Can behavioural problems in children be improved with a Digital Detox?

Unplug your family for a digital detox. Addicted to screens

A digital detox – is that even possible in today’s world? There is no avoiding screens in 2021. There are TVs in waiting rooms, tablets in schools, and smartphones in most people’s pockets. As technology continues to emerge, screens have become integrated into everyday life. Most families have trouble deciding how much time to allow kids to play on their electronics.

For many years, the recommendations for safe and appropriate kids screen time were no more than two hours per day. As electronics have become increasingly portable, the difficulty of enforcing those limits is acknowledged.

If your teenager has a smartphone in their pocket, how do you limit how often they stare at the screen? Or if your 8-year-old uses their tablet to read books, should you still set a strict time limit? How can parents realistically monitor time spent on screens in these types of situations?

For some families, screen time has slowly but surely taken over their lives. Kids are keeping their noses buried in their electronics and they’re missing out on seeing and enjoying what’s around them. Sadly, in many homes, family time involves everyone sitting around in the living room staring at their smartphones or tablets.

Has your family developed some unhealthy screen-time habits? If the answer is ‘yes’ then a digital detox could help. Unplugging from technology on a short-term basis could be just the break you need to develop some healthier habits.

Signs Your Child (or the Whole Family) Could Use a Digital Detox

Excessive media use could lead to some behavioural, emotional, and academic problems. Here are a few signs your child could use a break from electronics:

  • Your child depends on technology for entertainment. Studies estimate the average child spends upwards of eight hours per day on electronic devices. If your child is in the habit of playing video games for hours on end, or they expect to watch countless hours of TV every day, a digital detox could give them the opportunity to explore other interests.
  • You get into power struggles over electronics. If your child argues every time you tell them to turn off the TV or shut their laptop, a break from electronics could help them become more compliant.
  • Your family has developed some bad habits with electronics. Watching TV while eating dinner, texting each other from another room instead of talking face-to-face, sleeping with smartphones next to the bed, or ignoring each other to use social media are just a few examples of bad digital habits that some families get into.

Screen Time and Behavior Problems

Researchers continue to study how screen time influences child development and behaviour. As new technology unfolds, it changes the way children relate to screens. Portable video games and movies allow kids to use screens in the car. Smartphones mean kids can access screens while they walk around. The list could go on and on.

Many studies have found links between screen time and a variety of behavior problems in children. But, those studies don’t necessarily prove causation.

Do children who naturally have behaviour problems gravitate toward electronics? Or does too much time sitting in front of a screen lead to behavior problems? Researchers offer mixed theories.

Some studies have linked excessive screen time to:

  • Sleep problems – Sleep deprivation can lead to impulsive behavior and reduced emotional regulation.
  • Social problems – Difficulty recognizing other people’s emotions and trouble communicating face-to-face can lead to increased conflict.
  • Increased aggression – Some studies have linked aggressive media to aggressive behavior in children.

Many parents report anecdotal evidence that technology leads to increased behavior problems. Electronics may get in the way of responsibilities, like helping around the house or homework. Parents find that siblings get into more arguments when they’re fighting over who gets to use the tablet next or who is going to play a particular video game first.

A Digital Detox Could Improve Social and Emotional Skills

Researchers at UCLA discovered that a digital detox improved kids’ abilities to read the emotional expressions of others. The study began by asking 11- to 13-year-olds to identify other people’s emotional expressions in photos and videos.

Then, half the group was sent to an outdoor camp where they weren’t allowed to use their electronics. The other half continued to use their normal screen time.

After five days, both groups were tested on their ability to read other people’s emotions again. The group who had continued to use their digital devices showed no improvement. The group who attended camp, however, showed a significant improvement in their ability to recognize other people’s feelings.

The researchers concluded that face-to-face time is essential for children’s social skills. Unplugging for short periods of time can help children better understand nonverbal cues.

These emotional and social skills play a crucial role in behavior management. When children understand how others feel, they’re able to adjust their behaviour accordingly.

A child who sees that a friend is frustrated may be able to back off on insisting they play by their rules. Or a child who notices that a friend is sad can lend a little extra compassion.

Replacing Screen Time With Outdoor Time Is Beneficial

Prior to the internet and video games, kids played outside much of the time. But now, the lure of technology keeps many kids glued to their screens, and inside, during their spare time.

If you take away electronics, your child might struggle to find something else to do. But their boredom could lead to more outdoor play.

Playing outside can have big benefits for kids and it can greatly reduce behavior problems. Running around releases energy and can help kids be less active indoors and promote better quality sleep.

Studies also show green spaces—playing in the grass or around trees—improves attention span and reduces stress. Other studies have linked outdoor play to improved problem-solving skills, creative thinking, and safety skills.

A Digital Detox Breaks Bad Habits

For many parents, turning on the TV the second they walk in the door or compulsively checking social media becomes a habit. Kids often develop unhealthy screen time habits too, by turning on video games before school or by getting on the computer the second they walk through the door.

Making a conscious choice to unplug for an extended period of time can break some of those bad habits.2 When kids get out of their environment and step away from their usual routine, they have an opportunity to develop new habits.

Strategies for a Digital Detox

Here are a few strategies for creating a digital detox:

  • A week-long break from electronics A camping trip, a vacation in the mountains, or a week in a remote cabin could get everyone away from the electronics. Stepping away from technology could renew everyone’s appreciation for simple activities, like board games or playing catch.
  • An electronics-free weekend – If you can’t afford a vacation—or you have a job that makes unplugging for a week seem like an impossibility—consider a digital detox on a smaller scale. Consider making a plan to unplug a few weekends each year.
  • A monthly digital-free day – Perhaps the first Saturday of every month means no screens or the last Sunday of the month is a quiet family day. Commit to spending quality time together without using electronics for one day every month.

Stepping away from electronics for a few days can be a great experiment to see if it changes your child’s behavior. A short break could boost their mood (after they get over the initial horror of not having their electronics) and increase their motivation to get their work done.

The Parental Detox

Of course, it’s important to be a good role model when it comes to electronics. If you tell your child to turn off the electronics while you’re sitting behind the computer, your words won’t be effective. So be willing to go through a digital detox with your child. It could be good for the whole family to step away from electronics for a short time.