How to Manage Your Kids’ Screen Time Habits with an ‘Electronic Fast’

A national expert offers tips on how help your kids disconnect from screens.

Is your child addicted to their device, and are they struggling with emotional, learning, sensory or behavioral issues?

At a recent ParentEd Talks event presented by Chicago Parent as part of a series of talks with parenting experts, Dr. Victoria Dunckley, a child psychiatrist and author who specializes in the impact of electronic screen time on children’s brains, says she believes an intervention – or an electronic fast – can produce a life-changing shift in brain function, leading to marked improvements in mood, focus, sleep and behavior.

An electronic fast is designed to reset the nervous system or combat what she calls Electronic Screen Syndrome. The elements of an electronic fast involve removing all devices from a child for at least four weeks. With the exception of a school-based computer, this means no video games, iPads/tablets, or smartphones. No social media, texting, looking at photos on a phone, no laptop use, etc.

Also the author of “Reset Your Child’s Brain,” Dr. Dunckley offers tips and best practices on how to implement an electronic fast in your home.

10 ways to implement an electronic fast with kids

1. Define your goals

Set your plan up for success by identifying the target areas and goals for your child. Dr. Dunckley suggests looking at the following areas to measure before and after: emotional, behavioral, school-related, social and physical. Once you’ve identified what you will track, start measuring, counting or rating the problems in order to create a baseline for evaluating gains.

2. Talk to your child about the electronic fast

Tell your child about the fast a few days before implementing it to give them time to process the idea and ask questions. Listen to their concerns, but don’t engage in arguing or negotiating. If they become upset, validate their feelings and comfort him or her but hold your ground. Be clear and calm and highlight other activities and special treats that will replace screen-time.

3. Make it a family fast

The entire family should do the fast together to help the child feel they’re not being punished. Make it fun by letting each family member take turns coming up with a different activity to replace screen time. Note:  If adults and older siblings need screen time, they should try to do it outside of the home or when the child is asleep.

4. Ensure everyone is on board

Make sure all caregivers — grandparents, babysitters, coaches, etc. — are on board with no screens during the fast. Inform teachers as well.

5. Perform a thorough “screen sweep”

Have all members of the family surrender their electronics into a device basket. Look in your home, cars, and anywhere else devices might be lurking, from top to bottom. Remove the devices from the home. Ensure your child is not using other devices outside of the home.

6. Obtain toys, games and activities to replace screen time

Dr. Dunckley cautions parents not to be afraid of unscheduled, unplanned time. She encourages them to prepare for the fast by collecting a range of non-screen items a child can play with, including games, books and planned family outings.

7. Don’t give up

Dr. Dunckley says the first few days will not be easy, as your child may feel angry, anxious or out of sorts as they learn to live without screens. Stick with the plan and don’t back down. This too shall pass.

8. Monitor progress

Check in with your child to see how they are doing without screens. Jot down any changes you’ve noticed related to the goals you have set for them.

9. Decide whether the fast was effective

Did you notice a positive change in your child’s behavior, sleep or school work? If not, consider extending the fast and reassess, or address other concerns with your child’s health professional.

10. Decide whether to eliminate or moderate screens

If the reset was successful, parents should determine whether to continue being screen-free, or whether they’ll try reintroducing screens, going very slowly and tracking along the way.

Looking for more parenting tips from experts? Register for the remaining 11 ParentEd Talks with one ticket!

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Lori Orlinsky
Lori Orlinsky
Lori Orlinsky is an award-winning journalist and bestselling children's book author. She is the mom of three little ladies who keep her on her toes.


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