The Effects of Screen Time on the Brain and Body are significant and parents are trying to find ways to balance screen time with family time (or heck, their sanity!). Children and teens want to be on their devices all the time and we have become the device wardens. The good news is research demonstrates that children’s sleep, academics, health, and behavior improve when we limit screen time and when we focus on interactive usage kid's mental health can improve. These tips for healthy media usage can hopefully bring some peace to your family time.
1) Set Time Limits
Okay, no one likes to be a warden, but kids need limits. Parents sometimes think of limits as constrictive, but they give kids rules and guidelines that help them manage their behavior. Setting limits is empowering, and gives most kids the chance to learn how to self-manage their time. If kids know they have X amount of time to play, then most kids will rise to the occasion. As the parent, however, you must be consistent about enforcing limits to see the benefit from setting rules.
2) Have Kids Track Their Time Spent
Kids (and adults) are often unaware of how much time they spend on their devices. We all know what it’s like to get lost in a game or scanning social media. When kids teens track the time they spend on devices, and ideally review it with parents, they often are surprised by how much time they got sucked into their devices. It takes the blame and pressure off of you; kids see their own behavior and are motivated to make positive changes and hopefully learn to manage their time better.
3) Use Technology to Limit Device Usage
Why not use technology to limit your child’s or teen’s device usage? Again, this gets you out of the “bad guy” role and allows a neutral device to set limits on the child or teen from using their phone or electronics. There are many apps that control how much time and on what sites your child or teen can visit. For example, the app Circle allows for parental controls on tablets, computers, and smartphones. It also tracks the time spent on devices, which can again give kids insight into their behavior and help them make positive changes. Devices like Gryphon that limits Wifi usage or technology such as Verizon's Smart Family allows parents to set locks on times of day a teen can spend on their phone, and parents can monitor where they have visited and who they are texting with. Whether you use Apple or Android phones, there are many different options. For those kids that just can’t regulate their own activity, this technology can really preserve your relationship.
4) Be a Role Model
This is a tough one; get off your phone. If you want your kids to not always be on their device, you have to be that role model. Be upfront and honest and say, “Hey, I am going to work on XYZ until 3:25 and then I am powering off for one hour,” and then actually do it. At my house, my kids know that when I say that, I mean business. When I’m powered down, if my office needs me, they call my landline (yep, got one of those!). I make sure I’m doing something that is visible to the kids. Maybe I’ll read a book or work on a house project that I’ve been neglecting. No matter what, I don’t check email or social media for that hour. Modeling this behavior for your kids is key to getting them to see the value in time without devices. Being present means not being distracted by devices and these practices are healthy for all of us.
5) Don’t Allow Devices at Dinner
Whether at home or at a restaurant, make your dinner table a device-free zone. Don’t bring your phone to the table, even if it’s on silent. Take the time to ask questions about everyone’s day, listen to the answers, and ask follow-up questions. Share about your own day as well. Parents often want their kids to talk to them when there’s a serious issue happening for them, but to make that happen, you have to put in the time when events are less stressful. Putting down your phone and focusing on conversation now will make those future conversations easier.
6) Set Media Free Time
Modern families often struggle to get time together even before devices become a factor. Think of media free time like a date night for your family. Everyone unplugs and does something together. This is going to be more fun if you start with an activity your kids enjoy, especially when you’re dealing with teens. If they love baking, find a great snack to make together. If they enjoy games, buy some new board or card games. The key is to unplug and connect. Teens may grumble at first, but if you plan it right, they will wind up having just as much fun as you will.
7) Make time for Reading
The Washington Post reported that in the US, leisure reading is at an all-time low. Many children are struggling to read; instead of getting more reading time in school or at home to help their skills, they are reading less. Learning to love reading is a lifelong gift that builds knowledge, increases empathy, and expands emotional experiences. Reading is also a great way to relieve stress or improve sleep. During this time, make sure you’re reading as well! Modeling the joy of reading is a key to creating lifelong readers, and homes with more books often have kids who are more engaged with reading. For the youngest kids, reading together is great; for older elementary and middle school kids, reading the same book and talking about it together is a great way to build relationships as well.
8) Participate in Organized Sports and Activities
When kids and teens get more involved in sports instead of having high media usage, the research shows that the risk of at-risk behaviors (i.e., substance usage, sexual activity, etc) decreases. And of course, when kids are playing sports or participating in an activity like dance or theater, their time is taken up with that activity, and they spend less time on their devices. And naturally, exercise is associated with all kinds of health benefits: increased attention and executive function, less stress and anxiety, decreased risk of obesity, improved strength and coordination, and so on.
9) Insist on Homework before Device Time
Our parents made us do our homework before we could play, and we need to do the same for our kids. Kids and teens should do their homework before they watch TV or get on their devices! There is a myth that TV or devices provide needed downtime. Absolutely not. After spending all day in school sitting, kids need to move. If they need a break before sitting down to their homework, then they need to run around and physically play before they get started. In fact, this may have huge benefits: research supports that physically activity, even for just 10 minutes a day, improves learning. Once kids have gotten some exercise and done their homework, then they can have screen time, based upon family rules.
10) Use Devices as a Reward
Developmentally, it is normal for kids to feel that their needs are urgent (aka, “I want” and “I need”) because they don’t yet understand the value of delayed gratification and it is our job to teach them that. They need to learn the value of delayed gratification and how to develop a work ethic. Screen time should only be given as a reward can really cut down arguing after an initial resistance period. For example, you could reward kids for doing their homework, getting good grades, or other agreed upon family activities.
11) Discuss Safety and Privacy
Parents need to have frank and ongoing discussions about the internet, social media, and online privacy. They need to understand that not all websites are safe, and that not everyone on the internet is honest about who they are. Be developmentally appropriate, but be clear that there are very real dangers for kids online. A natural part of adolescence is thinking “it will never happen to me,” or “I wouldn’t ever make that mistake.” Drive home to your kids that everyone is vulnerable, including them and how to manage when problems arise.
12) Monitor Their Activity
If they are on SnapChat or Instagram, then you better be too! Learn about the apps they are using. Can random people friend them and have conversations with them? How is information archived? How is their information protected? See what they are posting and who are they chatting with. Don’t hide it either and have open discussions about their interactions. Keeping your conversations open and shame-free means that when there’s drama over social media, you will know the players so that you can better support your child
13) No Devices in the Bedroom
We are learning more about the impact on EMFs on the brain and body, and it is clear that EMF interferes with sleep. Keeping a cell phone close to you at night increases your exposure to this harmful radiation and certainly is a reason to remove the phone at night. It also eliminates the ability for late night usage, which interferes with sleep.
14) Don’t Give In
Even if your kids yell, tantrum, or curse, stick with the agreement. It is developmentally normal for kids to test limits, and this is just another one of those parenting moments. Most kids will eventually learn to set these limits for themselves; until then, it’s up to parents to be the ones responsible for setting examples and enforcing good behavior.
Some kids and teens have a clinical issue that makes it harder for them to disengage or transition off their devices. If your family is struggling with the ability to get your child to put down their device, even after following our tips above, then seek out help from a licensed therapist who can coach you and help you mediate.
To learn more about screen time affects the brain and body, read my blog.
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