Smart phones, video games, Snapchat, TikTok, YouTube - the devices and apps are endless. As NPR reporter, Anya Kamenetz noted in a June 2019 article, “Technology overuse ranked as the No. 1 fear of parents of teenagers in a national survey last year.”**
Today parents have the unfortunate task of pioneering the supervision of screen-time for their children, ‘paving the way’ for future generations of parents. They are on a crash course that requires them to learn about all the different devices, shows, games, YouTubers, social media, and more, at warp speed pace as technology advances. It quickly gets overwhelming. Even though parents today grew up with TV and video games, these were largely tethered to their home; TV programming was scheduled for Saturday mornings and only lasted a couple of hours. But now, with the convenience of these electronics and infinite amount of content, children could spend all day and all night on screens and never have to see the same show twice. How can parents possibly keep track of everything that is out there? Policing every app, every show, every ‘influencer’ to ensure that they agree with their values - it would take an army!
When smart phones and tablets exploded onto the market over 10 years ago, a new market was also created – screen-time for children. Since then experts and parents alike have been striving to figure out how to manage screens, what the dangers are, what is healthy, what is safe, and how this will affect our children in the short-term and long-term. Thankfully, there is a resource that is extremely effective and abundantly reliable to manage children’s screen time usage; it’s the relationship you have with your child.
In the NPR article, Devorah Heitner, Ph.D. and author of Screenwise, explains that initially the primary focus on managing our children’s screen usage was on time management – parents would ask her “Can you just tell me how many minutes [is okay]?”** While time spent on screens remains a factor (as demonstrated in the American Academy of Pediatrics’ screen time usage recommendations and other research showing that more than two hours a day of screen time for young children can interfere with sleep, etc.), our understanding of how children use screens is evolving.
Dr. Heitner points out that the focus of parenting for screen-time is shifting from the time spent on screens to understanding why kids are drawn to certain games, apps, shows, and all the rest. She suggests that parents move away from only monitoring their child’s screen time, and start mentoring their child about screen time.
“Policing their kids’ device use isn’t working. They need to understand why their kids are using devices and what their kids get out of those devices so they can help the kids shift their habits”** if necessary.
While there are certain areas that surround health and safety that parents might impose stricter rules (like bedtime and mealtime), there will be many times when children will make decisions without mom or dad, so what will guide them to make safe and healthy choices?
When children are on their screens at home, it is a golden opportunity for parents to connect and learn about their child’s interests. At the simplest level, parents can learn their child’s interests in animals, sports, competitive games, collaborative games, creative activities, what kind of music they like, mysteries, comedies - the list goes on and on. Parents can participate in screen games with their child and get an understanding of its challenges or they can watch a show to understand and discuss the plot with their child. Questions like, 'What makes this game so fun?' Or, 'What do you like best about this show?' can elicit more information. It can be very satisfying and fulfilling to share with someone you love your likes and dislikes, so when your child shares this with you, be all ears and save your own opinions for your friend or spouse.
At a deeper level, parents can observe their child’s emotional state by how they rebound after losing a game, relationships with friends, or if they are watching funny, scary, or sad shows. Parents can then be there to rejoice in the win or help their child navigate the unhappy feelings (and perhaps help guide their child to more positive programs.)
These kinds of positive interactions bring parents and children closer. And children will then use these interactions with their parents as a road map to guide them towards healthy decisions. These positive feelings and connections are what children will intuitively seek out in their lives. Each time parents are able to engage positively with their child during these activities, they are communicating to their child that their interests are important as they model and show their child what types of behavior and activities to turn to - and turn away from.
Because it is hard for anyone to stop doing something they are enjoying, it is reasonable to expect that children will need extra help to get off their screen. To keep things positive it’s important to guide your child toward another activity they will enjoy. From observing their child on screens parents can offer activities that are within their child’s interest. For example, if they like playing MineCraft, maybe suggest building Legos or Kapla blocks together. If they like creative activities, ask if they want to decorate cupcakes with you.
For some children who particularly struggle with getting off of their screen, it’s important to share with your child that turning off the screen is not a punishment. Empathize that you know how much fun and relaxing screens are, that you enjoy being on screens too, but too much screen time is not good for us, and that you only want them to be healthy and happy. Allow your child to express their unhappy feelings and be ready with another activity (going to their favorite bakery, walking the dog, biking to the park, playing catch, etc.) And be sure to grant their other wishes that don’t interfere with their health and safety (special dinners, games, and much more.)
As Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D., and William J. Pieper, M.D. note in Smart Love, “Your child will better accept your occasional need to interfere with her wishes if you honor her requests whenever possible.”*
Note that if your child is consumed with screen-time or if they are isolating themselves, it may be time to seek professional advice to help your child find healthier ways to deal with their emotions. Talking with someone they trust is a much healthier way to manage their feelings.
Ultimately we are learning that there is no right way to use screens, but there is a healthy balance. Games, social media, shows, and the like can be a great tool for kids to learn about their interests, connect with friends, have fun, etc. But, like in other areas of their lives, children need their parents’ help to find a healthy balance. And when parents are able to use technology as an avenue to learn about their child, managing screens becomes less of a conflict, but another way to connect with your child.
“Your primary goal is not to get your child to obey, but to allow your child the freedom to discover that he prefers to be guided by sensible rules because he feels happier that way.”*
Smart Love Sources
*Smart Love: The Comprehensive Guide to Understanding, Regulating and Enjoying your Child, by Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D., Smart Love Press, 2011
**At Your Wits' End With A Screen-Obsessed Kid? Read This, Anya Kamenetz, June 30, 2019, www.npr.org