Boundaries, Boredom, and Brain Development

Read to learn why one mom decided to limit her children’s screen time in order to foster creativity.

I wasn’t always so crazy about limiting screen time. When my kids were babies and preschoolers, our days passed one after another to the ambient noise of PBS Kids. One cold and rainy autumn weekend while staying at the grandparents, I made a decision that would change my opinions about screen time — I introduced my four-year-old son to Super Mario Brothers. It became an obsession. We did not have a gaming system in our home. He only played occasionally when we visited my parents. Perhaps this is the way I saw so clearly how it changed his behavior and his mood. Raise your hand if you know what I’m talking about. Electronic gaming is not all bad in my opinion, but I soon found out that limits have to be set and enforced. We coined a new phrase in our house: “game brain,” that grouchy, grumpy, easily frustrated feeling kids get when they have been staring at a screen for too long. I KNOW all you parents know what I’m talking about. Research shows exactly what is happening here — it’s the dopamine.

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Dopamine is a chemical released by the brain that tells you that you are experiencing pleasure. Playing video games causes our brains to release dopamine. So what’s the big deal? An imbalance of dopamine in the brain can lead to trouble. According to this article, dopamine is implicated in impulse control disorders, such as ADHD. It also plays a role in motivation, depression, motor function, and the list goes on. I do not want to overstate a problem, and how chemicals work together in the brain of a healthy human is complicated. But I think that research clearly supports the fact that kids need boundaries and they need their parents to enforce those boundaries. They are kids after all.

What should we do instead of letting the kids play video games or watch TV all day? Let them be bored. Boredom gets a bad rap, but it is so good for our brains. My kids quit coming to tell me they were bored this summer when my reply was always, “Oh good. It is so good for you to be bored.” As Dr. Dave Walsh discusses in his article The Brain Benefits of Boredom, “It turns out that in our rush to find boredom busters for our children, we actually rob the brain of essential downtime and opportunities for creative thinking associated with the wandering mind.”

I remember when my oldest daughter had just finished 1st grade. She was so upset with me when I said that we wouldn’t be getting any more toys until Christmas.  She decided she would go make her own toys and she drew these little paper raccoons that blew me away! They even have their own “trash pile where they get their food.” It was that day that I knew she really had a gift for drawing. She worked for hours on this little raccoon family. Why? Boredom. Boundaries.

We need boredom in order to exercise the creative centers of our brains. I love this article about creativity in kids where author Christine Carter states, “Many researchers believe we have fundamentally changed the experience of childhood in such a way that impairs creative development. Toy and entertainment companies feed kids an endless stream of prefab characters, images, props, and plot-lines that allow children to put their imaginations to rest.” Kids need open-ended toys that require them to use the creative centers of their brains. They need space and time to create and imagine. Kids need to make up their own games and stories. I love our building toys for this purpose. One snowy afternoon, my 4 kids made up their own board games using LEGO, a pair of dice, and several small toys (you land on the tiny motorcycle, you get to go ahead 5 spaces). It was so cool to see. They were creating, collaborating, cooperating; all things that would not have happened if they were taking turns on Minecraft all day.

I call video games “brain candy” and I think it is a fitting term. The shot of dopamine their brains get gives our kids momentary pleasure, but no “nutritional value”. If we let them play with no boundaries, their dopamine-dependent brains will not want to focus on more difficult tasks such as reading a challenging book or learning to play an instrument. I do still let my kids play video games, but they always have a timer set. If they forget to set a timer, they lose their turn the next day. And I get no complaints. I have explained to each of my children the concerns I have about screen time and it is an ongoing conversation that we have as a family. Actually tonight, as I was tucking my son in and kissing him “good night”, I told him I was going to be working after he went to bed. “How long will you work?” he asked me. “Probably a few hours,” I said. “Mom be careful,” he said, “I don’t want you to get grumpy from too much screen time.”

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