Like many of you, I find myself in almost daily negotiations with my kids about screen time. How much is allowed? Of what quality? What are exceptions to our general rules? Oh, and, can we get an Xbox?
Positive Discipline has a lovely saying that I often refer back to during my conversations with my own children about media: We often allow our kids too much freedom until we can’t stand our kids and then we rebound by imposing too many limits until we can’t stand ourselves as parents. I like to imagine love and limits as two guideposts and our job as parents is to try and walk down the middle of the two, because this is when both parents and children are being respected. But, of course, this is hard to do! My hope in this article is to give some information about how families can approach media usage with clear values and fair expectations.
In my work with parents, I find that many of us struggle with a lot of guilt and anxiety about media usage. We live in a time when types of media and media content are exploding at an exponential rate. There are many more demands on our time and many more choices than we experienced when we were children. Our kids are media and technology savvy, often much more so than we are! We have to make judgment calls in an environment that is changing and developing almost as quickly as our own children are. We are afraid of making a mistake, of either offering too little media or too much. I know few parents who feel that they have found the sweet spot in terms of their own or their kids’ technology usage.
Even science offers us few concrete answers. This year, the American Academy of Pediatrics announced that it will be convening to revisit the guidelines for media usage that it introduced in 2011. These guidelines stated that children under the age of 2 should have no screen time and that kids older than 2 should be limited to two hours of screen time a day. The thought is that the media landscape has changed quickly in the past four years and that the medical establishment is struggling to catch up. But, is this a recommendation based on what is best for kids, or simply a response to the real world in which parents need to take a shower or make a phone call and see a thirty minute period of screen time for even a very young child as the best option available to occupy their child’s time?
What is clear is that there is much we don’t know about media and how it is affecting our brains, and those of our children. Young children’s brains are thought to be at a more vulnerable developmental stage than those of older children. But, the fact is that our children are some of the first to experience a world with interactive phones and tablets, a world where we can watch what we want when we want to, a world wherein screens have infiltrated public and private spaces to a degree never seen before. We are the test cases and the good and the bad from this new world will be a focus of much interest in decades to come.
And yet, media is far from all bad, of course! Our children get to develop their ideas about people, places, and culture, drawing from the vast resources of the Internet. They can learn new skills, interact socially with peers, and learn valuable lessons about the world at large. Kids also are able to use media as we adults do, just to decompress after a long day, a way to rest our brains when we feel overtaxed or tired. The way I talk about it with my kids is to draw a pie chart filled with sections for all the activities that make up day for them: school, family time, eating, playing sports, reading, reflective time, etc. Media is one piece of this pie, but when it gets too big it can overshadow the other value parts that make up our lives. The goal is to live a balanced life with activities that make us feel good and help to build up our sense of selves. In this way, I try not to demonize screen time, but to show it as one part of a fulfilling life.
Kids do need guidance about how to use this time and parents need to be aware of what their kids are consuming in this vast media universe. I often recommend the fabulous website, Common Sense Media, for just this purpose. On this website, you can search for specific books, video games, tv shows, and movies. Each is given a age ranking and then guidelines about whether it includes positive messages, positive role models, violence, sex, language, consumerism, and drinking/drugs/smoking. Many of the descriptions also include discussion questions so that you can talk to your kids about the messages they are receiving. This teaches kids to be intelligent media consumers. These discussions can also give parents and kids real opportunities to explore values together.
Speaking of values, this is another parenting arena where we must figure out our own values. It is our child’s job to try and push against limits, and so we must know where we stand and why we made this decision in order to withstand the pressure that kids will inevitably place on us. Many families have a set amount of time for media every day, but may make exceptions for a family movie night or watching a sporting event together. While I do recommend having straightforward limits on media usage, it is also okay to have special occasions where those limits are consciously altered.
Finally, your kids are looking at what you do with your own usage of media. Do you live the values that you expect them to live? Is this a case of do what I say and not what I do? Parents absolutely get to use technology in front of their kids, but it might be helpful to mindfully put away your phone for solid chunks of time. I often recommend that parents try to avoid constantly checking their phones, but instead decide to be on their phone for a certain amount of time.
You can be completely transparent to your kids about this separation. “Right now, Mom is checking her email and returning some messages. I will be on the phone for around fifteen minutes, and then I will be available for playing again.” With this kind of language, you are making clear boundaries around your time which you need in order to get work done and engage in the outside world, while also being respectful that you are able to spend better quality time with your kids when you are not distracted. Right now, you are teaching your children valuable lessons about love and limits as you use technology mindfully and thoughtfully.
Pediatricians Rethink Screen Time Policy for Children,Wall Street Journal
9 Tips That Helped Me Beat My iPhone Addiction, Huffington Post