When is your child too young to use a Tablet, Smartphone, Computer and why? What are the signs of addiction? What is a healthy online life?

This is Part 1 of my interview with Ulla Dyrløv, Child Therapist and Author of four books. We talk about the mental and physical consequences of too much screen-time for your child. Ulla has first hand insight into the increasing problems of addiction, isolation and depression among our kids and gives us guidance on “best screen / online practices” in this interview.

Ulla Dyrløv is an authorized child psychologist and has been working as that for 20 years. Apart from having her own private therapy praxis, she is a popular speaker, a therapist used on Danish TV and has also written four books. Her latest book is about how our children’s brains and behavior is affected by the use of Smartphones, Tablets, in general screens and surfing the net.

Based on Ulla’s own observations she felt an urgent need for this book, as she was seeing too many large and negative side effects of the extensive use of screens in parenting today.

All Ulla’s work evolves around working with kids, teens and their families.

Ulla is 52 years-old and has three kids (one girl and two boys) of the ages 27, 24 and 20 and says: ”I have had kids around the time that the internet became more a house-hold item, but I never experienced it being overwhelming as many parents do today. ”she says.

Nina: I am guessing there has been quite a lot of computer games in your household too, if you have boys?

Ulla: Well yes, they did not play that much, but they did play some FIFA games on a Playstation. Then they played this Assasins Creed and then after having played that for a week it was enough. One of the boys played more than the other though. My daughter was always interested in computer games, but would observe rather than play. She also just wrote her Thesis on Computer games as an overlooked piece of art.

Nina: Very interesting, so you actually both write about something technological, but from two very different angles!

Ulla: She has actually helped me write my latest book. She helps me put some structure into my stream of thoughts as I write. So it has been a joint effort.

Nina: How wonderful! But Ulla, You new book is about kids, teens and the use of screens and being online. What is the Danish title?

Ulla: ”Få styr på dit barns digitale verden – En guide til dit barns online liv” (in English: Learn to control your childs Digital world – a guide to your child’s life online).

Nina: What was it that made you want to write this book?

Ulla: Well, the decisive factor was actually that when I give my lectures for professionals I always say, that they have to remember that parents always do the best they can. Suddenly I experienced a huge field where I could hear that parents did not do the best they can and also admit it! Many would say: ”We know that it is not for his own good that we allow him to sit in front of the screen 4 hours per day” or ”We know it might not be the best for her that she gets her own Instagram profile when she is only 10 years old” or they simply just give their kids, what I in my book refer to as the digital dummy.

Instead you could get the kids out in the kitchen and let them help you prepare the food. Instead of bringing them with you when you do the grocery shopping, they stay in the car with their iPad. When they are on holiday they are also just given an iPad. The parents know that this is not the best for their kids. But they do it anyway!

This made me decide to write the book. I thought to myself. ”This is really serious!” If parents are no longer doing what is best for their kids, and being aware of it too, then there is something wrong!

Nina: Why do you think parents don’t have the energy to set these limits, for I guess it is about not having the energy to do it, or what is your experience?

Ulla: Yes, this is what I see too. This is actually connected to the first book I wrote back in 2014 called ”Be a pilot for your child” (in Danish: Pilot for dit barn).

I still see the trends from back then just much more apparent today. Parents are pushed to their limits. They suffer from stress and when you do that, it becomes more difficult to handle conflicts. In order to avoid these conflicts or confrontations with your child, he or she is just given an iPad. So, I know this is a solution for many parents.

The kids are also allowed to play games on the screens for much longer time than what the parents know is good for them. Maybe they also allow the kids to play certain games that they should not be playing, but all of it is done to avoid conflicts.

Nina: Are there not several areas of parenting where parents are avoiding conflicts due to lack of emotional resources?

Ulla: Definitely yes. It is from everything related to meals, bed times, dropping off the kids in the institutions with a comments such as: ”is it ok daddy is leaving now”?

Kids are given more questions than ever before and special agreements are being made with them.

In reality the kids have been given far too much responsibility way too soon and again everything is done to avoid conflicts.

Then it gets much more manipulative, as the parents pretend that the child gets to make the decision, often without the parents being aware of that they are pushing all this responsibility upon the children.

The kids cannot handle the consequences of what a “yes” or a “no” may imply to many of the questions they are given. But yes, it is definitely a clear sign that many parents are in over their heads.

Parents are also busy with social media and they are often trying to live up to an image of the perfect family life, which is so often portrayed there. But parenting is most often not like how it is being portrayed on social media.

Nina: Do you mean that people mostly post the ”best” pictures of the ”best moments” ?

Ulla: Yes, exactly, and also all the good things you are doing for your kids and all the amazing results your kids have achieved. So it is very rarely a truthful picture we are shown.

In the past we were affected by ads, but today we are also very influenced by what others are posting via social media.

Nina: Yes, and also in a way, which is making us more addicted and we have access to it 24/7. Before when we just had the TV. Once the programs were finished and there was no more to watch on the TV, you would just turn it off. Today we have unlimited access.

In your new book, you have grouped our children into different age-groups, which then are given different guidelines when it comes to being online and screen-time, correct?

Ulla: Yes and no. I was thinking about it, but I do have some age-groups, although it was a little tricky to make them. I have the 0-3 year-olds. Then I have a topic on kids up until the age where they begin school (note to reader: in Denmark this is around 6-7 years of age). The next group is from 6-7 until 11 years of age and the last group from 11 and up until 15-16 years of age.

Nina: Ok. Can you tell us why you chose these age-groups?

Ulla: Yes, it actually came about cause I was reading through several scientific findings and what surprised me the most was that the brain of the 0-3 year-old child is a very special brain! It is completely lets say, over-alert. This is not so strange, because children of that age develop so incredibly fast the first three years.

So this little brain is wired to take everything in using all senses. Scientist have been looking at the brains of children in that age to determine what happens, when you put a screen in the room, even when the screen is not put in front of the child (so not having a program on for their purpose).

So, the thing that happens is that the brain switches to a form of ”horror-modus”, which is what the scientists called it.

You can compare it to the feeling you get if you go down a dark alley and someone just shouted: ”boo” at you. It is the feeling you are left with afterwards, which is labelled as this ”horror-modus”. So, it is actually very damaging for small kids’ brains just to be in the same room as a screen that is ”on”. 

Nina: Damaging even though the toddlers are not even looking directly at the screen or should we say, are interacting with it?

Ulla: Yes, cause they are reacting to sound and light.

Nina: Wow, that is crazy.

Ulla: Yes, it is very alarming.

Nina: So, that means their small brains are in a form of constant alert similar to what we feel when we sit on the edge of a chair watching a horror movie?

Ulla: Yes. It is a large group of pediatricians in The States that have carried out this research. They also found that kids who are exposed to screens showing content ”directed at them”, so kids programs etc, develop their basic ”play-skills” later. You know there are even toddlers that sit with tablets.

Nina: Yes, I know, I have seen it often.

Ulla: Yes and there are lots of complications related to that. One thing they found was that these children became worse at playing.

That is most likely due to the fact that when we touch an iPad the brain releases dopamine, which is a ”motivating substance”.

Dopamine should make kids eager to learn to crawl, and push them to ”try again” every time they are just about to succeed with something, but don’t quite manage the skill yet. So the dopamine should motivate us to keep trying.

This dopamine is also released when you sit with an iPad. In my book I call this the development of the ”lazy brain”.

Kids cannot be bothered to learn to play. They don’t even want to fight to master a certain skill in the same way anymore, cause they can get the same kick from the iPad.

Nina: Are there not some findings that state that this dopamine release is similar to what happens in the brain when you get a shot of cocaine? I read that in an article a while ago, but unfortunately I forgot where. So, that is also one more reason why it is so addictive.

Ulla: I actually cannot remember if I state that about the cocaine in my book, but I think I refer to it as “that parents are putting a little bit of cocaine in their kids milk bottles”. But, nevertheless, I find it scary that you actually go in and create a lazy brain for your child, so they cannot even be bothered to do the basic things kids should be doing.

Nina: And what is it exactly toddlers should be doing in the age 0-3?

Ulla: Well, they really have to learn a lot. In the beginning the need to ”take it all in” and have peace of mind to do so. They have more than enough to do as it is. They should not also have to deal with the impressions from a screen on top of that!

They also need someone to build a relation to. They need attach themselves to others.

They need eye-contact and this is one of the major challenges today when the parents are so often looking at a screen instead. So this is also one of the topics I write about.

These small kids see a lot of very serious expressions on the faces of their parents, who are busy looking at their screen.

These little kids don’t know what that screen is. But from birth they are trying to create a connection to the people around them. They are creating social relations. So, they want and need eye-contact, but they cannot get this. Instead they see this serious face, which results in the kids not getting enough necessary interaction.

That is actually the single most important thing the small kids have to learn in the very beginning of life. They have to create an ongoing bond with their parents. They need to have someone to smile to. Almost everything small kids learn, they learn by being encouraged or corrected by a parent, all the time.

After this they need to learn all the motor skills.

Nina: Yes, not just learn to sit still and watch a screen.

Ulla: Yes, exactly. They need to learn to play with cubes, 3 – dimensional things, feel things, taste things, smell things. Pretty much all of which is not in an iPad.

On a screen you can build LEGO or Dublo or have someone read you a story. There are even books where you press a button and it says ”cow” when you press the image of a cow. But this is far from the same as sitting with a physical book, cause a book most often includes a parent reading aloud.

Nina: Yes, and by reading a book together with your child, you can talk about what you are seeing and give the child a chance to ask further questions.

Ulla: Exactly.

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I hope you have enjoyed reading part 1 of my interview with Ulla Dyrløv. Part 2 will be up next week.

If you want to know more about Ulla Dyrløv or read her Danish books, you can visit her website by clicking here.

Do you want to read other inspiring interviews? Then you can click on the links below.

Enjoy reading and feel free to drop me a comment if you have any questions.

Smiles from Berlin

Nina

Interview with Lars Muhl – A world famous Danish Esoteric Author and Rock Star – click here.

Interview with the famous Danish Painter René Holm – click here.

Interview with Singer Marcia Barrett of BoneyM – click here.

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