Is your child constantly on his/her phone? iPad? iPod? Laptop? Are you worried about the effects that hours of screen time might be having on your child’s eyesight, sociability or emotional health? Do you sometimes wish you could throw all the gadgets out the window and go back to the 19th century?
At Westchester Health Pediatrics, we hear you. We’re parents, too. And we face the same issues and challenges when it comes to limiting our own children’s screen time. How much is too much?
According to a 2017 report by Common Sense Media, cited in a recent story by NPR, 98% of families with children now have smartphones. On average, kindergartners consume over two hours of media per day, tweens spend about six hours, and teenagers are on their devices for nine hours. It should come as no surprise then that technology overuse ranked as the No. 1 fear of parents of teenagers in a national survey last year.
To help us all sort out some answers, we offer this blog outlining several practical steps we as parents can take to teach our children how to use technology in a healthy way and develop important skills and habits that will make them successful digital citizens.
Parents worry about screen time negatively affecting their child’s mental health, but it’s not so simple
We at Westchester Health Pediatrics strongly support a key point made by the NPR article: It’s not just a matter of putting limits on your kids’ screen time. Parents need to understand why their kids are using devices and what they are getting out of those devices before they can help them shift their habits.
We all tend to think that too much time spent on iPhones are the reason kids are depressed, can’t sleep and have emotional problems, but that’s not the full picture. Kids today are under a lot of stress worrying about school, their peers, their body image, being bullied, whether they’re popular or not, the grades they need to get into college, and on and on. Spending too much time on their iPhones is not the only reason kids may have mental health issues.
The NPR article states, “If you hand a happy kid a phone, they’re not going to turn into an unhappy, miserable kid. But, devices can ‘turn up the volume’ on existing issues. Children who have special needs or mental health challenges are more likely to have problems with screens.”
It goes on to say, “There’s another side to that dynamic as well. Some children and teenagers who struggle with mental or emotional health may find that zoning out and playing a game helps them regulate their emotions and avoid meltdowns. Young people who are depressed don’t typically use social media more frequently, but they do often use it to feel better. One of the things they’re doing online is searching for information and tools to help promote their well-being.”
How to (sanely) coexist with technology in your family: top 3 tips
So, what’s the answer? Actually, there are several. Here are three basic parenting guidelines from The New York Times that will help you establish ground rules and maintain some level of tech harmony at home.
Aim for balance
“It’s clear that technology is here to stay and the world is becoming only more digitally driven,” the Times article says. “In many ways, that’s a good thing. Technology can be empowering for kids of all ages, with tools that help them learn in fun and engaging ways, express their creativity and stay connected to others. Children who are tech-savvy will also be better prepared for a workforce that will be predominantly digital. At the same time, parents worry about their kids accessing inappropriate content online, the impact of too much screen time on healthy development and their children becoming tethered to technology. As with most situations, a balanced approach to these challenges works best.”
Some things to keep in mind as you try to strike such a balance:
- Do what’s right for your family. Balance for your family will look different than it will for your neighbor because every family is unique and parenting styles and values vary.
- Watch for warning signs of unhealthy tech use:
- Kids constantly complain that they’re bored or unhappy when they don’t have access to technology
- They throw tantrums when you set screen time limits
- Screen time interferes with sleep, school and face-to-face communication
- Regularly evaluate the quality of your children’s digital interactions
- Are they looking at age-appropriate content?
- Are the apps they use interactive and thought-provoking rather than just passive? Remember: Not all screen time is equal. An hour watching YouTube videos isn’t the same as an hour spent making digital art.
- Are the privacy settings responsibly set to restrict what strangers can see and who can contact your children?
- Set screen time limits to make room for offline activities. While the debate on exactly how many hours kids can spend on their screens before it becomes unhealthy has yet to be solved, you can still insist on tech-free times, such as during dinner, in the car or on school nights.
Be a role model
“Technology’s irresistible pull draws in parents as much as it does kids. We check our phones every hour, log late hours working or surfing the internet on our laptops, binge watch our favorite shows, and even engage in dangerous ‘distracted walking,” the Times article asserts. “Children are likely to not only copy our behavior, but they also feel like they have to compete with devices for our attention. Practicing and demonstrating mindful use of technology ourselves will be the best way to teach children the critical skill of unplugging.”
In other words, do as I do, not just as I say. Here are some suggestions for that:
- Set tech-free boundaries for family time. A few key times to stay unplugged can include:
- when picking up or dropping children at school
- when you get home from work. Use that time to reconnect with your family.
- during meals, including dining out
- during family outings such as trips to the park, for ice cream, vacations
- Know when you need to be plugged in and when you don’t. Often, you do have to take that call, respond to a text or check your email — but really, could it wait until after you’ve finished doing that puzzle with your child?
- Use media the way you want your children to. Follow common sense rules around technology such as: never text while driving, and don’t overshare on social media.
Get personally involved in your child’s technology use
The third important point that the Times article makes is that your family most likely discusses together the important decisions that affect everyone day-to-day lives, “such as who’s responsible for doing the dishes and where you should go for your next vacation. Technology use should take the same type of planning, so that everyone’s on board with the same expectations.” Examples:
- Set rules as a family. When you set limits with children, they start to learn how to self-regulate and to know when screen time is interfering too much with the rest of their lives. Plus, they’re less likely to fight the limits if they have a role in creating them.
- Enter into your children’s tech experiences. Playing or watching alongside your children has many important benefits. You’ll be able to vet the content they are accessing, they will learn more from the activity because you’re actively engaging in it too, and you’ll bond through the shared experience. In addition, they’re probably light years ahead of you tech-wise so let them teach you — a confidence-booster for them and it will keep you up-to-date with the latest things they’re seeing.
- Tailor your approach to the age and capabilities of each child. As with other areas of parenting, what works for one child won’t necessarily work for another, depending on their ages, personalities and needs. Figure out what kind of interaction works best with each one and customize your approach accordingly.
Most importantly, keep talking about it
As with most parenting challenges, constant, open communication is key to helping your family enjoy technology and its many benefits without experiencing too many of its negative effects. And as always, we’re here to help. Please contact us if and when you need us.
Helpful articles we recommend:
- At Your Wits’ End With A Screen-Obsessed Kid? Read This
- Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?
- How and When to Limit Kids’ Tech Use
- How to manage your child’s screen time
- Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked (book)
- American Academy of Pediatrics: Recommendations for Children’s Media Use How and When to Limit Kids’ Tech Use
Count on us for all kinds of information to help you raise your kids.
You’ve got questions, we’ve got answers. Whether you’re raising teenagers, adolescents, toddlers or newborns, we’ve got years of experience helping parents take care of their children and we’re ready to help you with yours. Please come in and see us.
Want to know more about monitoring your child’s screen time? Come see us.
If you would like more advice and guidance on your child’s tech use, or if you have questions about any aspects of your child’s health and well-being, please make an appointment to come in to see one of our Westchester Health Pediatrics pediatricians. Together with you and your child, we’ll talk about ways to use technology appropriately and responsibly. Whenever, wherever you need us, we’re here for you.