How Do You Manage Screen Time When Media Has Become “Just Another Environment”?

by | May 1, 2016

“Five…four…three…”

…swipe, tap, tap, swipe, swipe, tap…

“…two…one!”

The countdown – that old parental standby to garner compliance – was no longer working with our granddaughter Anna, smitten with our iPad and the wonders it can produce. We had set a strict time limit of 10 minutes per session, but clearly the ABCmouse app was much more compelling.

young girl with tabletTrue, it’s helping her learn her letters and how to spell. But that doesn’t make the tablet’s addictive quality or her rebelliousness over the limits we set any less disconcerting.

We’re not alone in our dismay. Parents everywhere have discovered that it’s exactly that addictive quality that make tablets and other devices such great babysitters. With kids transfixed and quiet – sometimes for hours on end – parents can get caught up on all sorts of tasks and other responsibilities.

And what’s wrong with that – especially if you make sure the device is loaded with educational apps? Kids today need practical tech skills, just as they need academic knowledge. Tablets and smartphones seem ideal for delivering both simultaneously. Multitasking to the rescue!

“Every Hour of Screen Time Has an Impact”

But just as multitasking creates illusions of accomplishment and competence, so does the weird faith that education via technology will necessarily create smarter, more highly skilled kids.

Consider: Steve Jobs urged a moderate attitude toward technology with respect to children’s education and upbringing. He didn’t even let his kids use iPads. “We limit how much technology our kids use at home,” he told New York Times reporter Nick Bilton. Plenty of others in the tech industry – such as Chris Anderson, former editor of Wired – have taken a similar tack.

My kids accuse me and my wife of being fascists and overly concerned about tech, and they say that none of their friends have the same rules,” he said of his five children, 6 to 17. “That’s because we have seen the dangers of technology firsthand. I’ve seen it in myself, I don’t want to see that happen to my kids.

“Every hour of screen time has an impact,” Dr. Kirsten Corder told the BBC last fall when they reported on her study of kids’ leisure habits and academic achievement. She and her colleagues had found that for every extra hour spent with electronic media, young teens’ test scores dropped.

young boy with tabletOther recent research has shown electronic media’s impact on children’s physical and mental health, as well, such as their ability to get the sleep they need for good health. A study published early this year in Acta Paediatrica found that for every extra hour of screen time, kids fell asleep later, took longer to fall asleep, and slept less overall. On the other hand, all of these measures improved when children spent more time in outdoor play.

A forthcoming study in Preventive Medicine demonstrated that as screen time goes up and physical activity goes down, so you also see a rise in depression and anxiety.

The Challenge of Managing Screen Time

girl textingThere is no shortage of good reasons to limit children’s screen time, but there’s also the reality that screens are now ubiquitous. As the American Academy of Pediatrics put it in their 2015 update to their media recommendations for kids, our world is now one in which “’screen time’ is becoming simply ‘time.”

Media is just another environment. Children do the same things they have always done, only virtually.

But just as we would never let our kids loose do whatever they please in any physical environment, so we would be equally remiss letting them have free reign in virtual environments.

This doesn’t mean we should become dictators. It does mean we need to be wise and caring parents and guardians.

Tips for “Taming the Tablet”

We can start with ourselves, becoming more mindful about our own screen time. Research published last fall in BMC Public Health found that the prevailing model seems to be “do as I say, not as I do. Yet as physician – and director of the new documentary Screenagerstold the New York Times last month,

Kids don’t want to be held to a higher standard than their parents, and that’s a big issue. You can’t punish your kids for breaking the rules when you can’t put your own devices down.

Child psychiatrist Brendan Belsham elaborates:

We cannot expect a standard of behaviour from our children beyond what we ourselves have attained. This is true for any behaviour, from picking up clothes off the floor, to punctuality, to the language we use, and yes, to our propensity to live in front of a screen.

You may not be playing Minecraft, and you may rationalise it in various ways (‘It’s work, sweetie’), but your children are observing you all the time, and they learn more from what you do than from what you say. Your child needs to see that you are more interested in finding out about his day at school than your Facebook page. It is up to us as parents to create the culture we desire in our homes.

Be sure to click over to Belsham’s full article on “Taming the Tablet” for more excellent tips to make managing screen time less of a hassle and, ideally, less a point of contention between caregivers and kids.

Take Advantage of Screen-Free Week 2016

Screen-Free Week logoTomorrow, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CFC) will kick off this year’s Screen-Free Week – a time dedicated to families unplugging and rediscovering life beyond the screen. Those discoveries can help you identify all kinds of non-virtual activities that your family enjoys engaging in on a regular basis. Here are 70 to get you started.

Also be sure to download the CFC’s toolkit for this year’s Screen-Free Week, which includes even more activity ideas for both home and classroom. You’ll find even more resources on their website.

And then let us know YOUR tips for managing screen time on a day to day basis. Just share your ideas or links to resources in the comments. Do so before the end of Screen-Free Week (11:59pm, May 8), and you’ll be entered in a drawing to win a free copy of Lynea’s latest children’s book, Little Banty Chicken and the Big Dream!

The winner will be announced on our blog May 15.

Screenagers is currently being shown in communities around the US. To find a screening near you – or to arrange one in your town – visit the film’s website.

Girl with tablet image by Lars Ploughman;
texting image by Jeffrey Pott (Flickr)

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