What do we do about children and screen time ?
From time to time articles appear warning us that children and teenagers are spending more and more time on their screens. This is followed by a quote from an expert alerting us to the terrible dangers of prolonged screen time and strongly recommending we limit it. When I read these comments I sometimes wonder whether these experts have ever encountered a child engrossed in his/her screen and tried to get them to stop. Many happily switch it off at the first time of asking but an awful lot more create mayhem at the merest suggestion that they turn it off. Therein lies one of the problems, which parent wants to spent large parts of the evening/weekend policing and arguing about turning off screens. I don’t think the fear of your children contracting a form of digital dementia in the future is persuasive enough. Most parents I see already know they need to keep control of it but the whole subject is more nuanced and a lot more complex than it appears.
What is so appealing about screen time and incidentally parenting is that it’s like giving a child shot of elephant tranquilizer. Put a screen in front of them and they immediately become placid and docile, sometimes to the point of appearing comatose. For stressed out parents what’s not to like about this?
For example you are taking the children to see granny in the country. It’s a 2 hour drive. What better way to travel than to load up the children, load up the ipads and headphones and off you go. A stress free journey is moreorless guaranteed. Ok there is the minor inconvenience of withdrawal symptoms when you arrive but that’s a small price to pay for a stress free journey. Yes I know playing I Spy is more interactive, challenging and creative but I can also guarantee that after half an hour the children will be arguing and fighting and your blood pressure will be rising.
Despite the attraction of having quiet docile children there are three important arguments why parents need to get on board with this topic. Children need to learn how to develop and manage relationships because we know that secure relationships with family and friends are a more important for their well being than anything else. Every hour spent immersed in looking at screens is one less hour they are interacting with others and an opportunity is lost to enhance those relational skills.
Children need space and time free from stimulation to process their experience. In time it helps them develop the capacity to reflect and evaluate their experience. If every waking minute they are locked to a screen they are being deprived of this important of psychological developments.
Screens are regressive in the sense that they nurture a thirst for instant gratification. As parents we are trying to teach them the opposite and it’s a difficult enough task as it is. We need to stack the odds a bit more in our favour.
So what do we do?
Lets start with thinking about a how we might deal with the issue as a family. Having a plan is a lot better than dealing with situations piecemeal.
I suggest having a cut off time for all electronics at home. Either disable the internet or ask the children to hand in their electronics. Don’t make it negotiable and don’t make exceptions. Once it has become embedded in family life you will have much less aggravation.
Don’t allow children under 16 to use a computer in their bedroom. If they have homework or other things to do on the computer it can be done in another area. The argument that they need privacy to face time their friends doesn’t stack up. They see them everyday. What do they need to say that is so important that it can’t wait till morning. Any arguments about this will be more about the need for instant gratification than the importance of the subject matter.
Don’t allow electronic devices at the meal table, at family gatherings or family outings. They disrupt the connectedness between members of the family. This time is precious for many reasons but from my point of view it is also where so much is learned about relationships and interacting. Keep it screen free.
Mobile phones come under this umbrella. It’s my view that there is no compelling reason why a child under 16 should have a smartphone. They have computers at school and probably computers at home. It’s radical I know but what do they need the smartphone for? Snapchat, Youtube, videos, games, Facebook, if they have an account. This is a colossal waste of time. Is the school day not challenging or interesting enough for all this stuff to be put on hold? I have heard the social exclusion argument but it’s not compelling. I have met many children whose families have decided for one reason or another not to have a TV but they haven’t felt socially excluded at school. The fashion accessory argument isn’t worth commenting on.
There is a technological revolution going on and it corrodes family life and relationships, we need to try as best we can to keep it from swamping family life more than it already does. Make a plan and stick to it. It will be worth it in the long run.