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A Four-Week Plan to End Meltdowns, Raise Grades, and Boost Social Skills
by Reversing the Effects of Electronic Screen-Time

Do you have a child struggling with emotional, learning, sensory, or behavioral issues that are so disruptive you’re pulling your hair out? Does the littlest thing set them off? Does your child seem “wired and tired”–that is, agitated but exhausted at the same time? Are you trying different treatments and strategies but nothing’s working?
What if one simple and free intervention provided dramatic improvement across a broad range symptoms– regardless of diagnosis? Would you be willing to try it for a month, even if it seemed inconvenient or “too hard” at first glance? (Spoiler alert: parents always say the program was much easier than they imagined it to be!)
This is precisely the scenario I present in my new book,  Reset Your Child’s Brain: A Four Week Plan to End Meltdowns, Raise Grades and Boost Social Skills by Reversing the Effects of Electronic Screen-Time. Increasing numbers of children are being diagnosed with psychiatric disorders such as ADHD, Tourette’s, autism, depression and bipolar disorder.  Other children have no formal diagnosis, yet seem out of control or stuck in terms of development.  At the same time, more and more children are being prescribed “psych meds,” requiring special education, or receiving speech or occupational therapy.  Disability benefits for mental and neurological disorders now dwarf every other disability category. What’s going on?
As you may have guessed, I firmly believe all of these trends are linked to the daily barrage of stimulating screen-time on the sensitive nervous system of growing children.  But before you let any feelings of doubt or overwhelm deter you, read on. Understanding the scientific rationale first will help you be open to what I propose.

Page Contents:

Why Interactive Screen-time Wreaks Havoc on the Nervous System

Because electronic screen media is unnaturally intense in terms of sensory, cognitive, and psychological input–designed to keep the user engaged–it tends to overstimulate nervous system. The brain interprets all this stimulating input as a form of stress.  This in turn triggers fight-or-flight reactions and a high state of arousal, making it difficult to wind down and sleep deeply.
Each time a child picks up a screen device, not one but many changes occur in the brain that lead to overstimulation and hyperarousal.  Reward pathways are strongly activated which eventually become desensitized. Large amounts of dopamine are released. Blue-toned light (inherent to screens) desynchonizes the body clock and suppresses melatonin, the sleep signal.  Vivid colors and rapid changes in movement or page loads overwhelm the visual system.  Enormous amounts of information are taken in and processed, draining mental reserves and fracturing attention. Media multi-tasking and interactivity raise arousal and stress levels. Manmade radiation from both the device and from wireless communications perturb brain waves.
Over time, these changes lead to chronic stress, resulting in blood flow shifting from the more developed part of the brain (frontal lobe) to the more primitive parts of the brain. Because the frontal lobe governs emotional regulation, attention, creativity, and social behavior, any of these areas can become impaired.  Chronic stress also raises cortisol levels, which complicates frontal lobe functioning even further.  High cortisol impairs the hippocampus (needed for memory), disturbs sleep, and eventually causes atrophy (shrinkage) of the brain.  (It also causes weight gain and high blood sugar.)
When the changes become significant enough to impact frontal lobe functioning–or in other words how the child feels, thinks, behaves, or socializes–on a day-to-day basis, this is what I call Electronic Screen Syndrome (ESS).
Because of the impact on the frontal lobe and other parts of the brain and body, Electronic Screen Syndrome can mimic or exacerbate virtually any psychiatric disorder.  This phenomenon has lead to rampant misdiagnosis, inappropriate use of medication, and misuse of mental health and education resources.   Medications, in turn, often have their own host of both short and long term side effects.  Children who are aggressive are often medicated, because of safety issues.  Children with attention issues are also often medicated, because they’re failing in school. You can see how misdiagnosis is not a road you want to go down with your child! Sometimes medications are needed and helpful, but should always be minimized.
Contrary to popular belief, these dysregulating effects are much more potent with interactive screen-time, or the kind inherent to activities like gaming, internet use, texting, social media, iPad use, and so on. As such, even so-called “educational” screen-time causes overstimulation, which is a major reason why so many kids are having problems; parents mistakenly believe that educational video games and apps are harmless. And once the nervous system is “revved up,” that state tends to self-perpetuate. Thus, simply moderating screen use often fails.
You can see that there are a lot of myths and misconceptions surrounding screen-time. The confusion occurs because various powerful industries have “skin in the game” and constantly reinforce these false beliefs, so we must educate ourselves. To do so, we must look at not just the research (in part because a lot of the research is produced by the industries themselves), but at what we know about how the brain works and what it needs to be healthy, what it needs to develop properly.
Over the past decade, I’ve prescribed the Reset Program–a strict and extended “electronic fast”–for more than 500 children, teens, and young adults who’d failed to respond to conventional treatment alone. Offered in my free email course and now in much greater detail here in this book, you’ll learn the science behind of how electronics use causes the nervous system to malfunction, how that malfunction translates into different symptoms in different children, and why the Reset yields such powerful benefits in terms of mood, focus, behavior, and sleep. The book provides dozens of case studies and is packed with advice about support, school-related screen-time, protective measures, and house rules during and after the fast.
Whether your child has ADHD, autism, bipolar disorder, learning difficulties, or no diagnosis at all but is struggling for seemingly no reason, this program can help your child get back on track.

Benefits of the Reset Program:

Physiological benefits:
  • Resynchronizes the body clock
  • Normalizes hormones, including stress hormones, growth hormone, and melatonin (the sleep signal)
  • Redirects blood flow from primitive to more developed areas of the brain (e.g. the frontal lobe)
  • Enhances deep, restorative sleep
  • Rebalances brain chemistry, including dopamine
  • Reduces electrical ‘”excitability” of brain cells
  • Relieves overstimulated reward (addiction) and sensory pathways
Symptom and functional benefits:
  • Strengthens mood regulation and stress tolerance
  • Improves executive function (focus, organization, following directions)
  • Establishes baseline for screentime tolerability
  • Increases capacity for eye contact, reciprocal conversation, and empathy
  • Allows other treatments to work as they should
  • Clarifies diagnosis for mental, physical, behavioral, and learning issues
  • Decreases overall stress, arguing and constant negotiating in the home
These are just some of the benefits. Click the video below to hear more about the impact of screen-time:

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Too Much Tech in  the Classroom

Did you know that light-at-night from using the computer for homework is bad for kids’ health? That it disrupts the body clock and is associated with depression and even suicidality? That WiFi may disrupt the blood-brain barrier in children with vulnerabilities–particularly those with autism? That introducing computers into schools is associated with lower reading and math scores?
What’s more, research suggests that taking notes on paper is superior to laptop notetaking in terms of recall and exam performance, that children take longer to learn something from a screen, and that reading from screens impairs literacy development, comprehension, speed, and “deep reading” (linking material to what’s already known). Combine this with the fact that screen-time fractures attention, depletes mental reserves, and is often associated with brain-draining media multi-tasking and less movement, and the argument for restricting screens for children and teens becomes quite robust. These are but a few of the concerns stemming from the growing trend of screen-based learning and homework.
Although Reset Your Child’s Brain contains an entire chapter on issues related to school, I want to provide readers with printable Fact Sheets, templates for accommodations request, and research summaries for particular issues (e.g. screen-time and attention). This content is still being created, so please sign up for updates. I also welcome suggestions and feedback for what worked when requesting such accomodations… and what didn’t!

If you’d like updates about resources for addressing screen-time at home & school, sign up below: 

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Testimonials and praise for Reset Your Child’s Brain

Carolyn Colbert, a parenting coach and mother of two boys, blogged about her experience just prior to then during the electronic fast (the Reset Program). With her permission I’ve re-posted her entries below. Following her story is praise from other experts. You can also read parents’ and others’ reviews on Amazon

Electronic Fast Experiment: The Wake Up Call

Have you ever read an article that seemed to jump off the page at you? As if the author has a sneak peek into your life and is speaking to you directly??
I was quickly scrolling through Facebook and stopped in my tracks when the title of a Psychology Today piece seemed to speak to me. Not with a whisper, or a tap, but a 2×4 over the head.Daily screentime leaves kids irritable and prone to meltdowns
My interest turned to concern when I read “Children who are revved up and prone to rages, or (alternatively) apathetic have become disturbingly commonplace. Chronically irritable children are often in a state of abnormally high arousal, and may seem “wired and tired.” That is, they’re agitated but exhausted.”
Hmmmm…sounds familiar.
“Because chronically high arousal levels impact memory and the ability to relate, these kids are also likely to struggle academically and socially. At some point, a child with these symptoms may be given a mental-health diagnosis such as major depression, bipolar disorder, or ADHD, and offered corresponding treatments, including therapy and medication. But often these treatments don’t work very well, and the downward spiral continues.”
My son’s kindergarten teacher mentioned ‘sensory disorder’ during our year-end conference, and we had tried a couple of programs to manage his “restlessness” with limited success. We even had an appointment with a child psychologist to get a formal diagnosis before entering first grade.
I ordered Dunckley’s book Reset Your Child’s Brain on Amazon and read it in two nights (skipping the sections on teens). After checking nearly every box in the “problem areas of dysfunction & distress table”, I decided to implement her four-week plan, with the promise to “end meltdowns, raise grades, and boost social skills by reversing the effects of electronic screen-time”. An electronic fast to “allow the nervous system to reset.”
This is going to be a wild ride. I’m bracing myself for the worst. The next blog entries will be a daily account of our lives during the fast.
Grab a glass of wine and a front row seat to chaos. ?

Electronic Fast Day 1: This Is Your Brain On Minecraft

When Dr. Dunckley describes the behavior of her patients with Electronic Screen Syndrome (ESS), she may as well have been sitting in my living room writing about my boys.
I’m struck by the similarities between the plan and what I imagine a step-by-step drug rehab plan might be for an addict weaning off cocaine.  In fact, I swapped the  words “screen-time” for “cocaine”, and this is how the Table of Contents reads:
  • All Revved Up and Nowhere to Go: How Screen Time Cocaine Affects your Child’s Brain and Body
  • How Screen Time Cocaine Mimics a Wide Variety of Psychiatric, Neurological, and Behavioral Disorders
  • How Freedom from Screen Time Cocaine can Change the Brain in Days, Weeks, and Months – for Years to come
  • Getting Ready: Setting Up To Succeed
  • The Screen Time Cocaine Fast: Rejuvenate and Reset the Nervous System
  • Shoring Up Support
(Yes, there’s a chapter on Shoring Up Support and I suspect I’ll need it)
Obviously, I realize that playing Minecraft isn’t as dangerous as giving your child an illegal stimulant, but if you’ve ever gotten in between your son and level 10 on any game, you know what I’m talking about (and if you don’t know what I’m talking about, consider yourself lucky – your child isn’t the type of kid who’s in danger of ESS).
Although I know I’m doing the right thing for my family (I have no judgement; I know lots of kids who are not addicted to screens), I feel nervous.  My younger son exhibits nearly every one of the symptoms.  I know I want to do it.  But it’s still a little scary.
The book recommended giving a day’s notice, but I decide to jump right in.  I’m ready to give my speech right after school during pick up.  Which went like this:
Matt: Mom, did you sign me up for Parkour?  Dad said if I want to play the iPad I have to sign up for a sport.
Me: (thought bubble) Did he SENSE I’m taking them away?
Nate: I can’t wait to play Minecraft when I get home!
Me: (thought bubble) I’m going to give them a day’s notice.
I can’t believe I chickened out.

Electronic Fast Day 2: Don’t Shoot The Messenger

screen timeIt’s the day.  I have to admit I’m a little nervous.
I use the book’s suggestion and tell them that doctors are finding out that screen time can be bad for your brain and body.  I tell them that it’s for four weeks (book recommends three),* and that we we’re not sure what we’re going to do after the four weeks.
I didn’t discuss specifics because I knew it would open it up to debate.
I give the tablets to my husband.  Because I’m weak. I like to take baths.  And work late.  And read.  While they’re on the iPads.
8-year old son: “Oh great, now my brother is going to be MORE crazy than he normally is.”
Me: “It might actually help regulate his behavior, buddy.”
Not the reaction I was expecting.  I thought there would be more shoe throwing.
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Electronic Fast Day 3: No Turning Back Now

We come home from school and instead of iPads after homework they watch t.v.
I can’t eliminate t.v. yet.  Call me lazy.  A hypocrite.  But I’m not crazy. :)index
I decide to sell the iPads.
I feel liberated.  And a bit guilty for passing the “cocaine” to a new family.
They sell in less than 3 minutes online.
The man buying them says “they’re for my 3-year old and 5-year old”.  I cringe a little.  Not because I’m now holier-than-thou, but because I picture the little girls and their little necks bending over to see the screen.  And their little Barbies waiting patiently.
I take Nate to the pool.  His behavior is embarrassing.  Again.  I apologize to the wounded.  I laugh nervously.   Then I get in the pool with him, and we have lots of eye contact and laughs.  It’s a good day.

Electronic Fast Day 5: Sweet Moments

kissing son sunsetMy 6-year old son: “Momma, (whispering the words slowly) I. love. you.  I need one more huggy kissy before you leave for yoga!”
Momma: “I love you too, boo.”
I tell my husband that he appears to have a lot less separation anxiety.

Electronic Fast Day 6: Tablet Tantrums Replaced By Table Manners?

Nate birthday partyToday we went to a birthday pool party at a house where my boys used to obsess about playing the XBox. I was expecting lots of pleading (and I was willing to give them some time on it, to be honest).
Instead, they swam from 2pm to 6:30pm.  Hungry.  Tired.  But not grumpy.  Typically when we would leave, there would be meltdowns.  Tantrums.  Bargaining.
Loved watching them fly down the water slide, their laughs only silenced by the plunge into the pool.
I’ve also noticed a change in my 8-year old’s manners.  Politely asking please and saying thank you.

Electronic Fast Day 7: Doughnuts with Sprinkles

My boys now seem nearly unrecognizable.  After 7 days.
Today’s Conversation:donuts
8-year old son: “Let’s go get doughnuts.  I’ll pay for mine.  If there’s tax, can you pay for the tax, Dad?”
6-year old: “But I don’t have enough money for a doughnut!”
8-year old: “I’ll give you a dollar.”
I can honestly say I’ve never witnessed this kind of kindness between the two of them.  And it feels pretty magical.  Like sprinkles on a doughnut. :)
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Electronic Fast Day 8: Imagination Returns

Today we attended a birthday party for 5 hours.  Afterwards we met up with friends and their kids at a (date-night/white tablecloth) restaurant.
That kind of day would typically leave my kids (and me) frazzled.wine glass
The restaurant had a huge courtyard where the four boys played with an empty WATER BOTTLE.  For over an hour.  Catching, kicking, hiding it.  Yes, for an hour.
Typically they would be playing their iPads, ignoring their food, and complaining when it’s time to go (only 2 hours on the iPad..really!?).
I leave with a smile, and hope.  Lots of hope.

Electronic Fast Day 9: Light at the End Of the Tunnel

I’m struck by how much less parenting we’re doing.
This is ironic because I imagined the kids would be leaning on us a lot more without the hypnosis of the tablets.tunnel
My 8-year old has been playingfor an hour with his Legos.  By himself.
My 6-year old was “painting” in the shower with a paint brush on the shower door.  He painted a scene of us holding hands crossing the street.  Made me smile.

Electronic Fast Day 10: I Should Have Known Better

Today we went to friend’s house where they played the X-Box for 3 hours.
My 6-year old had a complete meltdown when wexbox left.
Not able to regulate.  He started pushing and hitting me.
“I don’t want to go!!!!  Just 5 more minutes!!!”
This brings back memories.  I take it as a welcome reminder.  A gift.

Electronic Fast Day 13: They Haven’t Forgotten

The boys haven’t mentioned the tablets for over a week.
Then out of the blue by 8-year old asks:they havent forgotten
“Mom, are you planning on selling the iPads?”
Me: “We don’t know yet, buddy.”
I swallow hard.  I’m not looking forward to telling them the truth.

Electronic Fast Day 14: Two Weeks

It’s been 2 weeks.
Two weeks without hearing “Can we play the iPads??  When can we play spoutsthe iPads?? Can we have one more minute on the iPads??”
8-year old:  “I’m kind of bored, Mom”
A good sign, in my opinion, that he’s not asking for the iPad, but just stating the obvious.

Electronic Fast Day 16: Sharing

LegoLand with my 8-year old and he asks to sign up for Mindstomatt legoland mindstormsrms class.
He asked to buy two figurines and offers to share one with his brother.  He asks me “Which one do you think he’ll like better?”

Electronic Fast Day 17: School Assessment

Today we met with the school principal, the school psychologist, student coordinator, and my 6-year old’s new first grade teacher to discuss his assessment from last year when he was in Kindergarten.
He had a really hard time sitting still, and was a disruption to the class most days.  It was stressful for all of us.
This year we wanted to meet with the school and see if  there’s anything we can do to ensure a better school year.
The school psychologist observed him in class.
His new first grade teacher gave a verbal assessment.
My husband and I held our breath as they started to tell us about his behavior this year.
“He’s a great addition to the classroom.  He’s in advanced Reading and Math class.  We actually don’t see any of the behavior he exhibited last year, other than being an active boy who likes to move.  We gave him a chair that allows him to move more freely, and he’s very happy.”
His first grade teacher actually seemed very surprised to hear how he behaved last year.
“Running the track before school starts might help him burn off some energy before school.”  We agree to start tomorrow.school2
I mention the electronic fast, and they all thought it was making a positive impact, and were interested in learning more about it.
We leave relieved. For us and for him.

Electronic Fast Day 18: No More Tears

As promised, we take our 6-year old to school and he runs the track to burn off some extra energy before school.
It works wonders.for web site
He has a great drop off.  No tears.
After school, he asks to go to the beach again and jump the waves.  We go out farther than he’s ever felt comfortable.  Lots of laughs.  He didn’t want to leave.
Tonight the kids paused the t.v. to draw a picture of Wallee.

Electronic Fast Day 19: More In Tune

Play dates have always been a bit stressful for me.
Dropping off my 6-year old always made me nervous because he can have a hard time sharing.
Today when I picked him up from a play date, the mom commented that:
“He seems different.  So kind and tuned in.  The kids played for hourin tunes.”
We ended up having dinner at their house, and the kids continued to play outside until the sun was setting.
His friend came in the house and said “Where’s his iPad??”
Me: “He doesn’t have it anymore”
My 6-year old: “See, I told you”
My 8-year old: “we find out in 2 days if they sold them or not”

Electronic Fast Day 20: Helping with Dinner

Boys asked to go to the beach again.
We spend the evening at the community pool with other families.
Kids are starving when they get home and our 6-year old asks if he can HELP make dinner.  Thisnate pasta is a first.
He cuts fresh sage from the garden.
He and my husband make pasta with butter sage sauce.
All is right with the world.

Electronic Fast Day 21: The Rain

I didn’t realize how much time and energy I was spending worrying about the time they spent on their tablets (not to mention the violent games they played).  I feel lighter.  Less Stress  Less Guilt.
I also notice that our 6-year old is sleeping better.
The boys ask us about getting their iPads back.  It’s been weeks.
My husband and I talk about a plan for letting them know they aren’t coming back.  We grab Dr. Dunckley’s book and search for advice on what to say.
We formulate a plan and ask the boys to come into my husband’s office.rain
We tell them that we sold the iPads.
That doctors are finding out tablets can be dangerous for growing brains and bodies. That we didn’t know all of this when we bought them.
We tell them that it’s not a punishment.  That we will help them when they feel bored and we have lots of activities planned.
Our 6-year old barely notices the conversation.
Our 8-year old got angry.  And then sad.  Very. Sad.
I would even say a bit depressed.
I held him and let him know that we love him and care about his well being.
I took him to Target and we shopped for a couple of board games.

Electronic Fast Day 22: The Rainbow After The Rain

This morning, I was expecting the worst.
The tablet conversation hangover.
My 8-year old said “I guess I can throw away my iRobot because you can only control it with an iPad.”  I told him he could use his dad’s iPad for that.
That night my 6-year old son’s homework asks for one activity he’d like to do all day long.  I had no doubt he’d say “play video games”.rainbow
Instead, he draws a picture of a plane flying over “Uta” and says he would visit his cousins.
The kids ask “Where exactly are the iPads if you sold them?”
I decide to distract them a bit, and say “Well, what if Wallee had them?? What would he do with them??”
My older son says “They wouldn’t work because his finger is metal!”
They both laugh.  I laugh.

Electronic Fast Day 23 and Beyond: Grace

Today my 6-year old said something I wasn’t expecting.
He hasn’t mentioned the iPad for weeks, and based on his reaction to the “we sold them” conversation, I thought he forgot about them completely.
But we were playing make-believe store, and he said, out of the blue:
“You know what Mom, I’m getting used to playing without the iPads.”
So what’s next for our family?  No one knows what the future holds.  But I know we all feel closer.  I feel empowered, and confident.  And love.  Lots of love.
I’m incredibly grateful for this second chance.  Grace.  What a gift.
Below are my "before and after" photos - our oldest son at a restaurant with his iPad (and headset), and 4 weeks later at a restaurant reading National Geographic Weird But True facts to us.
before electronic fast on ipad at restaurantafter electronic fast reading at restaurant

Reading this mom’s story brought tears to my eyes! But in truth, I see dramatic changes like this all the time in my practice. Want to read an excerpt from Reset Your Child’s Brain or ready to buy? Click here .Carolyn was so thrilled she also started a 5 week  group coaching program to share with other parents what she learned about the Reset. Almost immediately she had parents signing up! Check it out here.

Praise for Reset Your Child’s Brain:

“Impressively researched, eye-opening, and eminently practical, Reset Your Child’s Brain is an invaluable contribution to any parent’s library. Dr. Dunckley’s plan is sure to provide relief to a great many children — and their families.”
— Craig Malkin, PhD, instructor in psychology, Harvard Medical School, and author of Rethinking Narcissism“Readers will . . . feel relieved to have such a helpful guide to teaching children that there is more to life than staring at a screen.”
— Publishers Weekly“Dr. Victoria Dunckley has given every child psychiatrist and pediatrician in America a wonderful gift. This book gives us a tool to share with the parents of the millions of children in the US who are agitated, unfocused, and out of control. She also answers the question about why this problem has accelerated in the last decade: it is screen-time, not a lack of Ritalin. I completely agree with her premise and her interventions. Thank you!”
— Scott Shannon, MD, integrative child psychiatrist, past president of the American Board of Integrative Holistic Medicine, and author of Please Don’t Label My Child“Parents will probably recoil from the idea of taking their children’s cell phones and laptops away from them. Let them know that Dunckley acknowledges the mountain that she is asking them to climb and, not only gives them thorough reasons for doing it, but also a highly detailed plan for accomplishing it.”
— Retailing Insight“This practical and easy-to-read guide is a much-needed wake-up call for this digital age. Buy Reset Your Child’s Brain for your family, your school, and your local library.”
— Kerry Crofton, PhD, cofounder and executive director of Doctors for Safer Schools and author of A Wellness Guide for the Digital Age“This book looks at how electronic media use can affect the central nervous system long after the offending device has actually been used — an effect similar to that of drug addiction. It presents new studies that show how, as with drug use, functioning may not be impaired immediately, and in some cases it may even improve initially but then becomes worse. Finally, Dr. Dunckley outlines issues in diagnosis, in assessment, and most important, in treatment for battling and resetting the brain to overcome the rapidly emergent condition of Electronic Screen Syndrome.”
— Dr. Kimberly S. Young, founder and director of the Center for Internet Addiction and NetAddiction.com“One of the problems worldwide that relates to this book is sleep deprivation. This has many consequences and — to put it bluntly — makes the sleep-deprived person fat, lazy, stupid, and depressed! The more that books like this expose the problem, the sooner we will be moving to a higher and more secure state of well-being!”
— John J. Ratey, MD, clinical associate professor of psychiatry, Harvard Medical School, author of Spark and co-author of Driven to Distraction“Victoria Dunckley makes a convincing case that parents should be very concerned about their children’s constant exposure to electronic screen–based entertainment. Citing medical research as well as her work with hundreds of patients, Dr. Dunckley explains how electronic media overwhelm children’s nervous systems and impair their physical and mental functioning. Families who follow her practical approach to discontinuing electronic screen-time will see dramatic improvement in their children’s health and behavior.”
— Jessica Solodar, award-winning medical journalist and former medical writer for Massachusetts General Hospital Department of Psychiatry and the Child and Adolescent Bipolar Foundation“Parents are constantly asking, ‘What are the effects of screen use on my kids, how much is too much, and how can I regulate the use of screens by my kids?’ Finally, thanks to Dr. Dunckley’s Reset Program, parents have the answers and the tools to work on a solution!”
— Ann Corwin, PhD, MEd, parenting education consultant, TheParentingDoctor.com