By Dr. Michael Oberschneider, Ashburn Psychological & Psychiatric Services
In these technology-driven times, managing our children’s screen time is a daily — and sometimes moment-to-moment — parenting task. With the changes we’ve had to make societally as parents due to COVID-19, that task has certainly become even more imperative. Think about it. Many children are on screens for full school days now, then they do their homework on a screen, and then they enjoy much of their free time with screens. If your children are awake about 16 hours a day, the majority of their waking time is likely being spent with some form of technology.
In short, screen time or technology overuse was a real problem for many children before COVID-19, and it’s an even larger one today. Numerous research studies have shown that screen time, or technology overuse, is associated with various problems — social problems, emotional problems, academic and learning problems, and increased rates of ADHD and obesity — so striving for balance and quality over quantity technology time is important. But how do you manage your children’s screen time during a global pandemic and winter when we’re home so much? Here are a few thoughts to consider as a parent.
Turn Technology Time Into Together Time
Children are engaging with technology very fluidly these days, and in many ways, it’s difficult for parents to understand or keep up. It’s also common for parents and children to be in different rooms in the house using different forms of technology.
All of that’s fine, but it’s also important to connect over technology as a family. So, watching a TV show that you regularly watch together as a family is a great way to connect. I personally enjoy introducing my children, age-appropriately, to the TV shows and movies of my childhood. Watching TV shows or movies together is positive family time, and it also opens up opportunities to discuss the topics or themes portrayed in the shows or movies.
Whether your child is 6 or 16, I also recommend showing interest in their sought-after online or screen time activities. By watching shows or movies your children want to watch, or by playing video games with them, you’re validating what they like, which in turn will bring you closer together.
Model Healthy Technology Use
Children learn from observing the world around them, and what they internalize from us as parents largely shapes and defines who they will become as adults. So, if you want your son or daughter to manage their technology time better, model that.
For starters, when you’re with your children, be mindfully present; make putting your phone down or turning your devices off the norm. By doing this, you are demonstrating to them that you are not distracted, and they have your undivided attention. If you need to check your phone when you’re around your children, let them know what you’re doing. This way, your child won’t think you’re looking at your phone for no reason.
Parents can also announce that they’re leaving the area or space briefly to send or respond to a text or to connect with someone for work or other reasons. And if you get a text message from someone, try not to respond right away or in the middle of a conversation with your child. If you want to take a picture for grandma or grandpa, it’s also best if you ask or let your child know that you’d like to take a picture or video to send to their grandparents.
By doing these sorts of things, you will be messaging to your children that you are fully present with them relationally, that you are in control of technology and not distracted or consumed by it. Over time, your children, in turn, will learn to be more present and to use technology in positive and healthy ways that serve to complement a moment or their lives.
Turn Off Technology
Spending time with your children and teens away from technology is an important part of managing screen and technology time balance.
By engaging in other sorts of activities, you’ll likely also cut down on disagreements or arguments over technology. The message isn’t “turn that off now,” which is negative and usually happens when parents have become upset. More proactively and positively, the message to your children could be “let’s go for a walk,” or “let’s play a board game,” or “let’s cook a meal together,” or “let’s do some arts and crafts,” etc.
When you’re engaging your children in various other activities, you’re not saying “no” to technology but rather “yes” to doing more. If you’re more present as a parent in these fun ways, balance will be something that naturally occurs, rather than something that is forced upon your children by limiting screen time.
With COVID-19 numbers improving and Spring being right around the corner, we will likely be getting out more, but managing screen time will still be a parenting task. Focusing on quality over quantity and together time will help with healthy and balanced technology use for your children during and after the pandemic.