Don’t Demonize Screen Time

If you’re a parent, chances are you already have a relationship with screens. And, as they say on Facebook: it’s complicated.

OK I’ll speak for myself, anyway. As a human with eyes and ears, I’m generally aware that there are “dangers” to screen time, i.e. that too much of it will rot my kids’ brains for life. The message is unavoidable. BUT… those 30 minutes (or…uh… a little more) each day when my 4-year-old is plunked in front of Daniel Tiger? It’s my joy. My 9-year-old, long since graduated from the PBS scene now has her slate of Disney Junior shows, weekly “iPad time” and a few favorite YouTube series’. Also, she’s a movie buff (namely musicals), which I think is awesome. So, I dunno. I mean, I was practically raised by TV (with help from Nintendo) and I turned out OK. Still, the screen time debate gets under my skin; Like a lot of parents, probably, I’m used to operating with a constant yet low-grade, simmering guilt.

So I reached out to Katherine Reynolds Lewis, a certified parent educator and the author of The Good News About Bad Behavior: Why Kids Are Less Disciplined Than Ever and What to Do About It to learn a little more. Are screens really so bad?

Her answer: Yes and no.

So, first, the bad news, which is that the downsides of kids’ screen use are real. According to Lewis, screens can crowd out other healthy activities like interacting with the natural world and other human beings, both of which are important for children’s development – physically, emotionally, cognitively and socially. And the research is pretty clear that excessive use of social media, video games, and technology in general is correlated with attention problems, anxiety, depression, and narcissism. Plus screens can interfere with sleep.

BUT. Screen time isn’t inherently bad for kids’ psychological well-being, Lewis said. Raw amount of time spent shouldn’t be the barometer. What matters is how screens are used, and around what content. Like there’s a difference between passive use of social media [you know, the mindless scrolling], which is connected with people feeling bad about themselves — versus active use of technology to connect with peers or with parents or to learn about things and have fun.

“I don’t think we can make technology a bogeyman considering it’s how our kids are growing up, and you can’t completely eliminate it from your children’s lives,” said Lewis. “You’ll have a healthier relationship with technology if you view it more neutrally and not just as this all-encompassing bad thing.”

OK, so if screens are a neutral thing, then how should we be using them in productive, enhancing ways?

1) Do screens together. This is super-important, Lewis says. So, for example, if you’ve got a kid who’s a video game enthusiast, be part of that world with him or her.

“It’s a great opportunity to have fun with them, which builds connection and relationship,” Lewis said. “You can ask your child ‘Hey, how did you build that in Minecraft? or ‘Wait, which part of Fortnite are you playing in right now?’ And it gives them a wonderful opportunity to be capable and to be the leader in your relationship — and that’s actually really healthy for kids.”

And when it comes to TV or movies, co-watch, Lewis suggests. The material provides conversation-starters, often on subjects that are difficult to broach.

“There’s always an opportunity for a teachable moment when you’re watching content your child is interested in, because you can ask open-ended questions like ‘What did you think of how that kid talked to his dad?’ or ‘How did you think the kids in that show handled that?’” she said. “This can be a terrific way to start talking about the values that are important to your family, like gender roles, race, respect, and healthy relationships.”

Man. This makes a lot of sense, but gotta admit, I’m bummed at the idea of losing that time to myself each day. I decide I’ll co-watch with my kids some of the time. 50%? It’s a start.

2) Have consistent, enforced agreements about screen use. For some families that may mean setting a time limit. For other families it may mean designating times of day when you don’t use screens, like at the table, in the car, or ‘not until after these other activities happen.’ Lewis emphasizes that kids should help set up these guidelines. “The more it’s a discussion with the kid and [the more] their perspective is taken into account, the more likely it is that the guidelines will be followed.”

3) Model. If we adults are always on our phones or laptops and that’s how our kids see us, then of course they’re going to want to mimic that. Lewis has been trying something new recently. “When I pick up my phone in front of my kids I will say out loud ‘I’m going to check on an email from a client,’ or ‘I need to look up the weather forecast,’ so it’s a little more explicit about what I’m doing — and I’ve asked them actually to [do the same],” she said. “I think it’s good accountability, even to yourself.” Hey, and go ahead and set a timer if it helps because we all have trouble setting limits and following through on our intentions.

4) Keep bedrooms screen-free (and set a strict “tech bedtime”). OK, so this ‘bedtime’ needn’t be the same time for kids and adults, but Lewis says there should be a certain time each night when tech devices are turned off and stowed away. And not in bedrooms. A family charging station somewhere else is ideal. “Sleep is such an important foundation for mental health and healthy development in kids — and also in adults — that whatever we can do to keep bedrooms screen-free, we should do,” she said. Plus this keeps kids from being on devices when they shouldn’t be – and where we can’t be in touch with what they’re doing on screen.

5) Make all devices public. Consider housing devices in a communal space like the living room, which helps with 1) visibility, and 2) setting the tone that it is a privilege to use them (which the grownups bought!), and that access can be taken away or limited. As Lewis puts it: “It is a privilege that is associated with responsibilities, not just a right kids are granted from birth.”

Lewis adds that family transitions of various kinds are often a time when healthy family screen practices slip. It’s natural, she said, so it’s important to be honest with ourselves. “If we have an agreement that we only co-watch on weekdays, then we need to stick with that,” she said. “I would just say make realistic rules that you can actually live up to. And you can always reassess.”

And, BTW, wondering what the verdict is on screen-sharing apps like Skype and FaceTime? Lewis sees them as connective, and therefore positive. Phew, since my kids spend a ton of time gabbing to the grandparents this way given that we live across the country.

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Meredith Hoffa is the Managing Editor at WhatsUpMoms.com and lives in L.A. with her husband and two kids. Her work as been published in the NYT, Entertainment Weekly, Esquire, FitPregnancy and several anthologies, among other places. Send her funny videos of people falling (but not getting hurt!) at meredith@whatsupmoms.com.