By William Sears, M.D.
This must-read, and must-do, book is written from the heart of a mother and the long experience of a family therapist. As I have been saying for decades, parenting, in a nutshell, is giving your children the tools to succeed in life. Think: empathy, compassion, engagement, love of nature, and the greatest of Mom’s formulas for raising happy, healthy kids, “Go outside and play.” Excessive screen time sabotages Mom’s wisdom.
During a recent holiday family dinner, I put a sign on the entry door to our home: “Welcome to The Fun House! Please deposit cellphones here,” with a big arrow pointing down to the deposit basket. Of course, I got a few looks of, “Oh, Grandpa…” and a few raised eyebrows from the cellphone-attached adults. It’s interesting that the adults seemed to have had more of a problem with my wish than did their children.
I noticed that, after a few minutes of imagined boredom (mother of eight, Martha, always told our children: “Boredom is a choice…”), the kids were really getting into the fun and games. They were enjoying camaraderie instead of cellphones; dinner-table talk instead of screen-checking. That day they got out of themselves and enjoyed others.
The eye-to-eye contact that parents encourage in bringing up successful children is being downgraded in favor of eye-to-screen contact. And, as Stacy Jagger so eloquently states: “Screens are coming between us.”
This book is a riveting read. I guarantee that no matter what your cellphone-use bias is, by the time you finish this book you will be motivated to believe that most families suffer from what we in our pediatric office call CPA – cellphone addiction.
Children walk into my office holding their cellphones and as I’m about to start an examination a wise parent will often admonish their child about CPA. “Please put away your cellphone and pay attention to Dr. Bill…” I restrain myself from asking, “Why didn’t you leave your child’s cellphone in the car?” Well, now that I have read Stacy’s book, I will go ahead and say it!
The overuse of screen time reminds me very much of how we pediatricians have struggled to convince parents that junk food creates junk behavior and junk learning. Our simplistic advice, “Feed your child better food…” and so on wasn’t getting results. It took shock statements like, “Your daughter is prediabetic…” and “Your son is pre-Alzheimer’s…” to get the parents’ attention. Finally, sweetened-beverage consumption is going down; yet are screens replacing sweets, and having a similar brain-dumbing and even addicting effect?
Now’s the time for parents, teachers, and all persons who have the best interests of children in mind to take action on the smart use of screen time or, as we pediatricians call it, “The largest experiment on childhood brain development in the history of mankind.” Yes, you read that right. The beautiful brains of growing children are being seriously compromised by CPA. Already the incidence of ADHD is increasing yearly, now between five and ten percent of school children, so do we really need another dose of hyperarousal in already overstimulated children? Do we really want our children to carry around a pocket device that causes disruptive dings all day long? Get ready to learn a term that I use to summarize the concerns that we pediatricians have about the effects of screen time overuse and abuse on children’s developing minds. Glucocorticoid neurotoxicity. Sounds like something you don’t want your children to have. It describes the damaging effects of prolonged high levels of stress hormones on the vulnerable and rapidly developing pre-teen and teen brain.
Before giving you a glimpse of what science says about the smart use of screen time, let me interject a ray of light into smart cellphone use. In our upcoming book, The Healthy Brain Book, I have a section entitled “The Grateful Brain” where we show it’s important that persons of all ages practice daily exercises in the attitude of gratitude. Cellphones help this happen. I encourage my patients, and our grandchildren, to keep a list of “gratitudes” – special events and special people in their lives that make them smile and feel grateful for the life they are living. Then when they go through a downer or feel that their life “sucks,” they can easily open their cellphone notepad and review some of what they have learned to be grateful for. This is a quick way to get them out of their funk and helps parents interject a bit of positivity in modern technology.
Another thing I like about 30 Day Blackout is that Stacy supports her advice with solid science, drawing on what experts around the world advise about smart cellphone use. Here is an example of this research:
There’s a dose-dependent association between metabolic syndrome (pre-diabetes and obesity) and screen time in adolescents. The term “dose dependent” means, in simple yet scary terms, the more time you spend in front of a screen the more excess fat you accumulate throughout your body. What’s interesting about this study is it also occurred in teen athletes, showing that increased exercise does not cancel out excess screen time as a health risk.
In this book the author highlights a behavior that is infecting the lives of older teens and young adults: Social anxiety. To get along, they go along with the cellphone crowd. As a result, they are becoming more comfortable relating to screens and more uncomfortable relating eye-to-eye, face-to-face with real people. In my pediatric practice, I see a behavior that affects a teen’s physical appearance: a humped-over posture resulting from “text neck” that needs to be corrected. This humped-over posture itself would interfere with social interaction.
Stacy takes you through each step on the path to surviving and thriving during the 30 Day Blackout with your family. As you follow her real-life success stories of families who have done this, one consistent perk emerges: All family members become better connected to each other instead of their screens.
I highly recommend this book. Read it, do it, and then watch your family transform from “sit and watch” to “move and play”.
William Sears, M.D.
Co-Author of The Dr. Sears T5 Wellness Plan:
Makeover Your Mind and Body, 5 Changes in 5 Weeks
I’ll never forget the Thompson family that came to see me years ago. Five children—all in the hallway outside my office—fighting, yelling, name calling, slapping each other. It was like a bad episode of The Three Stooges, except there were more of them, all young children, and the mother was about to pull her hair out.
From a well-to-do family, these children had successfully fired all their caregivers— every nanny they had ever had, quit. The parents had been working on their fast-growing company and had relinquished care of their children to nannies and screens for years. Mrs. Thompson knew her family life had reached critical mass, and the problem wasn’t getting any better. She was desperate for help. It was not only affecting their home life, but there were plenty of academic and social concerns for her children, as well. Not to mention there wasn’t a nanny in town that would take that position. Family therapy was their final hope.
Honestly, as I looked at this family swimming in dysfunction, I knew there was no way I could help them unless major changes were made. When I asked during my intake how much screen time the children had each day, I got a blank, confused stare, which I eventually realized meant ALL DAY. They watched multiple screens, with almost no breaks unless someone was snoring.
I am an expressive arts and play therapist, which means I have a way of working with children using their own language—the language of creativity and play. My office is full of art materials, musical instruments, puppets, sand trays, a dollhouse. You get the picture. Children who are in a high state of arousal from too much entertainment-based screen time come into my office thinking that I must be there to entertain them, too.
Well, I’m not. Believe it or not, everything in my office serves a purpose for facilitating a therapeutic experience.
Without the removal of screens for a time, I knew there was no practical way I could give this family what they needed. Suddenly, I was inspired. I imagined them going on a fast. Not a fast from food, but a fast from screens. I called it, “The 30 Day Turn It Off Challenge.” My private practice was new and my experience dealing with these specific issues was relatively limited. But I knew these children needed drastic changes immediately.
I somehow convinced the parents of our plan of action. Their willingness was a clear indicator of their desperation. At the time, I knew very little about the science of the negative effects of screen time on the nervous system, but I knew what I had practically observed. I knew how I handled screens with my own children, but back then, I didn’t have years of experience with hundreds of families to draw on like I do now.
What I did have were memories of a time years ago when my husband Ron and I were newly married, and we went to visit a friend’s farm that was about an hour outside Nashville. On their 150 acres sat a cabin from the 1850s, completely devoid of all modern conveniences. There was no electricity, no running water, no indoor plumbing. It had three rooms plus a loft, and we adventurously decided we wanted to spend a weekend there to experience life “unplugged.”
Now, understand we were young and had no children, and I was a frustrated adventurer who wanted to get away from my hometown. One of those nights as we were about to go to sleep, I turned to my husband and said, “I want to live here.” He looked at me like I was nuts.
“I want to live here, just for a few months, and experience life unplugged from everything.”
I didn’t understand at the time why living in the middle of the woods without electricity seemed so appealing to me. I was just young enough and crazy enough to try something completely off the wall. This trait, though severely toned-down, has thankfully followed me into middle age.
My upbringing was haphazard at best. My family was evicted from nearly every home I ever lived in. There was constant fighting, incessant chaos, my father’s drinking, my mother’s nervous breakdowns, the constant barrage of television, and my failed attempts to feel better by engaging in unhealthy relationships. My body and spirit were exhausted. Somehow, I knew that I needed a rest—a reset.
The complete calm and quiet were calling me. I felt like Jenny from Forrest Gump, who just needed to sleep a while after indulging in her partying lifestyle–except I didn’t have a safe place to rest. I seemed to find myself spinning all the time on the inside, and I couldn’t jump off the crazy train.
I needed a do-over. A reset. A calm place to just “be.”
So, being the supportive, understanding, if-that’s-what-you-need-let’s-do-it husband he is, Ron was willing to try it. About a week later, he called our friends who owned the cabin, not quite sure how to ask such an off-the-wall question.
But when our friend answered the phone, she immediately said, “Ron, I was thinking about you and Stacy just this morning when I was walking the dogs out by the cabin. I was remembering how much fun you guys had out here. I wish the two of you could come out here for a few months and live!”
Suspecting she was joking but hoping she wasn’t, Ron replied, “Well, it’s funny you would mention that.”
It was fate.
I was a ballroom dance instructor at the time, and my hair dryer, curling iron, and makeup were prime necessities given my job. So, it was bordering on miraculous, or certifiably insane, that I actually wanted to do this. I cannot really explain to you how I knew it was the right thing to do, but it’s a feeling I call God’s Delight, which usually feels like a mix of faith and crazy. We knew we needed an adventure. Well, at least I knew, and my husband was willing to orchestrate it.
We packed up every electronic item we owned, put it all into storage, and headed to the woods for what we expected to be a three-month hiatus from modern conveniences. My mom agreed to let me stay with her when I was desperate for a hot bath, and if I had a formal event to attend, I could get ready at a friend’s house.
We packed a cooler with ice and lunch meat, bought some kerosene lamps, and made our way to the farm. We had virtually no other plan but to get out there and figure it out.
As our third month was drawing to a close, we spent the weekend at Opryland Hotel following a ballroom event. We lounged around, enjoying the convenience of lights and hot water and hair dryers. Of all things, we watched a marathon of the reality show, “The Pioneer Life,” which hit a climactic point when they neared their first winter. And that gave me another crazy idea.
“Do you think we could make it in that cabin through the winter?”
“I don’t know,” replied Ron, but I could tell his engineer’s mind was already sorting out the logistics.
We decided to give it a shot. We made it to spring somehow, and then through another summer and fall. In the end, we stayed in that non-electric cabin for 18 months.
In case you’re wondering why I’m telling you all of this, you need to know that I wouldn’t take a million dollars for the lessons I learned living in that cabin. I learned the power of slow. I learned how to go for a three-mile walk with our sheepdog Max, and how to come home to the cabin and take a long nap with no clocks ticking, no refrigerator humming, nothing but the sounds of nature all around me. I learned how to listen to the wind. I learned how to sit and watch the trees, how to keep a garden, how to spend hours chatting with a neighbor. I hiked every morning and showered in a barn in a converted horse trough. I learned to enjoy those walks in the wide, open spaces.
What I didn’t know then, but I know now, is that I was allowing my nervous system to regulate for the first time in my life. I was imprinting a new pattern of mindfulness into my lifestyle that would allow my brain to notice what I was seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching—in the present moment. I was fully grounded for the first time, ever.
I was raised in such chaos that my brain perceived almost everything as a threat, as unsafe, and my nerves were literally shot, meaning my sympathetic nervous system was in a constant state of fight, flight, or freeze, which can be a torturous way to live. As anyone with trauma history knows, this is our everyday reality. Unplugging for a time was the kindest gift I could have given myself, even though my friends and family thought I had lost my mind. Some still do.
That whole experience was on my mind as I spoke with the Thompson family. Having experienced my own extreme Blackout, I intuitively knew what this family needed. Given the fact that no one even knew how much screen time the children were actually watching, much less the content, they needed an intervention. The father, embarrassed by his children’s behavior, and the mother, at her own wit’s end, were ready to do just about anything I recommended, no matter what it took.
This was the only family in my years of recommending the Blackout who repeated it six times. Yes, you read that right. Six times!
During the first 30 days, the children were basically holding their breath until it was over—counting down the days until they could have their precious devices back in their hands. The father was absolutely committed to the process, and the mother was hanging on for dear life, hoping a change was on the horizon.
They had their family meeting in my office—the father sat down with his children to explain to them that until he saw kindness and respect in their family, he would not be returning any devices and that he was truly sorry for allowing their family to get to this point. There was not a babysitter in town that would even attempt to help take care of them, he had to work, and their mother was exhausted. Basically, he just wasn’t having it anymore. So, they did it again. And again. And again… to the tune of six months!
To this day, if those children see me in town, they turn and run the other direction.
But the father got his point across, the children had a re-parenting experience (as did the parents), and they gained much-needed wisdom and insight in the process of helping their children find more productive things to do with their time than stare at a screen. And, not only did they get their time back, they got their kids back—plus their sanity, serenity, and peace of mind.
These experiences are why I recommend a 30 Day Blackout to families, and how I know full well that it will not kill them. Taking a much-needed rest from the constant barrage of notifications and screens and games will be a positive experience—eventually.
The Blackout may sound crazy to you, or to your partner, or to your family and friends. But have faith.
And hey, at least you’re not moving to a non-electric cabin.
How This Book Works
This book is a roadmap of the 30 Day Blackout, a hiker’s guide, if you will. It’s almost always the first step in a program I designed called The Mountain Method. Think of the Blackout as hiking to base camp.
In my practice, I work closely with parents to determine where the family is now and where they would like to be. Some want to transition through a divorce smoothly. Others have children who are cutting and suicidal. Some are being bullied at school or struggling with compulsive behaviors they can’t control.
The smooth transition, the healing of pain and trauma, the coping mechanisms and cessation of unwanted behavior are the families’ goals at the summit, the top of the metaphorical mountain I am helping them to climb. But before you strap on your climbing gear, you must hike to base camp.
This book is how you get there. It does not cover the entire Mountain Method, but it is a detailed guide to the Blackout.
You’ll see interviews from other parents who implemented the Blackout and what it looked like for them. You’ll hear stories of clients in my office, from mild to extreme cases, though their names and situations will be modified to protect their privacy. I’ll explain the science behind the technique and some of the methods I use in family therapy.
I’ll walk you through the steps of the Blackout, explain why you should or should not do certain things, and tell you what to expect. At the end of each chapter, there are questions I strongly suggest you answer. They will help you get the most out of this process. I recommend reading the whole book (or at least through Chapter 5), before beginning the Blackout, then referring back to specific chapters and answering the questions as you go through the process. Highlighting passages you think might pertain to your family will make it easier to reference them as you go along.
I will often speak directly to you, the reader, in a sort of simulation of family therapy. This is both to help you understand the process as you would if you were my client, and also because many people do not have access to a family therapist, due to location, finances, schedule, or a host of other reasons.
This book is not just for parents, but for anyone responsible for children—teachers, grandparents, caregivers. I will use the word “partner” to refer to whomever you are co-parenting with. This may be your spouse, your ex-spouse, a boyfriend or girlfriend, a parent, grandparent, sibling, or friend. Families come in all shapes and sizes. Your partner is whoever is in the trenches with you; the person who has your back, or who at least loves your child as much as you do.
At the end of the book are resources you can use to facilitate your Blackout and your general family health. You’ll find links to more information, book recommendations, materials and suggestions, and support groups. If you feel you could benefit from a family therapist, there are links for that as well.
This book is not intended to replace face-to-face therapy or medical care. It cannot diagnose you or your child. Please seek help from your doctor or psychiatrist/therapist if you need it. We all need a little help sometimes and it’s okay to ask for it.
Best of luck to you on the hike. I’m cheering you on.