Not a day goes by without me talking to parents about the challenges of technology. Most days it is several times a day—and that doesn’t include my home life with my own three teenagers! As a psychologist who specializes in children, adolescents, and families, I can easily say that technology and screen time are the most common topics of discussion in both my office and home.
It wasn’t that long ago that parents would argue with their kids about talking too much on the phone or watching too much television. Those battle cries have been replaced by too much texting on smartphones and streaming too many Netflix episodes. Parents today can’t believe their children and friends don’t actually talk but rather Snapchat. And most kids can’t wait even one day to watch a new episode of a show.
Indeed it’s a brave new world!
Are we living in a massive, large scale human experiment? Unlike in George Orwell’s 1984, we don’t know the ultimate impact of technology on our brains, bodies, culture, and society. Yes there is IRT (in real time) research but that means we will continue to receive “in real time” messages that are contradictory such as: screen time is bad and hurts brain development; screen time is good and helps develop the brain in ways needed for the jobs of the future; screens are fine in moderation; we must take regular breaks from screen time; what you are doing on your screen is what determines if it is good or bad; screens produce increased dopamine responses similar to addiction; and many, many more confusing messages.
In talking with parents in my office all day long I can tell you that every family has their own values and beliefs about technology and screens. Life seems to be easier for many of us when things are black and white. Grey, on the other hand, is hard. If only we knew the answer to the question: is technology “good” or “bad”? And can someone please tell us “how much” time is good and how much time is bad? Every parent I know is navigating the digital world on a daily basis.
When thinking about managing screens and technology with our kids we have to accept some facts. Most of the time what your child is saying about their friends is probably true: “All my friends use social media”; “All my friends get to keep their phones in their rooms at night”; “All my friends get to use their phones and stay up late for screen time.” I have found, both in my own home, and through working with my clients, that it is usually not “all” of their friends, but it is often, “most” of them. I bring this up because we need to understand and acknowledge the social landscape of our children’s lives if we want to have a remote possibility of having them understand where we are coming from.
Sure, we can try to control our children and restrict them from doing anything we think is harmful, or we can help them learn to self-regulate and learn to make good choices in their lives—both with technology and beyond technology.
Here are some screen time suggestions that have been helpful to my clients and that I use at home with my children:
1.Collaborate — Kids (of all ages) don’t like to be controlled and restricted. It is far more effective to have a discussion about their ideas about technology and screen use to get a sense of what they think is fair (reasonable or not). When we engage our children in the problem-solving and decision making, we not only get to know what they think and why, but we also can get their “buy in” to a technology plan that we all agree to use. Our children will surprise us by being reasonable.
2.Provide limits and boundaries — Children need limits and boundaries to feel safe and secure. The limits and boundaries need to be based on the child’s age and level of maturity in order to be effective and reduce the feeling of being controlled. Too much screen time is probably not good but there really is no standard rule here. The key is coming up with limits that seem mostly reasonable for your child/children and trying it out to see how it works. You can always increase the limits and boundaries as needed. Most likely your limits will evolve over time as your child ages.
3.Experiment — It is okay to set up “experiments” with your children to see how much they are able to regulate, or not; how much they are able to transition off of a screen (with a five-minute warning for example); how they are able to have their phone in their room at night and not use it. It is healthy to teach your kids about experimenting and adjusting as needed based on their real behavior rather than what you think they will do. Give them a chance. Trust me, they will like that approach more and want to “prove” what they can do to you. Making healthy choices shows us they can handle a situation.
4.Check yourself — This one is key and most important. Our kids are watching us all the time. They know when we are walking the walk or just talking the talk. We need to be honest with ourselves and determine if we are modeling the behavior we are expecting from them—or not. They should call us out if we are on our phone during dinner or family time—we much practice what we preach!
Try to manage technology for your family without fear. We are all in this together. Our best strategy during this in real time technology experiment is to stay connected to our kids IRL (in real life) and online.