As a child growing up in the 70’s, my family had one television with three channels. Besides the occasional “After School Special”, for many years the only screen time we had was on Saturday mornings. (Saturday morning cartoons were the best!) It wasn’t because my parents were media nazis, it was because that’s all there was. (I know. It’s hard to imagine a world without computers and cell phones, let alone an archaic VHS player . . .)
Fast forward forty years, and my family has one large screen TV with cable, OnDemand, DVR, and DVD options, another smaller TV for the Wii, one desktop computer, one laptop, two iPads, four cell phones, and one iPod. The TV is the least used device in the home.
Boy, have times changed.
And the crazy thing is, technology continues to change. And rapidly. Whereas the big piece of advice for parents five years ago was to keep the computer in an open, public part of the home in order to keep tabs on its use, most homes now have multiple mobile devices floating around, many of which leave the home on a regular basis with different family members. And while many parents feel very strongly about not letting their children have Internet on these devices, I would contend that in another five years you won’t even be able to buy something so unsophisticated.
As the first generation of parents to deal with this type of pervasive technology in our homes and our lives, how can we even know what constitutes a good balance or if we are doing the right thing for our kids? Should we just give up and give in to a life full of screens?
In a word, yes.
Look. I want to live on “The Little House on the Prairie” more than anyone. I’m convinced I was born in the wrong century. But this is the world we live in–an extremely fast paced, tech-savvy world that runs on and revolves around “screen time,” and I for one think it’s time to redefine and rethink our battle with screen time, embrace it, and learn to use it on our own terms and to our great advantage rather than treating it like the enemy.
But what does that look like in real life? Every family needs to make their own decisions based on their own children and individual circumstances, but below are some things I think every parent today should consider when formulating a family media plan.
- Recognize technology is a moving target. The type of technology available and how we interact with it is always changing. It’s safe to assume that whatever your current family media plan is, it will eventually need to change with the technology, and during those transition periods there may be some messy trial and error. As much as we like to think we can control every last bit of technology use in our homes at all times, we just can’t. It’s a moving target, and sometimes we’ll miss and mess up. Recently, my friend’s 6-year-old daughter thought it would be funny to type in the phrase “naked man” into the iPad where she normally watches innocuous videos on Netflix, but what popped up was anything but. My friend was devastated that her daughter was exposed to such images, and quickly realized that even though their oldest child is just a 2nd grader, it’s already time for the parental blocks and controls they anticipated they wouldn’t need until much later. Live and learn.
- Understand the difference between screens as entertainment and screens as tools. Screens aren’t just forms of entertainment anymore, or a way to tune out from real life. Quite often, screens are absolutely vital to real life. My iPhone is the hardest working tool in the house, and my older kids do their homework more often than not on the computer. (My daughter has even completed and submitted her physics homework remotely from her phone.) And really, what is the difference between a group of tweens gathering around a Guiness Book of World Records versus a few well chosen YouTube videos while talking and laughing together? Or using a coloring app instead of physical crayons and paper to entertain a toddler while waiting in a doctor’s office? There are just so many gray areas right now where real life and technology overlap and intersect, so it’s much more difficult to have tight, clean definitions of what constitutes “screen time”. Maybe more than understanding the difference between the two (since there isn’t always one), it’s important to learn to chill out about the gray areas. As in, you probably don’t need to count those 15 minutes on the coloring app in the doctor’s office as part of your toddler’s “allotted” screen time.
- Go crazy with passwords, parental controls, content blocks, etc. You know I had to include this. For the younger kids in our family who don’t have phones, I have passwords on all the devices they tend to gravitate to so they can’t just pick them up and veg out without permission/access from me. For the older kids who have phones with Internet, we use a program called Mobicip, which blocks specific content and websites of our choosing for every device in the home (mobile too), and also tracks and sends me a weekly email of every website searched and whether or not it was content approved. My kids are fully aware of this program we are using, so you can imagine the effect. Knowing there won’t be such tight controls when they leave home and are on their own, we have many formal and informal conversations about self-regulation in personal media use and the good and bad sides of technology.
- Create a habit of doing “first things first”. Whether your kids are in school full-time or not, you can implement this easy principle. My kids know that after relaxing for a little while after school (sometimes with a screen, sometimes not), they need to get their homework and instrument practice done before they can have any more entertaining screen time. Between homework and instrument practice, extracurricular activities, friends, and after dinner family chores, there just isn’t a whole lot of time left for screens during the school week. If your kids are home with you all day and you’re trying to get stuff done, this is much trickier when all those devices are readily available. But again, if you create a habit of no shows or games until they’ve gotten ready for the day, done a few chores, played outside, it’s 3:00–whatever you decide–it will be much easier than fielding the same whiny requests day after day. (And don’t forget those passwords and parental controls to prevent them from getting in on their own!)
- Designate screen free time and space. Have a family docking station at mealtimes and bedtimes (and/or other times of your choosing) for mobile devices so family members will interact with each other and get enough sleep. You might also try designating one day a week or month to be completely screen free. I have a friend who has even gone so far as to buy a hotel safe to lock up the remotes and game controllers (along with the other devices) when she’s really determined to have some quality screen free time with her family. As much as I’ve resigned myself to the fact that we live in a world permeated by technology, there’s no arguing how incredibly valuable it is for kids growing up in this generation to know how it feels to be still, unstimulated, and screen free.
- Don’t give screens any more power than they already have. How would you do that? By making screen time the ultimate reward or punishment. I want my kids to consider screen time just one more thing in their life, not the ultimate thing they get to do with their free time, so I try not to use too often as a reward or make it the first thing I take away as a consequence. Yes, screen time should be limited, but not because it’s necessarily bad in and of itself, but because time is precious and there are a variety of amazing things they can do with their time other than consume media. Because of this philosophy, I don’t punish my kids if they’re on a screen when they shouldn’t be (other than turning it off or taking the device away), I just re-direct them and keep the conversation going about healthy, appropriate media use in proportion to all the other things in their life.
- Stop treating technology like the bad guy. This goes along with #6. I think many parents of teens need to reconsider their relationship with technology and the Internet. I know many parents disagree with me on this, but I’m absolutely fine with my kids having Internet on their phones. Why? Because I don’t want it to become the “forbidden fruit”. I think parents who restrict and control screen time and the Internet too much for their kids actually set them up to struggle with it later on. It’s like the girl I went to summer camp with as a teenager. Her mother never let her eat candy. Ever. So what do you think she snuck into camp with her and ate every day for a week until it was gone? You guessed it: a five-gallon bucket of candy. The last thing I want is for my kids to go away to college and have unlimited access to the Internet for the first time in their lives and be totally overwhelmed by it. Ultimately, my goal is for them to learn to self-regulate their media habits, and I think that takes a lot of practice. I want that practice to happen now, in my home, with my help. (Refer to #3, #4, and #5 above.) Again, I believe we need to embrace the current technology we have and use it to our advantage on our own terms, not only because it is a wonderful tool, but because our kids need to know how to navigate the larger world they’ll be living in when they leave our protective influence.
QUESTION: So what do you think? What’s your family media plan? Do you have one? Has it changed over the years? Did anything in this post influence your current philosophy and practices?
CHALLENGE: As needed, rethink and redefine your family’s relationship with “screen time” based on your individual family dynamics and current technology.
Allyson Reynolds and Erika Behunin, a licensed clinical social worker, were recently featured on KSL to discuss managing kids’ screen time. Click on the video below to watch.
Image courtesy: stockimages / freedigitalphotos.net