One thing you can rely on in life is articles and ‘news reports’ about how kids today have too much ‘screen time’. ‘Health experts’ have been decrying the amount of screen time kids have since I was a kid myself. Everything from obesity to sleeplessness to anti-social behaviour gets blamed on kids spending too long in front of a screen. Sensationalism sells, and so the media talk about kids’ ‘screen time’ as if it’s a train running out of control or as some sort of monster that is devouring our children’s lives and all we can do is sit hopelessly by and watch in horror.
Beyond the hysteria, there is a simple fact in play. There are people in control of how much screen time our children have – us! And there is a simple solution to cutting back the amount of screen time our children have: parents, get your ‘no’ on!
Back in 2007, the National Australian Children’s Nutrition and Physical Activity Survey found that the top 10 barriers to children changing their behaviours around screen use all related back to parents. Either there was a lack of willingness to restrict their children, a lack of ability to enforce boundaries, or poor screen habits themselves that exacerbated the problem in the first place.
So in reality, its not the kids we’re bemoaning when we see these stories in the media on screen time, its the parents.
So how do we change this? It’s both harder and easier than you think.
1. Set ground rules in advance.
Don’t make up and enforce rules on the run. Many parents haven’t thought about how much screen time they’re happy for their children to have each day, they simply get to a point where they decide enough is enough and tell their child to ‘get off that thing’. Having no warning leads to the child being upset or angry and they may try to avoid or delay what they have been told to do. This sets up repetitive negative experiences around device use and to parents ‘hating that thing’. Instead of this, decide together what is a reasonable amount of screen time each day, and how that should be enforced. Health authorities in both Australia and the U.S agree that no more than 2 hours per day for children is best.
2. Take time to ask about what your child is watching or doing online.
‘Screen time’ is such a broad term it has become unhelpful. ‘Screen time’ could be doing homework, reading an e-book, creating a book or artwork, finding out how to do something, socialising with friends, playing a game or watching a TV show or movie. Most often, tweens and teens are using internet devices to communicate with their friends. Having no understanding of what your child is doing on the device they are using can potentially lead to parents making decisions about usage that are un-sensitive to what their child is up to and so perceived to be ‘unfair’. For example, if your teen is having an ‘important’ conversation online, forcing them off the device at that particular time would be the equivalent of your parents coming past and hanging up the phone mid-conversation when you were a teenager. Having an understanding of what your children are up to will give you a better guide when setting ground rules about device rules with them. It also contributes to creating a positive relationship around device use, rather than repetitive negative encounters.
3. No means no. Do what you have to do to enforce it.
Electronic devices can be ‘addictive’, and children can be very persistent when it comes to trying to sneak more use after you’ve forbidden it. I’ve known parents to switch the home WiFi off, lock up iPads in filing cabinets, or confiscate devices after a certain time each day. Do whatever you need to do to enforce the boundaries. Saying ‘no’ and then letting it happen anyway is the worst thing you can do whether its to do with device use or anything else, as you are letting your authority as the parent erode away.
4. Use technology to help you.
This might sound counter intuitive, but its a great idea. Recently I was sent a product called ‘Parent Box’ (parentbox.com.au) by a reader of this blog. This device plugs into your family internet connection and allows you to set controls on each device in your house individually. You can set up limits on downloads and time spent on the internet for each of your children, and once these limits are reached the internet is simply shut off for their device. It also enables you to easily see which devices are accessing the internet and what times they are accessing it.
Letting technology take over the enforcing of rules that you have set with your children beforehand can cut out the arguing. Managing internet time becomes black and white and not an issue that you are always trying to enforce and being the ‘bad cop’ about. An added benefit is that your children can log in to see a dashboard showing them how much of their downloads they have used for that day or how much time they have left to use the device. This gives them more of a feeling of control over their own behaviour, rather than the uncertainty of mum or dad telling them ‘time’s up’ seemingly out of the blue.
5. Finally, the most often broken rule of all: NEVER LET DEVICES INTO BEDROOMS.
We see it time and time again and it is where almost all ‘bad things’ online happen. Parents often say ‘but my child is a good kid, he wouldn’t do anything bad’. It’s not about whether they’re good or not, it’s about keeping them safe. The safety of letting a child play unattended near water has nothing to do with how ‘good’ they are, and neither does use of electronic devices in bedrooms.
Whatever strategies you use, know that it will require constant vigilance and the continual need to reinforce the boundaries that have been agreed on. There is no one saying this area of parenting is easy. It’s anything but! There will be some really tough times, and other times when you feel you are ‘winning’. But remember, you’re in charge and in control.
‘Screen time’ has a boss: you!