How a Digital Detox Could Improve Your Child's Behavior Problems

Young boy using digital tablet in bed
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You can’t avoid screens in today’s world. There are TVs in waiting rooms, tablets in schools, and smartphones in most people’s pockets. As technology continues to emerge, and screens have become integrated into everyday life, some families have had trouble deciding how much time to allow kids to use electronics.

Even the American Academy of Pediatrics has changed their advice over the years. For many years, they recommended no more than two hours of screen time per day for children. But, as electronics became increasingly portable, they acknowledged how difficult it can be to enforce those limits.

After all, if your 12-year-old has a smartphone in their pocket, how do you limit how often they stare at the screen? Or if your 9-year-old uses their tablet to read books, should you still set a strict time limit?

Signs That Your Child Needs a Digital Detox

For some families, screen time has slowly taken over their lives. Kids are keeping their noses buried in their electronics and they’re missing out on seeing the world. And in many homes, family time involves everyone sitting around in the living room staring at their smartphones.

If your family has developed some unhealthy habits, a digital detox could help. That’s not to say you need to avoid screens for a lengthy amount of time. Unplugging from technology on a short-term basis could be just the break you need to develop some healthier habits.

Excessive media use can lead to behavioral, emotional, and academic problems. Your child may need a break from electronics if:

  • You get into power struggles. 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.
  • They depend on technology for entertainment. Studies estimate the average child spends upwards of eight hours per day on electronic devices. If your child has gotten into 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.
  • Your family has developed some bad habits. Watching TV during meals, 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.

Screen Time and Behavior Problems

Researchers continue to study how screen time influences child development and behavior. As new technology unfolds, it changes the way children relate to screens. Portable video games allow kids to use screens in the car. Smartphones mean kids can access screens while they walk around the grocery store. 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 behavior 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:

  • Increased aggression
  • Sleep problems
  • Social problems (such as difficulty recognizing other people’s emotions and trouble communicating face-to-face, which can lead to conflict)

Many parents report anecdotal evidence that technology leads to increased behavior problems. Electronics may get in the way of responsibilities, like chores or homework. Or, parents may 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.

How a Detox Boosts 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 their normal screen use.

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 behavior 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.

Benefits of Outdoor Time

Prior to the invention of 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 during their spare time. So, 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. Exercise also helps kids sleep better.

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.

Breaking 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. 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

There are many ways to implement a digital detox for your family (don't limit the detox to kids only!).

  • 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.
  • 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 an impossibility—consider a digital detox on a smaller scale. Consider making a plan to unplug a few weekends each year.

A Word From Verywell

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 homework and chores done.

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.

7 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading

By Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a psychotherapist, an international bestselling author of books on mental strength and host of The Verywell Mind Podcast. She delivered one of the most popular TEDx talks of all time.