Take the Hack Challenge

Controlling screen time for children and teens is harder than it sounds. This week Screenagers gives some “hacks” to decrease time on screens – are you up for the challenge?

Which hacks decrease undesired screen time? This is the question to ask kids and teens this week. From that discussion, see if they, ideally along with you, will choose to adopt one of these ideas for 24 or even 72 hours. It’s a Hack Challenge—and who doesn’t like a challenge?

I say “ideally along with you” because we are all in this together. But just because we all have challenges around managing screen time does not mean that as parents we should take a hands-off approach. I hear people say about kids that ”They just need to learn by themselves to manage screen time.” The Screenagers team is dedicated to the idea that defining sacred screen-free times in the day is key for helping youth reach their conscious goals and unconscious goals. And, finding hacks to decrease distractions fits into this 100%.

As always we would love to hear from you—what challenge did anyone in your group decide to try? Perhaps you have a different hack that you can share. Please email me directly at delaney@screengagersmove.com. You can use the tab on the left to post this TTT on Facebook, or come to our Facebook page and share with us there. It’s so wonderful to continue to learn from each other, and to be a supportive force when anyone does take on a challenge!

Here are 8 hacks that can help cut down on screen time and that can make for a good Hack Challenge.

1. Reorganize your home screen (if your child does not have a phone but uses an iPad or another device with apps they can do this on those devices)

Having all your favorite apps on your home screen can be quite tempting. Try to remove all the tempting apps and replace with just your calendar, your clock, and your calculator. My co-producer, Lisa, removed Facebook and Twitter from her home screen and it has significantly decreased the amount of time she spends on social media.

2. Delete certain apps

When it seems a particular app is taking too much of your time, of course the best thing to do is to delete it. Many youth have video game apps (by the way, I was amazed to see how many ads they get on Instagram for additional games). Perhaps your teen will take the challenge to remove a game app for 72 hours?

3. Use blocking software

A recent Pew Research Center survey found that 45% of teens say they are online “near constantly.” Apps like “Freedom” and “Self Control” are aimed at helping people minimizing this. They can block social media, online shopping or anything that distracts you online for whatever amount of time you designate.

4. Time Control Apps

On an iPhone, you can set Screen Time which sets a specific amount of time you can use particular apps. Android phones have something on their “Digital Wellbeing” dashboard called App Timers that allow you to set time limits per apps.

5. Turn-off autoplay on YouTube

According to YouTube, about 70% of the videos people watch on the platform are those that were suggested by the algorithm—and of course, many of these are the ones that start auto-playing (and thus we start “auto-watching”). A simple way to regain control and always stay on purpose is by turning off autoplay. This will prevent another video from automatically loading.

6. Limit notifications

One study found out that the average person receives about 63.5 notifications each day. This interruption is distracting and can lead you down a rabbit hole of time spent on your phone. You’ll be amazed at how much time you save by turning off notifications — limiting them to only those you need.

I have set up my phone so that the only notifications I get are the day of a flight, a car ride, and text—but even for texts I have an app that lets people know that I will not receive their message until I stop my car. People who know me well call me if it’s urgent.

7. Take ads off your page and other distractions

You might have noticed that some websites are cluttered with multitudes of distractions like autoplay videos, pop-up ads, and sidebars that make it difficult to concentrate on one thing.

There are several browser extensions that allow you to remove ads and distractions from your webpages, leaving you a clean page of just text and images. Mercury Reader, a Chrome extension, is a popular one. If the ad blocker does not allow you to read an article, it usually gives you the option to turn it off just for that page. You just look at the top of your screen for a notification.

8. Make your phone only perform in black and white

Try making your phone screen grayscale. The colors on your screen are like candy to your brain. Changing your phone to black and white is less rewarding to your cerebrum and you may then spend less time scrolling. The red notifications, i.e., you have emails waiting, messages to respond to, etc., can cause stress and are difficult to ignore.

This is a great topic to have a conversation about with youth in your life. Here are some questions to get you started.

  • When you realize that you have spent too much time on your screen, what gives you the power to stop?
  • Let’s all pick one of the ideas above to try. But first, try to measure how much time you spend on the screen now. Then, compare that to the amount you spend when you try one of the hacks.

If you have a loved one struggling with screen addiction please contact Tamara Ancona, MA, LPC at (678) 297-0708 for an evaluation, and to discuss the best treatment options available.

Screens and Meals – From babies to adults, mealtime should be screen-free

Screens are quickly taking over every aspect of daily life, and are already replacing regular interpersonal communication, but the rise of screens at mealtimes is particularly disturbing. In the article below, written by Cris Rowan, the benefits of screen-free mealtimes is explored in depth.

The evening meal is traditionally recognized as a social occasion involving family members, a table/chairs, and a home cooked dinner. When I was a child, dinners involved my two brothers and I suffering through an hour-long event where we had to listen to my father go on and on about work issues which were totally unrelated to us. I did though look forward to our family dinner ritual where each of us got to relay one good thing and one bad thing that happened to us that day…and we weren’t allowed to interrupt! Looking back now I realized how incredibly formative our dinners were in helping me learn how to listen, wait my turn, and regulate my behavior to fit into the social unit we call a family.

Fast forward to today’s hectic lives where meals are haphazard and fast paced, and often paired with screens. While at first glace this may be the ‘new normal’, use of screens at meals when combined with distracted parenting is causing significant safety issues. Neonatal Intensive Care units are reporting rising rates of aspiration from babies being bottle or breast fed while parents are attending to their phones, termed “brexting”. Toddlers are failing to reach important emotional and social developmental milestones by being conditioned to eat and use the potty while watching You Tube cartoons. Unable to self-regulate their behavior without a device will negatively impact these children the rest of their lives. As children are increasingly allowed to use screens during meals, they are eating more food and eat for longer duration, contributing to already rising levels of obesity and diabetes. As food content choice in both children and teens is driven by TV commercials which push high carb and low nutrition, general health declines. Brain development theory states “neurons that fire together wire together’ meaning that when we pair food with screens, the brain becomes conditioned to eat while watching TV or alternatively turn on a screen while eating.

What used to be a family event marked by social interactions, eating is now an ‘asocial’ episode performed in isolation. Humans are “pack” animals who develop optimally within their packs and don’t do well when isolated. There are many hazards to infants whose parents are on their phones during breast or bottle feeding, but the biggest worry is that this is a salient time for establishing a life sustaining bond. From birth (and even in utero) the infant’s “job” is to attach to their parents. Secure attachment between child and parent is a life force which ensures survival. When a parent is distracted by screens, the infant is tasked with working very hard to establish attachment, often resulting in what is termed anxious or disorganized attachment. Failure of primary attachment plays out in many ways and can eventually result in mental illness as a child, youth or adult.Competing with cell phones and tablets, children are struggling in their attempts to get their parent’s undivided and nourishing attention. The Still Face Experiment video demonstrates of the effect of parental inattention on child well being, which illustrates what happens whenever a parent looks away from a child at their screen.

Eating together as a family without screens, not only nourishes children’s bodies but also feeds their souls. So parents…please put down the phone and pick up your child. Your job as a parent will only get easier.

If you have a loved one struggling with screen addiction please contact Tamara Ancona, MA, LPC at (678) 297-0708 for an evaluation, and to discuss the best treatment options available.

‘Fortnite’ may be a virtual game, but it’s having real-life, dangerous effects

Currently, Fortnite is all the rage among children and adolescents who play video games. But more and more we’re finding that it is having negative, sometime dangerous effects in their lives. The following article, by Beth Teitell and published in the Boston Globe gives more insight.

“They are not sleeping. They are not going to school. They are dropping out of social activities. A lot of kids have stopped playing sports so they can do this.”

Michael Rich, a pediatrician and director of the Clinic for Interactive Media and Internet Disorders at Boston Children’s Hospital, was talking about the impact “Fortnite: Battle Royale” — a cartoonish multiplayer shooter game — is having on kids, mainly boys, some still in grade school.

“We have one kid who destroyed the family car because he thought his parents had locked his device inside,” Rich said. “He took a hammer to the windshield.”

A year and a half since the game’s release, Rich’s account is just one of many that describe an obsession so intense that kids are seeing doctors and therapists to break the game’s grip, in some cases losing so much weight — because they refuse to stop playing to eat — that doctors initially think they’re wasting away from a physical disease.

The stress on families has become so severe that parents are going to couples’ counselors, fighting over who’s to blame for allowing “Fortnite” into the house in the first place and how to rein in a situation that’s grown out of control.

“One of the parents will get to the point of almost considering a divorce,” said Rich Domenico, a therapist with LiveWell Therapy Associates, in the Back Bay. “It’s similar to working with parents who have a child addicted to drugs.”

Parents worrying about kids spending too much time playing video games isn’t new. But a few significant factors have combined to make today’s games harder to stop playing. Better technology has made the games more interactive, more engaging, and more artistic, said Douglas Gentile, an Iowa State University psychology professor and coauthor of the book “Violent Video Game Effects on Children and Adolescents.” More insidious, game makers have taken a lesson from slot-machine designers and started employing a variable reward schedule, according to Ofir Turel, a professor of Information Systems and Decision Sciences at California State University Fullerton.

In the case of “Fortnite,” the psychological manipulation combines with the game’s flashy colors, its many potential plots, and the element of social interaction to stimulate the brain and train it to “crave” more, he e-mailed the Globe.

“Kids are especially vulnerable to this ‘variable-reward’ mechanism because their brains are still imbalanced,” he explained. “They have almost fully developed reward processing brain systems but their self-control systems are not yet fully developed.”

“Fortnite” has been likened to a cross between “Minecraft” and “The Hunger Games.” Some 200 million people have played, but if you’re not one of them, here’s how it works: One hundred competitors are dropped on an island, where they run around finding weapons and materials to build walls, ramps, and floors that can protect them from other players.

As the game progresses, the game field gets smaller, putting opponents in ever closer range. The last player — or players, if friends are playing as a team — wins.

“Fortnite” is free, but more than 68 percent of players make in-game purchases — like pickaxes, dance moves, and outfits to personalize their characters — and the average player who makes purchases has spent $84.67, according to a 2018 study by the financial services firm Lendedu.

Epic Games Inc., creator of “Fortnite,” did not respond to Globe e-mails.

As “Fortnite” scare stories proliferate — a British behavioral specialist likened it to heroin — many parents wonder if any child can get sucked in.

Rich, of Boston Children’s Hospital, said his clinic has yet to see a patient struggling with “Fortnite” who does not also have an underlying issue. “In fact, we are currently characterizing PIMU” — Problematic Interactive Media Use — “not as a diagnosis, but as a syndrome, a group of symptoms of diagnoses ranging from ADHD to anxiety, depression, or mood disorders that manifest themselves in the interactive media environment.”

One of the BCH clinic’s patients is a Brookline boy who secretly used his father’s credit cards to make thousands of dollars of in-game purchases.

“My sweet mama’s boy became angry and disrespectful,” said the boy’s mother, who spoke to the Globe on condition of anonymity to protect her family’s privacy.

The personality transformation came after the boy switched from a Brookline public school to a private school in sixth grade. A lonely new kid, he eventually managed to make friends through his growing prowess in “Fortnite.”

As the game’s pull escalated, he refused to do anything but play. He wouldn’t go outside. Wouldn’t go to sleepaway camp. Didn’t even want to go out for his own birthday dinner.

“We couldn’t get him to do activities,” his mother said. “It was a constant argument.”

Gaming can lead to weight gain, as kids spend hours sitting on the couch. But Tara McCarthy, a clinical nutritionist with Boston Children’s Hospital, is seeing boys who won’t take a moment away from “Fortnite” to eat.

In each case, the patients came to her after a doctor found unexpected weight loss and, concerned, ordered follow-up evaluations.

McCarthy interviewed the patients, and after hearing descriptions of long stretches with no food intake, she made her diagnosis: “Fortnite.”

Lynne Karlson, a general pediatrician at Floating Hospital for Children at Tufts Medical Center, who has heard about kids denied “Fortnite” kicking down doors, suggests parents limit playtime “before it becomes so all-encompassing.”

But that can be harder than it sounds.

Samuel Roth, a clinical psychologist in Newton, described a scenario that will sound familiar to many parents.

“The parents make a deal with the kids,” he said. “ ‘You can play for this long,’ and the kids are agreeable — they’re eager to start playing.

“Everyone nods their heads, and everyone feels good, until it come to the end of the playing time, and the child cannot abide by the agreement, and the parents feel immensely violated. It tears at the fabric of trust in the family.”

As for the Brookline boy who stole his dad’s credit cards to fund his gaming, he hit rock bottom on a family trip to New Hampshire, in the summer of 2018, when he refused to go boating. While the rest of the group was enjoying the lake, he tried to break into the family car with a hammer to get his electronic device.

The incident lead to an 11-day inpatient hospital stay, where he got therapy and quit “Fortnite” cold turkey.

Looking back, even he is baffled by the power the game held. “It’s hard for me to understand why I got to the point where I was playing it so much and what I’d do to be able to play,” he said.

Now, at 13, on the other side of “Fortnite,” he’s disturbed by what he sees around him. “The little kids on the school bus have gone from Pokeman cards to ‘Fortnite,’ ” he said. “They’re in third and fourth grades and that’s all they talk about.”

If you have a loved one struggling with video game addiction please contact Tamara Ancona, MA, LPC at (678) 297-0708 for an evaluation, and to discuss the best treatment options available.