13 Apr 2023

Reining in Screen Time

Human beings have always wiled away their time doing relaxing, but not necessarily productive things. When I was growing up, I spent several hours in front of the TV each day. I even did my homework in front of the TV. Luckily, during nice weather, I played outside with friends.
Raising my own children, they rarely watched TV. They played Super Mario on their I-pods. When I wanted them to stop and come to dinner, I heard, “Just wait until I get to the next level!” Then they got iPhones. It was difficult to take away their phones for any reason because they needed them to do homework or experienced anxiety by being separated from them. But we did have restrictions: At family dinners, we talked and did not look at phones. We did not sleep with phones on. We did social activities where phones stayed in pockets.
Now that smart phones do more and more for us in addition to giving us a virtual social life, it is harder and harder to impose restrictions. Is someone in your family addicted to their phone? Addiction can be defined as narrowing down what gives you pleasure. So while games and social media may be trying to take over the pleasure centers of the brain, there are other activities that can also bring pleasure, and to be well balanced people, we need to find them.
Breaking Down Screen Time
We can all agree that all screen time is not the same. Playing games in moderation stimulates the brain. Playing games with your friends on your devices is social time, even if you are in different places. The phone is wonderful for using the dictionary, thesaurus, and calculator, learning new information, setting alarms, using a GPS, and reading on a Kindle app. Because our phones are so useful, parents are reluctant to ask their children to put down their phones unless they have a good reason.
Mental Health Challenges
Preliminary research has shown a connection between excessive screen use and increased mental health issues and hospitalizations of teens. This may because screen time is taking away from the personal interaction that is needed for healthy development. In addition, social media gives us a skewed view of happy, go-lucky, good-looking people, which makes some people feel less than. Although social interactions on our devices is a way of life, it is still crucial to have human interaction with friends and family members to maximize our mental health.
“Multi-tasking” vs. Mindfulness
Many of us have addictions to our phones at different levels. We usually have our phones right next to us. When we talk to our spouses, children, or parents, do we give them our full attention? Research has shown that multi-tasking is a myth. (See our article Homework and Headphones: Multi-tasking Myth) We are not really doing two things at the same time; rather, we are switching back and forth. Research on mindfulness has demonstrated the benefits of giving our full attention to the here and now. How often do we grab our phone and scroll down Facebook, Instagram, or TikTok? Would it benefit all of us to take phone and media breaks in favor of outdoor activities and family discussions?
The best way to teach our children good habits is to model them in our own behavior. This includes modeling separation from our phones and everything else. Today’s Washington Post perspective Modeling Good Behavior for your kids is Harder than you Think by Diana Shoenbran demonstrates this concept beautifully using graphics.
How to Limit Screen Time
To limit screen time, we must replace this time with other activities that will also give us pleasure.
  • Start by modeling. Make an effort to refrain from looking at your phone while people are talking to you. Avoid mindlessly scrolling your phone every few minutes.
  • Have “no screen” times of the day. Family dinner is a great time to focus on conversations. Reading time can be a time to focus on reading a book or article. Having a separate Kindle or reading actual books will help keep away distractions from the phone. Phones may not always be necessary during homework time.
  • Make it a family policy to keep phones charging in another room while sleeping. You may need to discuss the need for this policy and the importance of sleep with your child.
  • Support outdoor activities like free play time and organized sports.
  • Support extracurricular activities like drama, theatre, and music.
  • Schedule family outings.
  • Do volunteer work.
  • Help your children discover their passions.
Parental Controls
Many parents are on board with limiting their children’s screen time with parental controls, including both screen time limits and content controls. According to Apple, by going to Settings on your iPhone: With Content & Privacy Restrictions in Screen Time, you can block or limit specific apps and features on your child’s device. You can also restrict the settings on your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch for explicit content, purchases and downloads, and privacy. By the time your children are in high school, it is best for them to gradually gain more independence by setting their own limitations on screen time and giving themselves screen time breaks. This transition relies on modeling and discussing the pitfalls of excessive screen time.
Finally, for a new perspective, take a look at this student opinion article “Should more Teenagers Ditch their Smartphones?” by Jeremy Engle, published by the New York Times on 12/20/22. Mr. Engle describes a club of New York City teens who ditched their phones or switched to flip phones in order to fully enjoy real life, books, and socializing with like minded peers.
By Cheryl Gedzelman, President, Tutoring For Success

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