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Survival Guide to Winter Break

Ahkids in front of sceenhh!  The Holidays.  With 3 weeks Winter Break for us here in Washoe County.  Yes, it can be a bit too long for some of us. Either we are working and our kids spend 2/3 of the Break in Camp or Kids’ Club, OR we are at home with them and are pulling our hair out by Jan 2nd because our kids are bored and fighting and we are going insane!

While I WILL give you some ideas for how to entertain your little ones at the end of this article, the main topic today is what NOT to do.  And the minute you hear what I’m about to say, you may want to stop reading. BUT DON’T STOP!  Because what I am going to tell you might actually make the Winter Break BETTER, despite the desperation you feel when I initially tell you: 

PLEASE DO NOT LET YOUR KIDS SPEND HOURS PER DAY IN FRONT OF SCREENS/ELECTRONICS THIS SCHOOL BREAK. 

I know that is a daunting idea. YouTube Kids is a really great babysitter. And keeps them out of trouble while you work from home, or clean the post-Holiday disaster you’ve been left with. And I KNOW SOMETIMES WE HAVE NO CHOICE.  

But HEAR ME OUT

We all know too much screen time is detrimental.  But many of us think, “as long as it’s educational,’  or interactive, or creative (like Minecraft???), it’s ok. 

While there IS some merit to the idea of having your kids watch educational channels instead of Sponge Bob, here’s the problem:  Electronics, movies, TV, videos, games, etc ALL overstimulate the brain and can cause addiction, ADD, anxiety, insomnia, moodiness, anger, tantrums, depression and inability to be creative and imaginative. Don’t all of these sound like a recipe for a disastrous 3-week Winter Break at home with your kids???

The Research is Indisputable

A new study completed in November 2017 by San Diego State University professor of psychology Jean Twenge and published in Clinical Psychological Science, found that:

“the suicide rate for girls aged 13-18 increased by 65 percent between 2010 and 2015, and the number of girls experiencing so-called suicide-related outcomes — feeling hopeless, thinking about suicide, planning for suicide or attempting suicide — rose by 12 percent. The number of teen girls reporting symptoms of severe depression increased by 58 percent.”

The same study discovered that during these same 5 years, the SINGLE BIGGEST CHANGE IN THESE GIRL’S LIFESTYLES WAS A SIGNIFICANT INCREASE IN SCREEN TIME. The study found a nearly doubling of suicide-related events and major depression when screen time jumped from 1 hour per day to 5 hours per day. 

A new Diagnosis for Screen Addiction

Victoria Dunckley MD, writing for Psychology Today has coined a new diagnosis term (not yet coded),  for a modern mental health condition in children.  She calls it Electronic Screen Syndrome.      

“ESS is essentially a disorder of dysregulation.  Dysregulation can be defined as an inability to modulate one’s mood, attention, or level of arousal in a manner appropriate to one’s environment.    Interacting with screens shifts the nervous system into fight-or-flight mode which leads to dysregulation and disorganization of various biological systems.”

Dr. Dunckley goes on to say that this effect on kids occurs regardless of the content on the screen and is mostly related to detrimental effects on the nervous system, akin to repeated stress and can appear like a psychiatric disorder even when NO PSYCHIATRIC ISSUES EXIST.  By prescribing an “electronic fast” to patients in her clinic, Dr. Bunckley has seen improved moods, improved grades, increased compliance, and resolution of aggression.

Wouldn’t Winter Break be MORE pleasant with calmer, nicer, more focused kids?

Dr. Bunckley has written a book about this topic that may help if you are having severe issues, or simply want support in the removal of screen time in your household, called, “Reset Your Child’s Brain”

Forming early addictions

Not only does excessive screen time affect mood and behavior. It gets worse than that.  Many researchers and doctors believe it is “electronic cocaine” and young brains are extremely susceptible to forming addictions. 

“Dr. Peter Whybrow, director of neuroscience at UCLA, calls screens “electronic cocaine” and Chinese researchers call them “digital heroin.” In fact, Dr. Andrew Doan, the head of addiction research for the Pentagon and the US Navy — who has been researching video game addiction — calls video games and screen technologies “digital pharmakeia” (Greek for drug).”      (source)

The hyper-stimulation and instant-gratification from electronics stimulate the powerful neurotransmitter called dopamine.  Dopamine is one of the “feel good” brain chemicals and is responsible for addictive and pleasure-seeking, risky behavior.  We have all heard of  the “dopamine rush”.  This is what keeps us coming back for more of whatever we have become addicted to.  Research is showing that electronics “affect the brain’s frontal cortex — which controls executive functioning, including impulse control — in exactly the same way that cocaine does.”

Digital Detox

While clinicians often prescribe a 4-6 week total screen avoidance for kids with severe issues, hopefully most of us are still in the “prevention boat”. Limiting screen time to homework on weeknights and 2 hours on the weekends, encouraging outdoor play, playdates and sports will all go a long way to preventing the need for a psychiatrically-prescribed detox.  While on long school breaks, we have to do some serious consideration of time spent in front of screens.  Have a conversation with your kids if they are older.  Be honest about why we want them to avoid screens, discuss the detriments to their health and help to instill some self-control.  If a game is scaring them or frustrating them, help them to walk away and take a break.  Encourage them to find an activity that feels good, like playing music, drawing or reading.  Explain how some kids have a really hard time quitting and that we would rather not be in that situation.

Like all addictive behavior, some are more susceptible than others.  Be aware of this potential and stop it or seek help.  This is a very real and very serious side effect to our digitally advanced world. 

Don’t be a Monkey

As a parent, remember, “Monkey see monkey do”. Your kids copy your actions, and they speak much louder than words.  Do not fall victim yourself to “Distracted Parent Syndrome”. Put down your device during meal times, look at your child when they talk to you, devote time for them away from your job, social life, obligations. 

Sleep disturbance

As if we need more negative attributes to convince you to do a digital detox, Sleep disturbance is a direct and very detrimental  side-effect of screens. The light in our eyes before bedtime does not allow the sleep cycle to initiate.  By blocking melatonin, kids have trouble falling asleep and getting deep, restorative sleep.  They often wake and can’t get back to sleep.  I have heard countless stories in my practice of parents removing screen time 1-2 hours prior to bedtime and completely recovering a child who once was a nightmare to put to sleep, now literally “sleeps like a baby”.

Choicesgirl in front of screen

I want to be clear that I realize that sometimes we have absolutely no choice as parents:  sitting in front of a video screen truly can be the safest place for a child if a parent HAS to be otherwise occupied.  Many of us have no choice but to work, whether from home or otherwise and a child with a device in their hands allows us to accomplish many tasks. I want to honor those that are simply making the best of a difficult situation.

But for those times when we CAN MAKE better choices for our children, I wanted to put the awareness out there of just how damaging too much screen time can be on our little ones.

Alternatives

I realize that dropping a bomb like this at the beginning of a 3-week school break is pretty rude.  So, I will give you some ideas as to how to entertain, occupy and otherwise enjoy your kids this Winter Break.

Activities that require some spending money:

  1. Go play in the snow. If we get any. Or go up to the mountains.   
  2. Go ice skating downtown Reno. 
  3. Go to an indoor climbing wall:  1) RockSport  2) Basecamp Climbing gym in the Whitney Peak Hotel, 3) Mesa Rim Climbing Center
  4. Go to the Discovery Museum.  My 12 and 10 year old still love it.
  5. Go bowling.  The GSR, Coconut Bowl are the 2 I know of.
  6. Ski, hike, bike, explore.  We live in great, dry weather, so get out in the cold winter sunshine!

Free activities:

1). Sled, hike, bike, explore. 

  • a) Crystal Peak: If the roads aren’t too muddy or snowy, check out Crystal Peak in Dog Valley and spend the day collecting crystals.  There are some true gems up there. There won’t be many people there this time of year.  We have gone when there were snowy parts of the road, so you need a 4-WD and an adult friend.  A second truck is recommended. DO NOT GO ALONE.  This is a real adventure!
  • b) go fishing at Pyramid Lake- costs $10 per adult
  • c) bike the Truckee River
  • d) go sledding- ANYWHERE there is now.  Up Mt. Rose Hwy is a sure bet.

2).  Let your kids go crazy with crafts!

(This is not exactly free since you need to purchase craft materials, but it can be cheap)

  • a) slime
  • b) vision boards – you need magazines to cut up, a large piece of paper to glue to, and glue.  Have the kids dream big and go to town!
  • c) cut out snowflakes, snowmen, Christmas trees (mom, you may need to Youtube some ideas, but don’t let them get started on the iPad!)
  • d) scrapbook your year!  Print out pics for cheap and quickly at Walgreens and have your kids scrapbook your year for you!  It may not be an Apple, hardcover, photo album, but it will be unique!  And they will put their spin on it!  What a great memory!

3) Read- head to the library, help them to discover books that they can enjoy and when they know they won’t get to watch Youtube or a movie, they may just discover the magic of reading.

4) Study- I know, this one sucks.  But this may be a good time to have your child work on school skills they are weak in:  make flash cards and have them quiz each other! Study old reading lists and do a spelling bee. When they don’t have electronics, you would be surprised what they can tolerate for 10-20 mins. My 10 year-old daughter still likes to play school.

5) Read. Oh I already said this.  But it really is the solution to entertainment in a healthy form.

6) Play with friends, NO electronics allowed.

7) Dance, listen to music

8) Play instruments.  Form a band.  Put on a show.  Create a play.  Parents HAVE to watch.

9) Photography. If you still have a real camera, send your kids out to collect pictures of nature.  Create a theme and have them explore. (note:  slightly digital, I realize, but we can’t seem to do anything anymore without a screen, now can we?). Have an old-school camera??? Even better!!!!

10) Board games.  My kids love our newest one, “Speak Out” or its cousin for younger kids, “Watch Your Mouth”.  They also enjoy Monopoly (there are young and older kid versions). Catan is a fascinating board game that is about building empires and acquiring land and resources.  There are several versions that add onto the base version.  This CAN get expensive, but I know kids as old as 18 who are obsessed with it and play it for hours.  At least it’s real and the players are interacting face to face.

Again, if you have no choice in the matter and are doing the best you can with a difficult situation, there is NO SHAME in letting a little screen time help everyone out.  But where there is a choice, I wanted to create an awareness.  DO your best to encourage your kids to develop other pleasures in life, explore and be imaginative.  I know this CAN be a luxury, but being aware is the first step.

Please, Please give me feedback on where you are at in your family with screen-time, experiences you have had, ideas you can add to my list of activities or simply critique my article.  I invite your thoughts and words!

Happy Playing!

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About Katania Taylor

Katania Taylor
Katania Taylor is a local, Reno, Nevada Doctor of Oriental Medicine and Functional Medicine with emphasis on Functional and Traditional Nutrition. She treats patients in her acupuncture clinic as well as consults with people online and through programs to change the trajectory of our children's health. Dr. Taylor believes strongly that we need to change our way of eating and treating, restore better movement and sleep habits and greatly restrict "screen time" in order to improve the odds that the next generation of kids live longer, healthier lives than the current trend. Her passion comes from being a mom to 2 children and her experience in a clinical setting for over 15 years. You can learn more about Dr. Taylor over at kataniataylor.com and @kataniataylorblog on Facebook. You can check out her programs here. Dr. Taylor sees patients at Path to Wellness Acupuncture in Reno.

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