Screen Time and Family: Advice for Caregivers

The pandemic has shut down a lot of outlets for togetherness. Digital time is filling that need for togetherness with faraway family and friends. Screen time has gone from a distraction to the way we are working, learning and staying in touch. It’s important for families and caregivers to adjust expectations accordingly, understand that all screen time isn’t equal and realize that screens are helping everyone cope.

Family looking at cell phone

“Screens aren’t making your kids unhappy,” says Jeff R. Temple, PhD with the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, “but screens won’t make them happy, either. In this time with limited social interaction, this might be the best and safest ways for interacting with friends.”

When it comes to screen time and technology in general, parents tend to fall along a spectrum. On one end, togetherness means turning off the electronics and getting some one-on-one time with your family; on the other, technology can be used as a tool to bond with extended family and friends. There’s nothing wrong with either viewpoint; each one has value. The best solution for your family is one that will help you use screen time as a deliberate activity instead of something you and your children do to pass the time.

The first thing to do when talking about screen time, or any technology, is to make safety a priority. All screens are at risk for abuse. Don't assume that even a school laptop is safe and secure! Talk to your kid about online safety, online bullying and online predators. Cameras and other apps that can record your child should be researched online to make sure they’re safe and approved for use by kids.

Children should be allowed to have reasonable privacy and space but “parents should be able to assess their child’s devices, know their passwords or have fingerprint access,” said Christopher Greeley, MD, Head of the Section of Public Health and Primary Care at Texas Children’s Hospital. “If a child closes a laptop or closes the tab on the browser when a parent walks by, parents should ask to see it.” Parents should not check up on devices without their child present. Rather they should do so with their child and be prepared to talk about what you find together.

According to Dr. Damon Korb, MD and author of Raising an Organized Child, all screen time is not created equal. Intentional screen time, like online classes, communicating with peers and discovering or learning something new, is valuable in helping kids grow and develop. Even talking about homework with classmates is part of any successful school day. When school is over, put all school items in a box and the laptop on the charger. Build in a 15-minute screen-free break, family walk or other physical activity after school to help everyone de-stress from the day.

Passive screen time is more like ice cream; delicious and delightful…but too much is never a good idea. Endlessly scrolling through social media, watching YouTube videos or TikTok shorts should be allowed, but in moderation. Set timers on passive screen time to keep the focus on intentional learning and exploration.

“Screen time isn’t your enemy and, in fact, can be your friend,” said Dr. Temple. “It’s a means to an end.” The best way to turn screen time to your advantage is to be genuinely interested in what your kids are doing with it. Downloading the apps your children are using and getting comfortable with them is a great way to connect. Interact with them as they use their screens. Ask them about their favorite creators and streamers or check out a video together. Don’t be overly judgmental about what they like, if it’s not abusive or dangerous.

When it comes to rules about screens in your home, it’s important to set a good example. Telling a child not to use screens while you're on your phone or laptop sends a very specific message. Be a model for your kids. Making a house rule that devices go on their chargers one hour before bedtime is a great idea. Setting a specific place in the house as a charging station (to see where all the phones/tablets/laptops are) can help the whole family. No phones in bed can help everyone get fall asleep faster. Be flexible but firm about the rules and make sure everyone knows the consequences of breaking them.

Right now, kids of all ages miss their friends, and phones and laptops are their only way to stay in touch. If they’re interacting with friends, even if they’re playing video games or watching YouTube videos together, consider giving them quite a bit of freedom – especially during these social distancing times.

“Don’t worry if you haven’t done all of these things or don’t plan on implementing all of the above,” adds Dr. Temple. “Anything is better than nothing. We’re all doing the best we can in these uncertain times. If your child being on their phone playing a silly video game gives you an hour of peace, that’s okay.”

By adding some organization into your family’s life around screen time, you can return a little more order to this time of uncertainty. “In the big picture we are going to get through it, come together as a united world and work this out,” said Dr. Korb. “When we all look back, we’ll want to think about the good that came from all of this uncertainty. The skills we gained, the family dinners shared together, and how we were able to make the ordinary extraordinary.”

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