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Successful Aging: How to set boundaries for screen time

Question: On a trip last year my 7-year-old asked me if she could use my iPhone. Of course I said, “Yes.” She ended up spending a great deal of time on it while we were together, which concerned me. Since I will be seeing her again soon, how do I manage this? Y.T.

Answer: Dear Y.T. You have identified a problem facing parents, grandparents, great grandparents and even tech developers.

Let’s begin with a broad view and briefly identify the problem and its impact. Children love devices. Their screens are irresistible and little can compete with it.

Here’s the problem: Smartphones, iPads and tablets are considered a form of a digital drug, according to Dr. Nicholas Kardaras, addiction expert and author of “Glow Kids: How Screen Addiction Is Hijacking Our Kids — and How to Break the Trance.”

Recent brain imaging research shows that watching the screen for long periods of time affects the brain’s frontal cortex. This part of the brain controls what is called executive functioning, skills that help the brain organize and act on information such as planning, organizing, remembering things, prioritizing and paying attention.

The frontal cortex also controls impulses and raises dopamine levels, the feel-good neurotransmitter — most involved in addiction. This problem has been referred to as “electric cocaine” and “digital heroin.”

Clinical studies have shown that too much screen time can lead to increases in depression, anxiety and aggression. And when a video gamer loses touch with reality it can lead to psychotic-like responses.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children ages 8 to 10 are spending eight hours a day on various digital media. For teenagers it’s 11 hours a day.

We also know that children’s healthy development involves connecting with people, being creative, participating in imaginative play and being exposed to nature. The world of screens limits these activities and can stunt the developmental processes.

There’s more. Some tech developers are facing their own problem. The New York Times reported on Dec. 4 that the Easalen Institute, “a storied hippie hotel” in Big Sur, has reopened to help technologists address the question, “Am I doing the right thing for humanity?” They are wondering about the impact of their work. Ben Tauber, 34, executive director of the institute and former Google product manager, is quoted as saying, “I realized I was addicting people to their phones.”

So what to do?

Talk to your great granddaughter. Have a brief discussion that is age appropriate for a 7-year-old about why you are placing limits. If you just abruptly say, “Time is up” and grab the phone you may have a temper tantrum. Although it is hard for children (and many adults) to disengage from the device, explaining that the limited time is in her best interest may help her understand.

Set limits on the amount of time she is using your phone. Start with how much time she can have vs. the time she cannot. An example would be: How is 30 minutes? Also include where she can and cannot use your phone. In the car or in a restaurant may be off-limits.

Plan something else for her to do during the nondevice time, perhaps something with you. Examples are: taking a walk or watch her scooter or bike ride outdoors, acquire some art supplies and have your own little art party. Consider going someplace she loves such as the aquarium, zoo or botanic gardens. Baking cookies together is always fun … and delicious.

Know that you are not alone in this dilemma. Most families are dealing with how to set limits with devices. If you can set this clearly now, your great granddaughter will learn how to regulate herself as she grows up. In addition you will be enhancing her interests and supporting her physical and social activities. Children will resist any limits but it is doable.

You might also check if your children have any family policies regarding devices. If not, you might have an opportunity to be a significant influence.

Y.K., Thank you for your important question that is one for all generations. Enjoy your great granddaughter and stay strong.

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