Ever wondered how it is your child can stay acutely focused on a screen for an indefinite period of time when any other activity, no matter how special, has them distracted at the smallest of things?
It’s a question countless parents have asked.
Many have concluded that screen time steals focus from all other activities. This conclusion is backed up by science.
Love them or hate them, online activities, including the games that lead to addiction and a host of other problems, are here to stay.
So, how do we help kids focus without a screen?
FOCUS WITHOUT A SCREEN
THE GOOD NEWS
The good news is we can help kids focus without a screen, while still accommodating online activities in their lives.
Much of it comes down to timing – more on that later.
Another snippet of good news is that there are actually benefits of screen time for kids.
Studies have shown that playing online games promotes visual special benefits, including short term memory, learning, perception and task switching as well as a more flexible mindset and faster reaction time.
THE BAD NEWS
The downside is that the focus used for screen activities is called hyperfocus, which is a state in which a person can concentrate on one thing exclusively, blocking out all surrounding activity.
The kind of focus required to achieve things, such as school learning, is known as intentional focus.
Studies have shown that too much screen time can retrain the brain, making it difficult for children to develop intentional focus.
One study, published in Psychology of Popular Media Culture, found that while playing online games improved children’s ability to concentrate in short bursts it was damaging to long-term concentration.
Playing video games can also have negative effects on physical health, including obesity, vision, issues with posture and muscular disorders such as tendonitis and carpal tunnel syndrome.
If a child becomes addicted to playing games, it can lead to mental health problems such as depression and anti-social behaviour.
This Psychology Today article gives a detailed look at how gaming affects a child’s nervous system.
HOW TO HELP KIDS FIND FOCUS WITHOUT A SCREEN – TIMING
Even those who aren’t addicted to playing video games experience brain fog after a session.
I’ve seen it many times with my Wacky Workshops students. Some will arrive at class in a surly mood. Some, normally polite and engaged students will become rude and uncooperative. Others become frustrated when they can’t seem to focus. When I ask what they were doing before the class, the answer is always “playing a video game”.
This is where timing comes in – not only the amount of time children spend playing games, but when they play.
If you want them to enjoy a good night’s sleep, avoid screen time before bed. According to the Sleep Foundation, “An increased amount of screen time throughout the day has been linked to insomnia and symptoms of depression in adolescents. This can include social messaging, web surfing, watching TV, and gaming, in addition to using the internet for schoolwork.
You can find the recommended screen time per day for children and teens at The Australian Parents Council.
When it comes to daytime activities that require intentional focus, such as school (or even art class), timing is critical.
If you allow your child to become immersed in a game right before these activities, they will experience brain fog and it may delay their ability to grasp the given tasks and to enjoy them.
The best bet is to schedule their screen time when they will have the opportunity to break the brain fog before starting other activities.
HOW TO HELP KIDS FIND FOCUS WITHOUT A SCREEN – BREAKING THE BRAIN FOG
If your schedule doesn’t allow for this to happen naturally, you can help your child break the brain fog with a few simple distractions.
The first is physical activity. While their little brains may still be in the world of the video game, their focus will eventually shift as their body moves to the tune of a sport or a dance or a physical game. These can include Simon Says and the clapping game – where you clap a beat and the children try to copy it.
Solving jigsaws and other puzzles also help to shift their focus.
I Spy is another useful way to break the brain fog and force them to focus on what is physically around them.
Time in nature is a sure way to break the fog and help the child feel centred in this world. Plan a simple nature scavenger hunt to increase their awareness of their surroundings.
When I’m trying to get a student who is experiencing brain fog to focus on creativity, I sometimes resort to helping them create characters or a board game that represents their online game. They are still thinking about the game, but eventually, the creative process takes over and they can focus again. Read how I helped my granddaughter turn screen time into a creative adventure.
These distractions are valuable tools for parents who may be dreading the surliness and temper tantrums that often come when screen time is over.
MORE ON TIMING
There are certain times that screens are a true gift to parents.
If you’re waiting for an appointment in a busy office or trying to have a conversation with a friend they can feel like a lifesaver.
However, don’t be tempted to use this as the first distraction. Help children learn self-reliance by allowing them to experience the boredom in waiting (great things have been invented because people were bored and needed to occupy their minds).
Insist your child interact with you and your friend, practising eye contact and conversation and just general good manners, before handing over that phone or screen for them to use while you get on with your chat.
“Sometimes you have to disconnect to stay connected. Remember the old days when you had eye contact during a conversation? When everyone wasn’t looking down at a device in their hands? We’ve become so focused on that tiny screen that we forget the big picture, the people right in front of us”. Regina Brett
ENJOY THE SIGHTS
If you have a back seat video in your car, be sure to keep it off long enough for the kids to get some enjoyment from the sights.
My own (grown-up) kids have the best memories of straining their eyes trying to find that koala in a trees or roos hiding in the bush whenever we saw wildlife signs along the road on long trips.
Funnily, we never saw a koala in a tree (I still search) while in the car, but we have seen roos and plenty of other cool things.
These days, I keep the grandkids occupied with the ‘spot a yellow car’ game. The person who spots the most is the winner. You have to be looking out the window and not at a screen to win.
Wishing you a gleeful and mindful week, Tamuria