A child today spends more than six hours a day in front of an electronic screen — an average of nearly 45 hours a week. To put this in perspective, your child may be spending more time in front of screens than they would at a full-time job. In fact, they spend more time with electronic screens than they do in school, or engaged with any other activity except for sleep. Yet, screen time is even beginning to eclipse sleeptime.
A recent study found that the social demands that put adolescents in front of electronic screens are highest in the evenings — particularly in front of computers and cell phones with their friends. This causes them to lose much-needed sleep. Teens who were more active in the evenings were not only at greater risk for insomnia or depression, but also for other anxiety-related disorders such as social phobia, separation anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
An expert in the field, Dr. David Walsh, has proposed that this has created an epidemic of Discipline Deficit Disorder. This is due to the fact that children are exposed to over a million “yes messages” a year. The messages are geared to instantly getting what you want. Think about it: instant text messaging, instant text to speech, Instagram. Accord to Dr. Walsh, more, easy, fast, and fun messages threaten the very core of character traits needed for success.
This isn’t a considered opinion. It is the result of years of research. Children are continuously being exposed to the idea that they can have what they want, when they want it, including time with their electronic screens.
Why is this dangerous?
Children need to have both love and limits; fun and discipline. Research shows that children raised without understanding restrictions in life don’t perform as well as those who do. Self-control, perseverance, and resilience are the portals to becoming flourishing adults.
Believing you can obtain your goals without these essential ingredients jeopardizes the work being done in classrooms. Setting limits is important to character development for children. Here are three things you can do to help.
1. Learning to say no may be the best thing you can do to help your child say yes to success.
A free parents’ site called Say Yes To No is based on Dr. Walsh’s work and others. The site is evidence-based and helps parents cope with the necessary limits they need to set for their children (or stepchildren). It is rich with information and incorporates the latest research into user-friendly methods parents can apply.
Helping parents say no while offering support for their child is among its many contributions. It also offers daily tips on such things as how to set clear and high expectations, and how to set and enforce clear limits and consequences.
2. Help your children cultivate self-control.
Angela Duckworth, from the University of Pennsylvania, looks at the relationship between grit — the tendency to maintain interest and effort in long-term goals — and self control — what it takes to stay focused in the presence of temptations or diversions.
She and her colleague devised a measure of grit and self-control that predicted successful outcomes in different situations better than other measures such as standardized testing. Grit scores predicted final ranking in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, and graduation from Chicago public schools. Additionally, she found measures of self-control are better predictors than IQ of both report card grades and improvement in these grades.
In a recent paper she highlighted a variety of strategies that help foster self-control — such as studying in the library rather than at home to avoid distractions, or joining a sports team with a strict and demanding coach. Other strategies include simple measures such as taking batteries out of the television remote control during study time, and breaking large projects into smaller, more feasible tasks.
Self-control is such an important non-intellectual factor of success that even the folks at Sesame Street are getting involved. They have created a video of Cookie Monster showing restraint in devouring his beloved cookies.
In a pilot study conducted by Deborah Linebarger from the University of Iowa, preschoolers who viewed the Cookie Monster video were able to wait four minutes longer than their peers who watched an unrelated Sesame Street video, and were better able to control the impulse to shout out character names and to remember and repeat back longer number sequences. Helping children delay gratification can help them develop the tools needed for success.
3. Use the right kind of praise.
How we praise, and how often, has a lot to do with its effectiveness. In fact, research shows that too much or the wrong kind can be detrimental. Too much praise can boomerang. Rather than build self-esteem, it may actually do just the opposite.
Children who get constant praise from their parents may become too afraid to try new things. They avoid risks necessary for growth for fear of not getting mom and dad’s approval. Feeling the need to be validated for everything by your parents can be demeaning.
Yet, too little praise chips away at self-worth in another way. If children feel they may not be good enough, or that their parents don’t care or are too busy, it can prevent them from reaching for their goals.
Experts recommend quality over quantity when it comes to praise. Be genuine and sincere with a focus on the effort made, not on the outcome. For many parents this is a struggle.
We often get focused on the achievement rather than the process that led up to it. If your child strikes out twice and then gets on base, the praise should be highlighted on the sustained effort, the resilience, and the perseverance, not on the hit. If you were to praise the child after getting on base for being “a good baseball player” they get the message that their value as a person is wrapped up only with success. As one of the leading researchers in the field, Eddie Brummelman from the Netherlands, has said, “when children subsequently fail, they may infer they are unworthy.”
Finally, nearly every researcher agrees that rewards, like money, set a child up to be externally motivated, pinning their self-worth to material things. We know from research on materialism that this isn’t what works in the long run. If we are looking for our children to have a happy life, we ultimately want them to be self-motivated and inspired by the positive feelings that come with success.
An earlier version of this material appeared in a Two River Times column by the author.
Happy kids photo available from Shutterstock