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Family Mind & Body Parenting Relationships Technology

How We Save Childhood

Parents across the globe are struggling with what some call the biggest parenting challenge of all time: how to control a child’s overuse of addictive technology—primarily video games and social media/smartphones—in a culture where they have constant access to it.

Teens are binging on YouTube and video games throughout the night, sending racy photos to people they don’t know, and seeing therapists for social media-related anxiety and depression. They are even dropping out of college due to an inability to leave the virtual world long enough to attend class.

Parents are in shock and wondering what to do. Why are so many families in conflict? Why are we losing our kids to this virtual world?

Kids’ Brains and Screens

The first reason this struggle has become so overwhelming for today’s parents is that they lack a basic understanding of the physiological effect that excessive screen use has on kids’ brains and the continuing impact it has on their development into adults. Parents don’t understand why their kids are so focused on screens, and they fail to see the lasting consequences of screen overuse.

Gone are the days when normal cultural patterns assisted parents with the task of building their kids’ brains in healthy ways. As children, many of us played outside until the streetlights came on, learned new skills at clubs after school, rode bikes everywhere, played a musical instrument at school, and enjoyed pick-up games (or “free play” as we now call it) in the cul-de-sac. But today, prisoners are required to spend more time sleeping, socializing, and enjoying the outside than the average teen chooses to spend on such activities.

As kids, our parents used to be our natural moral compass. They were strict yet loving—just like our coaches. We had solid boundaries, which allowed us to develop our potential. And like good coaches, parents were in charge and respected by their children. Today, game consoles and smartphones are crowding out parents’ voices, and peers have become the new source of authority in the average child’s life.

One distressed mother recently commented that her 14-year-old daughter’s phone was her best friend. The concerned mom said, “My daughter spends so much time on her phone, I feel like she doesn’t even live here anymore—it’s like she has already moved out of our house.”

To successfully raise our kids in our screen-saturated culture, parents first need education. A simple understanding of the physical, chemical, and behavioral effects of screens on our kids’ brains can get us reoriented and ready to move in the right direction again. Research continues to emerge about these effects, providing parents with new insights and better options to solve the screen dilemma.

Role Confusion

The second reason parents struggle with their kids’ screen addictions is role confusion. The notion that children are little adults contributes to parents’ inability to manage this issue. Parents can’t be the strong guides they need to be when children are allowed to call the shots about their screen usage.

Science tells us that a teenage brain isn’t just a smaller version of an adult brain, and intelligence does not equal maturity. The idea that an adolescent child can be expected to use an addictive screen wisely with just a little encouragement or training is a myth that often leads to disastrous consequences. It’s not uncommon for parents to see a shift in the climate of their homes when they reverse this thinking. For example, the mother of one 8th-grade boy reported that her son secretly asked her to keep his phone for an additional month, following the loss of his phone privileges the previous month.

“He actually wanted me to take the phone away—I think deep down it was really causing him a lot of stress,” she said.

A teen may score in the 99th percentile on his PSAT, but because the brain’s judgment center is not fully connected until the mid-20s, he or she still does not have the executive function skills required for healthy screen use. Impulse control, the ability to plan ahead, an understanding of delayed gratification, and flexible thinking are just a few of the skills that are still developing in teenagers.

Even with a brain that is still under construction, children can be trained to appropriately use certain technology—write a paper with Microsoft Word, create a spreadsheet in Microsoft Excel, and enjoy a family movie—but their brains can’t be fully trained to resist the temptations and distractions that addictive tech brings. And, in fact, the lure and hold of addictive technology are working against the executive function development that’s still underway. Our kids are being set up for failure before we even put those protective screen covers on their new smartphones. Are we actually protecting our kids’ devices more than our kids?

Cultural Pressure

Finally, the biggest reason why parents struggle to help their kids manage screen time is that they’re pressured by the culture around them to think they have only one choice when their kids are begging for screens. Despite what their instincts are telling them, they feel they must hand screens over to their kids at certain ages or be guilty of “sheltering” their children. Parents are led to believe that every kid needs constant access to popular gaming and social media platforms to stay ahead, have friends, and be accepted. Making matters worse, parents have blind spots when it comes to their kids. For some reason, we believe that our child will be the one in a million that’s “more mature” or is a “good kid,” and therefore will not fall into the same screen traps as other kids.

A juvenile probation officer experienced these blind spots firsthand. “I’ve had many parents calling me in tears because their child erupted in violence against them. One mom bought her son a phone as a reward because he was doing so well in school. When his use got out of control, she tried to take the phone away, and he hit her. A lot of kids find their way into the juvenile justice system this way.”

A Better Path

Many parents are beginning to realize that there is another choice available to them. Despite what the culture promotes, there is a countercultural approach that is minimizing the screen struggle—hitting the pause button on video games and smartphones. Having an intentional plan to delay screen usage that is addictive and potentially toxic can have a life-changing positive effect on our kids’ development.

Parents who choose this path put their kids on a more balanced, healthy trajectory. They realize that violent video games are not healthy, and social media was not designed with a teen’s best interests in mind. They know that time spent consuming inappropriate content makes inappropriate use and inappropriate actions more common. As we learn more and more about the effects that screens have had on this generation of kids, parents are choosing the countercultural path and raising screen-strong kids all around the world.

The effects of making this choice are more dramatic than we realize. Kids raised with screen-strong principles are comfortable in their own skin and are usually more socially advanced than their screen-immersed peers. They are more likely to show respect for authority—the adults in their lives. Screen-strong kids and teens grow up with less stress, less porn, less anxiety, and less fear. They have better friends and become more confident as they stand out from the crowd. Since screens don’t dominate their lives and their time, space once again exists to master new hobbies and learn the life skills they need to develop into healthy adults, develop strong leadership skills, and enjoy future life success.

When parents choose a screen-strong path, they give their children the freedom to develop their potential, as well as a much stronger attachment to family. Screen-strong kids can experience the benefits of technology without the risk of addiction and the exposure to toxic content that excessive use can bring.

We don’t have to be victims of this screen culture. When parents get educated, reclaim their leadership role in the home, and choose the countercultural path, they can win the screen battle and get their kids back. Parents have the power and responsibility to choose how they will raise their kids in a screen-obsessed culture. This refreshing choice has the potential to save our kids from significant anxiety and pain, while freeing them to get ahead and develop into healthy and balanced adults. It’s time to stand out from the crowd, stand up for our kids, and become screen strong.

If you want to learn more about how screens affect healthy brain development and arm yourself with information about how to raise screen-strong kids, visit ScreenStrong.com. You will find solutions to childhood screen dependency, including the “ScreenStrong Challenge,” a 7-day digital detox for kids.

Melanie Hempe, BSN, is the founder of ScreenStrong, an organization that empowers parents to keep the benefits of screen media for kids while empowering parents to delay screens that can be toxic—like video games and smartphones. The ScreenStrong solution promotes a strong parenting style that proactively replaces harmful screen use with healthy activities, life skill development, and family connection.

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Mind & Body Technology

Natural Ways to Optimize Sleep

Food, water, sunlight, companionship, exercise, and sleep are the fundamentals of good health and should be the foundation of any treatment plan. They’re integral components to happy and healthy human beings. This is where I start with my patients.

And, yet, Americans aren’t sleeping. At least 35 percent of them report that they’re sleeping less than the recommended seven to nine hours. Adults that sleep less than seven hours per night are more likely to develop heart disease, Type II diabetes, and obesity. Furthermore, when they are sleeping, many struggle with insomnia, sleep apnea, frequent waking, or poor sleep quality. Insufficient sleep or poor quality sleep can make you irritable, crave carbohydrates, binge eat, gain weight, decrease work productivity, and limit cognitive performance.

In a fast-paced society that seems to put constant motion on a pedestal, it’s important to realize and respect the natural rhythms of the body. In doing so, we prioritize ourselves, our happiness, and ultimately ensure we’re living to live, not living to work.

When we’re sleeping, we actually are in motion—biochemical motion. The body is flooding itself with sleep hormones and decreasing levels of cortisol, the stress hormone that keeps us awake and alert. The body sends out chemical messengers called cytokines that act as immune regulators and decrease inflammation. We are filing away new memories and learnings from the day; sleep is integral to how we remember and think. It’s also been well studied in improving muscle recovery, cardiovascular outcomes, and improving mental health.

Here I outline four natural ways to start optimizing your sleep.

Block Out the Blue Light

We sleep better in darker rooms. The reason being is the body’s strong sensitivity to light. Before electricity and well-lit homes, our day was structured according to the sun. When the sun was out at its brightest, we were wide awake. When the sun was down, we were asleep.

The sun is one of the most prominent sources of blue light in our environment. Blue light acts on the photoreceptors in our eyes to trigger a sense of alertness and boost attention. Our bodies work best when they have slowly increasing exposure to bright light, such as the sun rising, and then decreasing exposure to bright light when it’s close to bedtime.

Unfortunately, exposure to phone screens, televisions, and tablets provides these same receptors with artificial blue light. The eye responds to these screens as if this blue light came from the sun and this disrupts natural sleep rhythms. Imagine laying in bed thinking the day was over only for your eyes to think the sun has risen again while you scroll through The Epoch Times website on your phone.

To sleep better, you can start with downtime from all screens at least an hour before bed. You can also ensure your room is as dark as possible. Most department stores now offer a wide array of black-out curtains. Additionally, while this isn’t condoning blue light scrolling, there are various “blue light blocker” apps that you can put on your computer and phone which help diminish the intensity of blue light and may lessen the impact on your photoreceptors.

Ensure Adequate Nutrient Intake

In order for the body to produce adequate amounts of melatonin, a sleep-inducing hormone, it requires specific nutrients. Folate, zinc, magnesium, B6, and iron are all needed as cofactors for the production of melatonin. Cofactors are essentially “helper molecules” that help the body create different things.

Liver is one of the most nutrient-dense foods that contains all of these nutrients. However, for those unwilling to fry up chicken livers, there are other options. Beef, pork, poultry, salmon, and tuna are all rich in B6. Beef, nuts, and seeds have large amounts of magnesium, iron, and folate. And most seafood, such as scallops and oysters, is rich in zinc.

It’s not enough to consume a couple of servings and expect miraculous results. Many people consume enough calories in a day, but most of these calories lack nutrient density. Ensuring regular dietary nutrient density to correct underlying deficiencies will help you over time. I’m a strong proponent of food to heal first, prior to supplementation. However, supplements can often be an effective tool. Many over-the-counter sleep aids contain these nutrients in varying amounts.

Stick to a Routine

The body does best with routine. While the human body is drawn to the thrill of new things, it can also be taxing on the body not to have balance around natural biological rhythms like sleep.

The nervous system learns the patterns of routine and knows what to expect and how to respond to the day. The nervous system in turn “talks” to other aspects of your body to increase or decrease alertness and arousal.

Making sure you go to bed and wake up at the same time each day, even on weekends, can help improve your overall sleep quality. It can often take up to two weeks to adapt to a set sleep schedule, so give it at least that long.

Consider Common Over-the-Counter Sleep Aids

Melatonin is one of the most common sleep aids. If you are chronically sleep-deprived, lack essential nutrients, or suffer from a gamut of other factors that cause low melatonin levels, direct supplementation can be helpful.

There are rapid-release and slow-release forms of melatonin. The latter is often more beneficial to individuals that wake frequently at night as it allows for a more continuous release of melatonin over the course of the night. Typically, one to three milligrams is best, as larger amounts may impair the body’s natural production.

Magnesium is also well-tolerated, and many stores offer magnesium supplements targeted toward sleep. These are often flavored and become fizzy when mixed with water. There are varying forms of magnesium, but magnesium citrate is the most readily available and often well tolerated. Healthy adults can tolerate 500 to 800 milligrams daily.

Various herbs offer sleep support by helping gently sedate the body, as well as decrease feelings of anxiety, restlessness, and promote drowsiness. Most “sleepytime” teas contain ingredients like passionflower, lemon balm, chamomile, and kava kava, which all help sedate the nervous system and promote relaxation.

For teas to be taken therapeutically, they need to be steeped for at least five to 10 minutes and the liquid squeezed out of the teabag. This helps ensure that the active ingredients in the plant are best extracted. It’s also important to make sure your tea is fresh so that the herbs still contain active ingredients. Many of these herbs are also available in capsules or liquid forms and in combination with sleep aid products that often contain melatonin, magnesium, and B6.

Your body is constantly listening and responding to the environment and stimuli like food, temperature, and routines. The changes above work best over time as they aren’t quick fixes. The aim is to retrain the body and nudge it back to its more optimal natural state. Prioritizing your sleep helps prioritize your health and happiness.

Dr. Allison Williams is a naturopathic doctor and professor. She has a passion for helping people improve their health and well-being so that they can live life to the fullest. She works with patients in Arizona, as well as, offers consultations out-of-state and internationally. For more information, visit ​DrAllisonWilliams.com.

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Mind & Body Nature Parenting Technology

Recovering From Nature Deficit Disorder

I often speak to parent audiences in school settings about screen addiction warning signs and prevention. On the way to the auditorium for a recent parent talk, I found myself wandering through the K-2nd grade hall of a local public school. My youngest of four children is in high school now, so it has been years since I visited an elementary school.

As I walked through the halls, I remembered fondly when my kids were little. Some things were the same: the smell of glue and crayons, and the tiny little backpacks and cubbies. But  I began to notice some things were different.

I peeked in a classroom and assumed that I would see those little desks with the chairs attached. But they weren’t there. Instead, the classrooms had strange hammocks and swinging chairs hanging from the ceiling that looked like cocoons. Instead of little chairs at the desks, they had big balls and wobble chairs that I was told were for “active sitting.” My escort, Kathy, the technology teacher, told me that since kids spend so much time indoors on screens, they are entering school lacking the core physical strength to help them actually sit in a chair and learn. Everything in the classroom was designed to accommodate kids with gross and fine motor sensory deficiencies.

She explained these tools are necessary to accomplish the catch-up work needed to build kids’ core strength. There were floor surfers so kids could slide on their bellies across the room, vestibular wedges, a balance disk, and more.  “This is the regular classroom. This is standard for our younger students,” the teacher said.

Down the hallway, there were art projects strangely different from those I remembered. Very few were made by hand. Instead, they were photos printed from a digital printer, sloppily cut out, and pasted on poster boards.

“Kid’s do digital art these days, they love the computer,“ she explained. I did get a glimpse of a few hand-drawn pieces outside the door of the first-grade classroom. Kathy said that this teacher doesn’t like to use technology in her classroom. It was refreshing to see something a little more familiar, but the drawings weren’t the trees, families, and flowers one might expect from young children. These drawings were block-like video game characters, computer/tablet screens, and one image with knives, red blood drops, and a disembodied head. I felt like I was in a science fiction movie. Where was the kid art? No houses, no birds or rainbows, and the few families drawn had no detailed faces–remember the wonderful drawing your child brought home on Mother’s Day with the exaggerated eyelashes and big earrings? None of those either.

As I continued through the building, I asked about a strange “dirt” line along the entire length of the hallway at waist level. Kathy explained: “When the children walk in single file, they extend their arms out to touch the wall so that they can get their bearings and not fall over. Their balance is off because their core is weak; they don’t get enough time outside in real physical play.”

Their balance is off in more ways than one.

I began to unravel this elementary school mystery when I got home and called Cris Rowan, a pediatric occupational therapist. She explained that the average child spends more time on a screen than asleep. They aren’t getting enough time moving or in free play to build core muscles. They aren’t spending enough time outside in nature—what’s known as a “nature deficit.”

“Humans have two sensorimotor systems that are stimulated by movement: the vestibular system located in the brain (often referenced as our “inner ear”) and the proprioceptive system located in our muscles. These two systems integrate with each other and with the visual system to provide core stability, motor coordination, and balance. Children who don’t move enough don’t fully develop these essential sensorimotor systems resulting in poor core stability, coordination, and balance with the consequent need to reach out to use the wall for stability,” she said.

Rowan said nature ignites the imagination in ways a screen never could. Nature stimulates all of our senses—sight, sound, touch, smell, and even taste—in the perfect balance that kids need to develop appropriately. Without exposure to these stimuli, kids become hypersensitive and anxious. I learned that a lack of nature experiences contributes to sensory deficiencies and that physical strength affects brain development. Who knew that holding crayons and learning to read were so dependent on how much time a child spends on the playground? It hit me just how much screen time is robbing our youth of necessary movement and physical exercise. With an increase in sedentary screen time comes attention and learning problems. It made so much sense now.

Our parents knew nothing about sensory needs or the critical core strength needs of children. Why did we not require cocoon swings, wobble chairs, and balance boards? Why were we drawing pictures of real human faces and trees and birds? Because nature was our classroom, we socialized face-to-face, and playing outside in the dirt was what we did to grow up.

Kids need to play outside.

My favorite memories of childhood centered around playing outside with my brother. These nature experiences were the building blocks of our personalities and who we became as adults.

We learned things outside you could never learn in a classroom. We used our imaginations and innovative skills to build a double-decker tree fort—complete with a trap door—in the avocado tree in our backyard. It was safe enough for us to sleep in. We made mud stew filled with leaves and berries and fought battles with kumquats—the more rotten the better. We became businessmen, selling avocados to the neighbor and investing our earnings in candy from the drug store.

We counted splinters, cuts, and skinned knees as badges of honor. We hung from trees and climbed Mr. Heart’s very tall brick wall daily (it was only five feet tall but seemed like 10 feet tall to us).  It came naturally to us to see the backyard as our workplace. We learned to use a hammer, a shovel, and a saw. We rarely complained that we were bored. I have no recollection of our parents being involved in any of our outdoor adventures. We felt independent. We rode our bikes everywhere and our parents didn’t track us.

We worked hard to build our imaginations and strengthen our brains. We learned how to plan, try new ideas, and invent our own fun. We solved problems and invented as we learned how things physically worked. We acted out the Wild Wild West show. I convinced my brother to set up a zip line from the treehouse to the real house. It was a lesson in gravity, speed, and physics.

We dug big holes in the backyard (to make temporary swimming pools), and walked our cute dog, Daisy, twice a day, rain or shine. We got plenty of dirt and vitamin D. Most importantly, we had empty space and ample time to relax and contemplate. We watched 30 minutes of TV a few times a week if it was raining outside.

We stayed outside till the streetlights came on, ate our dinner as a family, and fell into bed every night for a full eight hours of rest. We built a wealth of memories as rulers of our backyard kingdom.

School was fun.

Recess was our most important period of the day. We got our energy out and then focused on math. Teachers knew that kids who moved a lot learned a lot. We never sat for hours in front of a screen–and neither did any of our peers.

We grew physically strong. The whole class participated in fitness programs and we got ribbons for being the fastest runner and doing the most sit-ups and pull-ups. We wanted to win, so we ran a lot at home and at recess to practice. We didn’t need vestibular wedges for our chairs because we swung upside down on the ring swings.

Our emotional health grew alongside our physical strength. We developed confidence and figured out who we were as we became gritty and worked hard. Our identity was based on what our family valued, what we learned, and what we accomplished, not the approval and influence of social media peers or virtual influencers.

We weren’t anxious, we were social. There were no smartphones at lunch and there was plenty of time to build friendships. Our emotional intelligence grew as we spent in-person time with a few close friends at home and a few more at school. Science would eventually explain why quality is better than quantity when it comes to building friendships.

We were practicing our executive function skills as we worked through awkward conversations with peers without being able to text mom for help or sympathy. We learned to compromise and cooperate and communicate. And the mean girls only got to be mean till three o’clock, then everyone went home for a break and a good night’s sleep.

We shared our feelings and social conflicts with close friends in confidence or by writing them down in the diary we kept under the bed, not on public platforms. Our family stories and secret handshakes were kept private, too, making them more valuable.

Kids are lost in a virtual bubble.

Now imagine growing up in today’s world without learning how to climb trees, build forts, and balance your favorite book, bubblegum, and baby dolls as climb up to the treehouse. Imagine never feeling the soft but sometimes itchy grass on your bare feet, and the feeling of that same grass when it gets wet and slippery as you run through the sprinklers. The sun, the mud, the made-up games in the backyard—the average child is missing out on all of that today. They are living in a physically sterile and emotionally toxic virtual bubble instead.

They are out of balance and stressed. They are lacking core strength, both physically and emotionally. And it gets worse: They have no memories and no stories to draw on for the rest of their lives. They are empty and depressed because their lives are void of nature and the most wonderful parts of being a child. What will they tell their children they did when they were children?

How to fill the void?

Today’s kids are starving, empty, and missing out. The only way to fix the problem is to replace the volume of hours spent on screens with the rich benefits of nature, in-person relationships, and purposeful downtime. Remove the toxic screens from our kids’ lives, and replace them with time spent in nature.

The best antidote for screen overuse is to go play outside.

This fix is easier than you might think. For younger kids, only a few weeks of a new low-screen time routine will reset their brains. For older teens, with brains that have already been shaped by the screen culture, it will be harder. But it is possible. I’ve seen it happen many times.

To start, try to gather one or two like-minded families and resolve to make a change together. The best place to begin is with one completely screen-free week. Then progress to a month and keep going one step at a time. When toxic screens are removed as an option, kids will be forced to go outside and explore like they’re supposed to. Will they complain at first? Absolutely. But they will also get bored, get creative, and make their own fun. They deserve the opportunity to experience the freedom that the natural world brings.

Aside from stimulating kids’ creativity, imagination, and all of their senses, nature is also a source of comfort. Kids with high levels of screen time are anxious and stressed—nature is the perfect balm for their anxiety. Research in Canada shows that nature experiences can even treat ADHD. Nature experiences also lower stress levels and decrease blood pressure.

It’s hard for kids to be in nature and not move. Outdoor time helps children expend energy and calm down. If their energy isn’t expended, it turns into stress. To put it in adult terms, proper exercise doesn’t exhaust you, it keeps you healthy and relaxed. And if you’re wondering why kids can’t use screen-based games to relax, it’s because screen-based activities aren’t relaxing. Ask any adult who tries to use Facebook as a relaxation technique: It overstimulates the brain and only increases stress and anxiety.

One of our most important jobs as parents is to take the long view when it comes to our kids’ lives because children (even teens) aren’t mature enough to do that themselves. Ask your children what their favorite backyard memories are. If they don’t have any, today is the day to start creating some.

7 Warning Signs Your Child has a Screen Dependency

  1. Screen activities are the only thing that puts child in a good mood
  2. Unhappy when forced to unplug
  3. Screen use is increasing over time
  4. Only thing that motivates child
  5. Sneaks around to use screens and lies about use
  6. Increase in anxiety and stress
  7. Screen use interferes with family activities, friendships, or school