10/17/2013 10:37 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

How Parents Can Help Bring Mindfulness to Kids' Mindless Lives of Texting, TV, Facebook and Gaming

Take away my 13-year-old grandson's cellphone and you won't hear him squawk. But just try to stop him from playing Minecraft! "Are you addicted?" I asked him this week. "A bit," he answered. I had guessed that already because, one morning, when he was supposed to be taking his five-year-old brother to the park, he told that brother that, before going, they were to do an amazing indoor activity: "It's called Minecraft camp," he said. Wide-eyed and gullible, his little brother happily gave in to one more hour of gaming.

His parents approve of this particular game. "It's awesome in that it really challenges the imagination," said my grandson. But while he has been challenged his parents have struggled. "We always had the one-hour-screen-time-per-day rule," my daughter said. "But it became apparent he was playing more. I have now countered with a new strategy: I care less about the screen time as long as he has read a book for one hour per day at home and completed all his homework."

We all know the risks to kids of too much screen time: lack of exercise that can lead to obesity and all its problems, a potential drop in school grades, difficulty in falling asleep at night, and addiction itself. How to cope with screen time whether that's TV, internet, gaming, Facebook, Twitter or just texting friends is a constant battle, my daughter and her friends agree.

"No-one is allowed phones during dinner, nor are they allowed to take them to bed," my daughter says when asked about screen-limiting house rules. "As for Facebook, my one rule is that I have to be a 'friend' so that way I can kind of see who is saying what or who the members of his social network are. So maybe I can't see the secret messages, but I can see the general calibre of discourses."

One mom's strategy is having cellphones put in a bowl inside the front door. "They're picked up when we give the go-ahead -- after homework or hockey, but then just for 15 minutes." Others make sure there's no TV or computer in their kids' rooms, nor do they allow their kids to eat in front of the TV. One dad says he makes his kids earn extra screen time through extra chores and helping neighbours.

Parents everywhere would like to see a little mindfulness brought to the mindlessness of too much texting, TV and gaming: They know the stats that most children spend between five to seven hours a day with TV or other devices. And since they themselves live in a world of hyper-connectivity, they understand that they need to walk the talk themselves.

For years we've seen evidence that mindfulness awareness has worked in stress reduction and pain management. So can mindfulness cure digital distraction? In his book Coming to Our Senses, mindfulness guru Jon Kabat-Zinn wrote that focusing in on anything today increasingly has become "a lost art." What he calls the "free-floating urgency attached to the most trivial of events," the endless to-do lists, "undermines any time we might be inclined to take for reflection."

Mindfulness teaching is already in some schools. Studies have shown how it reduces anxiety and increases productivity in teens. As parents, we can become more mindful of the time we spend dis-connected from devices and connected to our children, and them to us. Screen time robs kids of the necessary skill of building face-to-face relationships.

Kabat-Zinn has said that in this new world of connectivity, we have lost the connectivity to ourselves. Being online is not being there -- and we can help kids to understand that. Face-to-face time -- it's a brave new world and no devices are necessary. "You can't stop the waves," said Kabat-Zinn, "but you can learn to surf." And he wasn't even referring to the internet.


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