationship?

 The OS is programmed to only give us positive experiences.  If a person-OS relationship is one-way, based only on the emotions of the human, does EmoSpark encourage a kind of narcissism? Human relationships are messy because they involve the emotions and needs of two people. Theodore preferred his relationship with his OS to his blind date because she did not respond in a way that he liked.  A certain amount of narcissism is healthy, but too much narcissism is considered pathological. Edward Hallowell’s book “Connect” (1999) says emotional closeness, altruism and belonging to groups lengthens our lives; relationships that encourage too much self-focus don’t seem to me to provide these important benefits.

 In any case, such an AI device would not prepare us for face-to-face social relationships with all their messiness and unpredictability. The title of a recent book by Jennifer Senior summarizes a key element of being a new parent: “All Joy and No Fun;” parenting has real joy, but its not always satisfying or fun. Real relationships don’t always make us happy or meet our needs.  To have genuine intimacy, we need to tolerate that. An abuse of this device would be to use it to replace actual human relationships. When we deal with other people, we learn to defer our own needs and to care about something larger than ourselves. Finding meaning in our connections and love doesn’t mean always being happy, totally agreeing or having all our needs met.

Most of us have both social media relationships and personal ones. That’s certainly true now. However, think about what we know as the news. At one point, we all heard the same new reports, and everyone had a similar baseline from which to form our differing opinions. Now we have choices, and many of us only seek out news that reinforces our views. In fact, many search engines are specifically designed only to give us the information we’re already looking for. Rather than looking for a challenge to force us to struggle with competing ideas, we prefer to feel validated. Is there going to be a similar effect with devices that simulate relationships and only echo what we need and think? Could we possibly end up like the main character in the movie “Her”? Can we imagine sharing intimacy with a device, or perhaps at some point, with an avatar, even one designed to stimulate our senses? I don’t think so, even given our increasing comfort with technology as an integral part of our lives. I think that most of us have a genuine need for embodied human relationships. Nonetheless, these new developments in technology are certainly something to think about.

 

 

Communicating better.. with anyone, for better relationships

I apply these resolutions to friends and family of school age and up:

 1. I will listen to someone else’s point of view until l really understand it. This doesn't mean I will agree with what is said. It means I will take the time to really “get it” before I respond. Showing that you understand what someone actually intends before you respond is much more likely to be productive.

 2. I will respect what actually interests or is important to the other person, rather than expecting others to share my views of what is important. (In the case of children, this is means acknowledging what they think even if you have to ask or tell them to do something else.)

 3. I will listen to expressions of feelings and communicate understanding if someone’s upset, rather than immediately trying to fix them. How often do we jump in and try to make things better, rather than acknowledging we care? Or worse, sometimes do we invalidate feelings: “Oh, you shouldn’t take that so seriously.”

 4. I will not offer solutions unless asked for them. For teens and adults: they won’t listen to your solution anyway, and they’ll think you’re a pain or do the opposite of what you suggested. For husbands and partners: ditto. (This takes a LOT of self-control.)

 5. I will decide how to respond to behavior that upsets me when I'm calm. Responding impulsively out of anger can make things worse, or be unfair. I can’t control a fight, but I can control my timing. (This is what meditation has helpes achieve.)

 6. I will recognize problem situations that happen repeatedly. I can then take a calm time to talk with my child/partner/friend and come up with a strategy for improving the situation together. As a wise mentor once told me, “It’s not one thing after another, it’s the same thing over and over until we get it.”

 7. I will put away my cell phone and pay attention to those I love and care about when we’re eating or having time for each other.  I understand and will tolerate symptoms of electronic withdrawal.

 8. I will be clear and specific in my expectations and requests. Complaining “You’re not being thoughtful/helpful” necessitates mind reading. Saying, “I wish you would ask me if I need something when you stop by the store” is a lot more meaningful.

 9. I will give my child/partner a chance to take risks and experience consequences (within reason).  It’s the only way they can grow.

 10. I will take responsibility for my own choices and actions, and not blame someone else for them. For example, if I drop what I’m doing to fill a request whenever someone asks, I have only myself to blame.

 11. This one is critical: I will take care of myself. Cars don’t run on empty, and neither do you. You need to feel OK to be calm and this aware. This means knowing what you need (sleep, self-care, R&R) and taking the responsibility for getting it—you have to make the time.

Think of these as goals rather than something you can just do immediately, and give yourself time and understanding—just as you're going to give time and understanding to those you love.

 

Meditation for Anxiety: Proven Relief

How many of us experience too much stress and anxiety? Certainly children and adults with Aspergers Syndrome, NLD and related problems, since every day is an ongoing stream of new challenges. Even those not faced with autistic spectrum disorders often confront stressful work and family situations. This stress limits our ability to think clearly, to react calmly and to be effective.

Many scientific studies have shown that stress causes physical change in your body; it's not "all in your mind." Your body has a physical reaction to stress whether you're actually faced with the stressful situation or even just THINKING about it. Most of us spend a large amount of our time dwelling on what's happened or worrying about what's going to happen, so many of us have chronic stress. Physical symptoms of chronic stress include everything from poor concentration, headaches, stomachaches and sleep problems to lowered immune systems and even infertility.

There are scientifically proven tools to deal with stress that actually heal these changes in your body. They are free, readily available and easy to use. The most simple techniques are relaxation and meditation. These techniques teach your body to undo the chronic stress reaction: you learn to be in the present moment and to let go of your thoughts. After consistent practice, all you need to do is a minute of these techniques and your body will relax. In time, you'll become more stress-resistant.

There are many ways to meditate. All you need to do is breathe, focus on something and return to that focus when you start thinking. You can't mess it up - we all start thinking. What's important is to let the thoughts go when you're aware of them. Your focus can be muscle relaxation, repeating a phrase or word, counting, visualization, being aware of your breath, being aware of sounds or feelings in your body, listening to music, walking, yoga, tai chi.. pretty much anything that works. CDs and apps for practicing relaxation or meditation are easy to come by online or in app stores.

Once you're used to relaxation/meditation, you can practice it anywhere. Think about it - something proven to reduce your stress and heal your body that's free, portable and has no side effects. Not bad.

I'll talk about other techniques in my next blog.