Screen Time: Parents Can Be Proactive with Screen Use
It’s hard enough regulating screen time during the school year.
But creating boundaries of “One hour of iPad after homework is finished” or “When school is out, the Xbox is in” lack definition in the summertime.
When school’s out for summer break, things tend to be looser. Restrictions sometimes become less strict. School-age kids often have later bedtimes and are allowed more time to watch television, play Roblox on their iPads or text friends.
Even well-informed parents who understand the potential harm in excessive screen time turn a blind eye so they can get work done around the house or work their remote jobs. Before you know it, the kids have been camped out on the couch watching cartoons all day and the teenagers have only set their phones down long enough to eat and sleep.
These well-meaning parents end up feeling guilty and wonder where they went wrong. Rather than throw your hands up in the air or come down hard on the kids, consider setting yourself up for screen-time success with a plan for summertime screen use.
Making a Plan for Summer Screen Time
“Most parents know what the experts say in terms of limitations for screen time. What most parents need help with is `What makes sense for our family, and how do I go about doing that?’” said Faith Crittenden, senior program director for children’s mental health for Family & Children’s Services.
“It really is easy to give in to screen time. It pacifies kids, keeps them entertained and gives us time to fulfill our obligations,” Crittenden said.
She suggests being proactive, creating a family media plan, especially during the summer months when schedules aren’t always consistent. Her favorite is one she recommends from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). This Family Media Plan (healthychildren.org/mediaplan) can be filled out and then placed on the refrigerator or accessed online so family and caregivers are on the same page. It’s appropriate for kids from very young to teens – and even moms and dads.
Crittenden recommends co-creating the plan as a family. Having a conversation with your kids is a good way to get their investment, she said.
Once a plan is in place – whether that be 30 minutes, two hours or whatever amount of screen time a day or week you’ve established – it’s important to consider the practicality of how kids will spend their days.
Talk through or make a list of things to do when screens are off. They may seem obvious, but a reminder posted in the laundry room or on the door to the patio can give a kid a lightbulb moment. The list can be as simple as: Draw a picture for Grandma. Watch a movie. Play basketball. Go on a nature walk.
For young children, a list of ideas won’t be enough. Crittenden suggests setting up little stations or buckets of activities they have access to while parents make phone calls or do work nearby. Yes, it’s sometimes easier to turn on the television or hand kids the iPad, but when you sense it’s time for a break from screens or when the kids have reached the limit on their screen-time plans, having some established and creative fun in the house may actually be something they look forward to.
For parents working from home, checking in with kids to see what they’re up to, what they’re playing online or watching on TV is a good way to remain connected. Crittenden suggests adding those check-ins to the workday, just as you would bathroom or coffee breaks.
Summer is a good time to evaluate your family’s screen use. Crittenden suggests making small changes, building up to your ultimate goal. This may not be an area you want to go cold turkey.
For instance, if your family has gotten in a bad habit of looking at screens at the dinner table, start there. “Next week, part of what we’re going to do is put our phones and devices away during dinner.”
Crittenden said it’s important parents have an answer when kids ask why they have restrictions or rules around screen time. That conversation should include talk about trust – and open communication between kids and parents about what they’re seeing online.
“Build connections with your kids. Share with your child that ‘I’m a safe person for you to bring these questions to. I need you to talk to me, to come and ask questions when you hear or see something you don’t understand,’” Crittenden said. “And you have to be prepared to hear uncomfortable content. Share with them why it’s OK or not OK. It will open up conversations for heavier content as they grow up, too. And it helps them to know you’re not going to get upset or shut down.”
Screen Time Guidelines
Every family has unique needs that will help determine their family’s screen time. But here’s a start – the general guidelines from the American Association of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.
- Birth to 18 months of age: Limit screen use to video chatting along with an adult (for example, with a parent who is out of town or face timing with Grandma).
- Between 18 and 24 months: Screen time should be limited to watching educational programming with a caregiver.
- Kids 2-5: Limit non-educational screen time to about 1 hour per weekday and 3 hours on the weekend.
- Kids 6 and older: Encourage healthy habits and limit activities that include screens. Turn off screens and remove them from bedrooms 30-60 minutes before bedtime.
Family Disconnection in the Age of Online Connection
How can parents maintain bonds with their kids as kids become more involved online? It’s a question Dee Harris, chief strategic engagement officer at Family and Children’s Services, has spent much time considering. Through her reading and consideration, Harris found it’s not screen time but disconnection that impacts familial bonds.
We talked to Harris about what she found.
Q: Parents often worry about the amount of time their kids are spending online. Through research you found that it’s not so much about time, but the disconnection from their families that can harm kids. Can you tell us more?
A: Much like knowing where your kids are in the physical world, it’s important for parents to know where kids are in the digital world.
When my son was in high school, he hosted LAN parties. With folding tables and computers in hand, the boys would happily set up their systems feet away from each other, put on their headphones, go online, ramp up a multi-player video game, and that’s when the chatter and laughter would start!
As a parent, I was initially perplexed. This type of socialization was so far removed from my own experience as a kid, but I began to realize that their socialization – playing an online game together – really wasn’t much different from my own experience playing board games or cards with friends.
Keith Hampton, a professor at Michigan State University, conducts research on the impact of screen time on children and families. From his findings, he suggests that the effects of screen time on children depend on how they are using the technology. He argues that not all screen time is created equal and that the context and content of screen use are important factors to consider.
Essentially, it boils down to most things when it comes to raising kids – finding a balance and being involved as a parent.
Excessive screen time can have negative effects on children’s mental health, including increased anxiety and depression. But it is also a wonderful channel for socialization. By fostering strong relationships and encouraging a balanced approach to technology, parents can help their kids develop the essential digital literacy skills and habits they need to thrive in all areas of life. Technology isn’t going away.
Q: Are you saying I need to care or ask questions about what my kids are building in Minecraft or their favorite YouTube channels?
A: I love Minecraft. It’s great for creativity, problem-solving and spatial reasoning. But again, yes, show interest and ask questions about what they are building, their creative process, what they hope to achieve, and what challenges they may be facing. It’s no different than asking them to tell you about their creation on paper with crayons. This interaction is a great way to bond and can give you insight into their interests and experiences.
Similarly, by discussing your child’s favorite YouTube channels, you can learn more about their interests and the type of content they enjoy. You can also use this opportunity to discuss internet safety and healthy media consumption habits including how to identify and avoid potentially harmful content and how to navigate the digital world responsibly.
Q: Is it possible to find common ground and spend time online with my kids? What does that look like? Simply sitting beside each other? Won’t my kids hate that?
A: You don’t want to hover. But it is possible to strike a balance between engaging and monitoring. Find online activities that you can enjoy together and that align with your family’s interests and values.
Q: What does that look like?
A: Playing video games together. Discuss game strategy and problem-solving skills. Watch videos or movies together. Discuss the content and themes, share opinions and thoughts. Collaborate on creative projects like videos, podcasting or blogging. Explore new topics and interests online together.
Every family is different, and what works for one may not work for another. If you’re unsure about how to engage with your kids online, start by asking them about their interests and preferences. By showing genuine interest and respect for their choices, you can help build a positive relationship and make online activities a fun and rewarding experience for everyone involved.
Q: We know the lives of kids and teens are different today than a generation ago because of social media and the Internet. How can we help kids regulate screen time and maintain a healthy online life?
A: Teaching digital literacy skills to children is an essential aspect of parenting in the 21st century. As a parent, you can help your child develop healthy habits around screen time and maintain a positive online life by:
- Modeling good behavior: Children learn by example, so it’s essential to model good digital habits yourself. Avoid spending excessive time on your phone or computer when your child is around and demonstrate responsible online behavior.
- Set limits: Establish clear boundaries around screen time use, including the amount of time spent on devices. Ensure that you have a balanced approach and prioritize other activities like physical exercise, reading books or spending time with family.
- Discuss online safety: Teach your children about online safety by discussing the risks associated with sharing personal information online, such as names, addresses and phone numbers. Also, educate your child about the importance of creating strong passwords and not clicking on suspicious links.
- Foster critical thinking: Encourage your child to think critically about the content they encounter online. Discuss how to identify fake news or misleading information and encourage them to question sources before accepting them as true.
- Stay engaged: Stay involved in your child’s online activities and monitor their usage. Familiarize yourself with the apps and sites your child is using and be aware of the latest trends and technologies.
By teaching kids digital literacy skills and being involved in your child’s online life, you can help them navigate the digital world safely and responsibly while also promoting a healthy balance between screen time and other activities.
Natalie Mikles is a mom of three – 12-year-old twin girls and an 11-year-old boy. She writes about food, sharing recipes for busy families and picky eaters. She has been recognized for her food columns as well as features on families and issues affecting local children. She loves pizza and movie nights with her family.