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Lorraine Lee - How to balance screen time and creativity in kids

Published by : Paul

We’re passionate about growing children’s creativity. To encourage this, not only do children need to be given the freedom to play independently, but they also need the right environment. A rich, fertile and encouraging home in which their creativity can take root and grow. We can’t teach children to be creative, but we can cultivate their creative abilities and interests. Creativity is often confused with artistic ability, yet they are different things. Being creative is the ability to use our imagination to think differently, to create and to solve. Some of our children may be able to do this through art, others through storytelling, and some through maths. Today’s world needs children with open, curious and nimble minds. Because creative thinkers are problem solvers. And, as is our mantra, one day our children will change the world. 

In our pandemic world there are lots of things that have affected children’s creativity. Screens are a big part of this. The Telegraph reported a survey that found 63% of parents believe screen time was hindering the imaginations of their children. Yet screens are not the enemy. They’re necessary and an essential part of the modern world. We could not have survived over the last year without them. At times they have been the only source of our children’s education, their socialisation and their play. And they will continue to become a key part of their education and beyond into adult life.

We chatted to expert Child Psychologist Lorriane Lee on IGTV to find out why screens affect the creative brain and how to achieve a digital balance.

What is the Creative Brain and How is it Affected by Screen Time?

When you are a child your brain is growing and developing, even until adulthood your brain is super important. It drives how everything works. Your brain is something you need to look after. There are three main parts to the brain: the bit that does your thinking and processing and decision making, the emotional bit that tries to hijack the show that tries to drive how a child behaves and lives, then the stem which is fight / flight / freeze.

When you’re online those areas of your brain are being stimulated. If you’re doing schoolwork, the thinking brain is stimulated. If you’re doing something else like gaming or scrolling, then you're likely to be stimulating the emotional part of your brain, depending on what the content is. In general children find it harder to monitor the emotional part of their brain, which is why as parents it’s important to give children some kind of parameters of their online life, as they will find it hard to override the constant stimulation of this emotional part of their brain. If you stay online all the time, and your emotional brain gets a lot, for not doing a lot, there are other parts of your brain that shut down such as your imagination and creativity, because it no longer needs to work as hard, something else has done this for you e.g. playing a video game. They’ve produced all of that data for your brain already,So we need a balance, we need to make sure that all parts of a child’s brain are being used and that we’re not leaving them vulnerable to not being able to cope coming off screens.

Screen Time Boundaries and the Concept of Digital Balance

Screens have become everything in the pandemic world, we need to balance that. The first thing to do is to have a good look at how your child responds to being on screens, or rather to come off it. If you have a child who really struggles and wants to be on screens all the time, that shows they’re not coping with those boundaries. The boundaries must be appropriate for the age of your child. If for example they are 7, they might be allowed to play one simple game with parameters around that. The boundaries and time allowances will be different according to their age.

The core element is how you come off technology, should inform how you go on technology, and whether indeed you get to go on and how long you have when you’re on. They need to understand, if they come off and they are aggressive and rude, that there is a feedback loop, that that will have an impact on whether they can be online again that day or the next day.

The second thing is to look at Digital Balance overall to help children understand that their online life doesn’t need to just be about gaming or social media, but rather there is a third element which is about being online for life efficiency. Can your child look up a recipe, can they track a parcel, can they check the price of something,, can they find a picture. That third bit, can be used as a transition for them coming off their allocated gaming / social media time. This helps them to step down, so for example if they need to stop playing a game at 5pm, they then do a functional task online to help them move away from the immersive environment of gaming.

For children who have quite a loud or angry response to coming off. Those children need a bigger plan for transition. So for example when you come off you go straight onto the trampoline, or you have 20 minutes to shoot hoops in the garden, or put on some loud music. This helps deal with the angry energy. This needs to be part of a bigger picture, to help them learn. They need to show they learn that control, otherwise it shows the technology doesn’t agree with them. They need to be an active stakeholder in that process.

That response is triggered by a chemical. The more things you do online that you enjoy, you get a release of dopamine and that dopamine feels good. The other thing that can make it difficult is that because we are often asking children to come off into a very different setting in the sense of their personal agency. Which means that a child who is interacting with a game has control in that world. They make decisions and see the outcomes and adjust. They are independently making those decisions. No adults or siblings are interrupting that process. That bit of it is addictive. So when we ask a child to come off, it feels like we are taking away their autonomy. So we need to reflect on the control children have in their life. When do they have the ability to make decisions for themselves?

Screen Time and the Family Dynamic

When kids come off screens they often feel they have nothing to do. So they want to hand that problem back over to you as a parent. But when children have a bit more personal agency they think, well I am allowed to go in the fridge and see what I can make or bake. I am allowed to go and plant some seeds. I am allowed to make certain decisions and see what happens, without having someone blocking those decisions and hoeving around trying to adjust what they’re doing as that doesn’t happen online. Also when it comes with Siblings, older children shouldn’t be responsible for little ones. They should have their personal space. I don’t always have to say yes to my sibling. I don’t always have to let them in my room. I don’t always have to give my parents the reason “I’m gaming” as something they accept for me to be on my own. It can be another reason why a child might want to go towards online worlds.

It can also be good to offer engagement, so they’re not free wheeling all the time. They could set up a game and you’ll join them in 10 minutes. That said children do need some freewheeling as that is where the imagination and creative thinking comes. Pass the responsibility of boredom back to them “it’s difficult when you don’t know what to do, I hope you come up with something”. You don’t have to take that responsibility.

Why Creativity is Important

The more parts of the brain you can use, the better your brain can work. Creativity is a big and broad thing. It is not limited to school. Children often think they’re not creative just because they find drawing difficult. There are loads of ways children are creative: having ideas, putting colours together, outfits together, problem solving etc. So parents can help their children understand that art and drawing are only one part of creativity. This keeps the brain alive and awake. The more we do this, the more useful the brain is because there is more blood flow, more action, more engaged. Those creative skills, lateral thinking is linked to confidence building for other tasks such as maths and science. Often children gain confidence by seeing how creative their brain can be and that confidence can be overlaid onto other subjects. So it is good for your brain, it is strategic for them as a learner, it’s enjoyable for the child to see creativity as a bigger and broader thing, and as a parent it gives you an amazing vantage point to see how capable your child is beyond what they have to do at school.

In adolescence the brain wants to become very efficient, it’s not the end of the growing by any means, but at this stage in particular there is a process that prunes out brain connections and resources which is when they use it or lose it. Making it difficult to pick these things up later on. In childhood we are laying those foundations.

During the pandemic, the children who had more areas of their brain that they could dip into, often fared better when things changed, like friends were no longer there, access to other adults was removed, so children had to fall back on their ways to be happy and industrious and creative. So children who already had those skills, who could flex, found the tedium much easier to manage as they had alternative things they could do. It gave them a more resilient brain and a better emotional framework.

How to Nurture and Encourage Creativity

Boredom is uncomfortable and as parents we don’t like to see discomfort in our children, which is why before children get round to solving it for themselves, we’ve stepped in. Freeplay, having resources out and available such as art and crafts available (age appropriately). Colouring books, even for adults, are really important as these do things for your brain that nothing else can achieve. So having these things available gives children a sense of free play. But to give them the chance to engage in free play, you have to take away the low hanging fruit, the technology, as once you get through the discomfort, you can get great things happen. Parents can help by asking questions, instead of always giving a solution. Is there anything in your room that might interest you? What could you do? What about the garden? You’re not saying what to do, you’re giving them ideas for what they could think about. And their brains will do it if we don’t step in and we’ll be surprised. The key thing is not to take ownership for boredom.

This is something that should be encouraged from about the age of 7 as the school environment brings choice into play at this age. At this age they are cognitively able to understand that. Younger than that, you can create a “what to do” bag together. You fill it with written ideas of things that they can do, so it’s like a lucky dip, in a moment when you’re not solving it for them, they can pick from the creative ideas you’d helped them to come up with earlier. You might ask: what things make you laugh? What things do you do when you’re sitting still? What things do you do when you’re running around? Which helps them generate the ideas.

How to Manage Screen Time Allowances

Screen Time itself is evolving, Lorraine’s perspective on this is to do with saturation. In adolescents it would be in hour blocks, so it is broken up. The key is breaking it down, rather than having it in one long chunk. The exception to that is watching a film together, because it is more social and you are sharing it with other people around you which stops your brain getting into a fully immersive state. Which is why it doesn't have the same effect on you. This hour chunks help children as they get older to use this in other ways e.g. with revision etc. When children are younger you want to make sure you stay with things that are appropriate for their age. Even if they seem really grown up, their brains are not emotionally developed to cope with this which will cause major emotional breakdowns.

As the world opens back up again, use your children’s time differently. Don’t stay in the house. Get back out into the world. Once clubs start again, reoffer these opportunities even if they didn’t do them in the past.

Ultimately online dexterity is a massive part of how you do your homework and how we function in the adult world. Children need to be on screens. We just need them to be able to manage and cope with that. So taking these steps when your children are younger will help them be able to switch screens on and off, and use them efficiently when they grow up.

Top Three Screen Time Tips

In summary Lorraine’s Top 3 Tips for parents to create a digital balance and give children’s brains space to think creatively are:

01. Stay calm, don’t have big and strong reactions in relation to screen time.

02. Within that, don’t be afraid to have some boundaries and how they behave affects the boundaries, to help them manage themselves. In other words as a tool for restraint rather than punishment.

03. Where possible, be age appropriate and discover things online that you can do together that have a creative element that you can spin off line in their real lives. Use your kitchen, your garden, give children some control and autonomy in terms of what they can do offline, in and around the house. If you can hook them in they will become fascinated with what they are doing.

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