As a mother with children in their 20s, I’m extremely grateful I raised children prior to the age of cell phones, school issued laptops, tablets, Instagram, Facebook and Snap Chat. Today’s parents are the first generation parenting within this digitally proliferated culture. Parenting now involves teaching children to navigate in a world where digital influences positively or negatively impact nearly every aspect of life.
The effects of excessive screen time
The typical child spends an average of seven hours a day on electronic devices (including televisions, computers, phones and other electronic devices) according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Excessive “screen time” correlates with obesity, sleep problems, decreased school performance, poor body image and risky behaviors. The incidents of anxiety, depression and other psychological disorders increase as children use more technology. Teens using social media extensively also show more narcissistic and aggressive tendencies, antisocial behaviors and mania.
Parents reading these statistics might easily conclude that eradicating all technology from their children’s lives is best. However, inoculation rather than eradication appears to be the healthiest choice. Technology consumption, in balance, produces young adults who can successfully live in a technology-based culture. The best way to inoculate children to technology is by developing and utilizing family screen time boundaries.
Setting up screen time boundaries
To determine what screen time boundaries are needed, conduct an inventory of how your children currently spend their free time during a typical week. Keep track of how much time is spent utilizing technology as well as how much time is spent engaging in other activities. Compare your results with the American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines:
- Under 18 months: limit screen time to video chatting
- 18 – 24 months: choose high-quality programming/apps and use them together with child because this is how toddlers learn best
- 2 – 5 years: limit screen time to one hour per day of high-quality program; co-view with children to help them understand what they are seeing
- 6 years and older: place consistent limits on time spent and types of media they can have access to; make sure media does not take the place of adequate sleep, physical activity and other behaviors essential to health
- Designate media-free times together such as dinner or driving, as well as media-free locations at home such as bedrooms
- Have ongoing communication about online citizenship and safety, including treating other with respect online and offline
Having determined your children’s current technology consumption, consider taking the following steps to create healthy screen time boundaries:
Children copy what they see adults doing. If you spend hours on your laptop or watching television, your children will follow your example. Make sure the boundaries you create for your children are ones you will follow as well.
Start talking about appropriate technology use when your child is young and continue talking about it often. Build a dialog where your child feels safe and can talk about what they encounter through technology so when (not if) there is a problem you can talk with them about it. Dialog involves both listening and speaking. The ratio of parental listening to speaking should be at least five-to-one. Practically, this means every minute you spending talking should be followed by at least five minutes of listening (this requires asking good questions when you talk).
Parents sometimes set limits but then move the limits because:
- Enforcement takes time and energy.
- They want to avoid whining children.
- They want to reward children for good behavior.
Limits must be consistently enforced so children learn to live within them. Setting screen time limits also involved requiring teens to hand over cell phones to parents at a specified time each night. This allows teens to get healthy sleep while “saving face” by being able to say “my parents take my phone” when they are unable to respond to texts late at night.
Create “No Screen Zones.”
Remove screens from bedrooms. Having screens in the bedroom contributes to lower test scores, creates sleep problems and tempts both children and adults to view things they would not if the same screen were placed in a prominent area of the house. Screens are best used in common areas where parents can unobtrusively monitor what is occurring. Other “No Screen Zones” include wherever meals are eaten and whenever/wherever family time occurs.
Watch with Children.
Watching screens with your child allows you to start a conversation around what is being viewed and help your child critically evaluate the content. It also allows parents to provide information about the effects and meaning of the content within video games, television and social media.
As a parent, you need to be aware of what your child is posting on social media and who they are interacting with. Parents check out where a child is going and who they are going with when children physically leave the house and should use this same caution when children “leave the house” via social media. As children begin utilizing social media, sitting with them and going through their posts and the posts of “friends” provides teachable moments around appropriate social media etiquette.
Technology enriches our lives and the lives of our children if we learn how to interact with it in healthy ways and teach those same strategies to our children. Parents are crucial teachers in their children’s lives when it comes to technology!
The American Academy of Pediatrics provides an online Family Media Plan tool to create your own plan.
Jean Holthaus, LISW is a Licensed Independent Social Worker and clinic manager at the Pine Rest Pella Clinic. She earned a BA in Elementary Education from the University of Northern Iowa and a Masters of Social Work from the University of Iowa in 1995.