Why Families Benefit With Limited Screen Time

“Don’t worry that children never listen to you; worry that they are always watching you.”

–Robert Fulgham

Most of us feel some concern about our children’s fixation on technology and the amount of time they spend on electronic devices. We fret over the elementary school child with his video game habit and shake our heads over the tween or teen immersed in her smartphone.

What few of us realize (or perhaps do not want to admit) is the connection between our children’s worrisome media habits and our use of electronics that we are modeling for them. A study published last year by Common Sense Media documented an average of nearly eight hours a day spent on personal screens for watching television, social networking and playing video games – not by children, but by their parents. Even more surprising, out of the survey group of 1,700 parents of children ages 8 to 18, 78 percent believed they were modeling healthy media and technology use for their kids.

Tuning into devices and tuning out kids

We witness scenes every day that were inconceivable a mere 15 years ago. Parents scrolling through messages on the walk to school, eyes glued to screens at the playground, texting at restaurants and checking email while their children clamor for attention. What impact has this sudden change in parental behavior had on children? Clinical psychologist and MIT professor Sherry Turkle reports on children’s frustration and anxiety when they cannot make eye contact with their parents or fully engage their attention. Our constant connection to technology has created a new mode of sibling rivalry in which children compete with electronic devices for their parents’ attention, rather than with a sister or brother.

Children can tell when we are with them physically, but mentally elsewhere. An instinctive need to remind parents of their existence prompts kids to interrupt as soon as we bend over our phones or focus on our laptops. When we stop what we are doing and fully concentrate, it can take only a few moments to fill an emotional need that would remain unsatisfied after hours of distracted half-listening while multi-tasking. Concentrated looking and listening also allows us to pick up on subtle clues of facial expression, body language and tone of voice that reveal the emotions behind our children’s words and help us truly understand them.

Electronics and young kids

When I started teaching parenting classes a decade ago, I often heard complaints about the difficulty of prying preschool-age children away from their favorite television shows. Now, the complaints have shifted to the insatiable appetite for smartphones and tablets among 3- and 4-year-olds. A study released in October by Common Sense Media confirms a rapidly accelerating use of mobile electronic devices by young children. In just six years, the average amount of time children ages 0 to 8 spent on portable devices exploded from 5 minutes a day in 2011 to 48 minutes in 2017. As I hear in my classes, this dramatic increase in electronics use has affected behavior, with tantrums, power struggles and arguments often erupting over access to smartphones, tablets and other screens. Researchers at Boston Medical Center have also found that parents absorbed in their devices tend to react to their kids’ requests for attention with undue harshness.

Beware the electronic pacifier

Young children often fidget and fuss while waiting. They often get in our way while we are trying to accomplish tasks. These behaviors are not new. What is new is the common parental response of handing over a phone or tablet to keep the peace. We rationalize that it is the easiest way to buy time at the restaurant or get through our list at the supermarket, but this short-term fix comes with long-term consequences. Among other things, it forms the association in kids’ minds that whenever they are bored, frustrated or craving human interaction, they will be placated with an electronic pacifier. Reliance on electronics as an instant fix robs children of opportunities to build up patience, frustration tolerance and the ability to distract and amuse themselves.

Generations of parents accomplished their daily tasks without the aid of personal screens, and we can, too. With practice, it can become second-nature to distract, amuse and involve children when they are bored, fussy or underfoot. These strategies require more patience and thought than simply handing over a device, but they have the advantage of generating many long-term benefits, rather than interfering with the parent-to-child bond and generating bad habits that will prove difficult to break later on.

Creating limits you can live with

Most of us can remember a time when media had built-in, non-negotiable limits. Movies, music and information could only be accessed at specific times and in specific places. Children growing up today have never known anything other than an on-demand, 24-7 media-saturated world in which the only limits are those we impose on ourselves. Parents must provide guidance in setting and upholding reasonable boundaries. As with all limits, those on technology will be most effective when every member of the family takes part in planning them, and making sure they apply fairly to all. Parents can lead the way by modeling the behavior they want to see in their kids.

No electronics in bedrooms is a sensible place to start, as it will improve sleep hygiene for adults as well as children. Some families create an electronics box in which they park all the family’s devices an hour or two before lights-out. Instead of bringing phones or tablets to the dinner table, try one of the commercially available conversation-starters, such as Table Topics, or some of the suggestions for mealtime fun offered by the Make a habit of having an electronics-free “special time” – 15-20 minutes spent one-on-one with each of your children, engaged in an activity of their choosing and focused entirely on them. Do what you can to create a clear separation between work time and family time. Setting aside a specific period of the evening to check for messages will provide an opportunity to disconnect, relax and fully engage with the people who most deserve (and will most benefit from) your time and attention.