Screen time vs the world

I have a confession to make. When my kids were younger, I relied on DVDs to the extent that I joked that my sanity was sponsored by Pixar. Lately my kids have disappeared with the iPad to watch and play all things Minecraft related, while I escape into my own social world of bloggers, Facebook and Instagram. The 2 hour a day maximum ‘screen based media use’ recommended by the American Academy of Paediatrics and endorsed by paediatricians around the world? Not here. My kids get more. Much more.
And chances are, so do yours.
According to the authors of Virtually impossible: limiting Australian children and adolescents daily screen based media use, a January 2015 report published by BMC Public Health, 45% of 8 year olds and 60% of 16 year olds are exceeding this 2-hour/day recommended screen time limit. The authors conclude that these limits are no longer realistic because ‘screen based media are central in the everyday lives of children and adolescents’.
While most families I speak to attempt to place some rules and limits around screen time for their children, they echo the sentiment of this report. They are confused. On the one hand, they have some awareness that too much screen time is detrimental to their child’s development. They worry about their child’s ability to tolerate boredom and play with others. They worry that their child might be using screens to escape reality or strong feelings associated with sadness or low self-esteem. They are concerned by the anger that erupts when parents put their foot down and call ‘time up’ on screen use. In short, they are worried about what is being lost amidst all this ‘progress’.
On the other hand, our schools encourage and use screen-based games and tools for learning (the Australian Curriculum requires students to use, interpret and navigate online content and use emerging technology). Our children and teens tell us that social media, online gaming with friends and being ‘in the know’ about the latest trends are critical to their social success. And what about their need to just zone out in this over-programmed world of ours?
And finally, the dirty little secret of screen time. It is convenient. The kids are quiet. They are not making a mess. They are not yelling at each other or you. Blissful peace.
The fact is that while we have some evidence that excessive screen time is associated with poor physical and psychological outcomes — obesity and associated health problems, attention difficulties, symptoms of depression and irritability and poor empathy development to name a few – these studies look at total hours of television and/or generic ‘computer’ use. Few studies have looked at whether the relationship with these outcomes differs depending on how children are using their devices (communication, educational, joint play, creative use and so on). Moreover, the speed of technological advancement far outpaces the time required to study the short and long term impact of its use.
So what is a concerned parent to do?
It seems to me that in order to figure out what screens are taking from our lives, we need to take a closer look at what happens when the screens aren’t there. I decided to put my family on a two week ‘screen break’ to test this out. The rules: while we could use screens at school, work and for homework, all other screens were suspended for two weeks. We agreed that it would be difficult; that we would feel bored and antsy and we agreed to help each other with this. And we agreed that, after two weeks, we would have a family meeting to decide how to add screens back into the picture.
They were not happy. But they agreed.
We made some interesting discoveries:

  • I had a far more difficult time without screens than anyone else. I didn’t realise how often I resorted to my phone for brief respite from home life. I was tired and disoriented for a few days from the overstimulation.
  • I started to read more and, perhaps from watching me, my children started to read more too.
  • Playing background music helped us relax and get used to the lack of other electronic noise/entertainment.
  • My children’s attention-seeking behaviour and arguing settled down. Perhaps because I was more accessible (not being in my phone). Also, after a period of frustration and with my help, they learned that playing together was more fun than fighting. They played pretend. They played outside with neighbours. Board games were played during dinner prep. Conversations were had.
  • Transitions from play to bed time were much smoother.
  • We spoke to each other at dinner.
  • Their area of interest expanded from non-stop Minecraft. The preoccupations settled and conversations finally broadened from that of the latest ‘mod’. One of my children’s circle of friends broadened at the same time. (I’m not sure it this is screen-related but the timing certainly is interesting.)
  • Despite all these gains, we still missed our screens. I liked watching a television show after the children went to bed to relax. My kids missed the Minecraft challenges and wanted to share videos that they watched at school. I missed feeling connected with the rest of the world.

It’s been two weeks since the experiment ended. We made some changes.

  • The children have limited, weekly screen time ‘tickets’ that they can use when they want a 30 minute hit of screen time. Two they can use independently, one they must use for viewing/playing with someone else. Once they are spent for the week, they are gone.
  • No screens during dinner.
  • I will not use my phone at home until the children are in bed.
  • Adults can watch television after the kids go to bed but agree to turn it off at a certain time. Some nights to stay screen-free.

It’s been working well so far, but I know that the screens will creep back in. A long wait at a doctor’s office, a sick day from school, parent stress followed by I-just-need-a-minute-of-peace-here’s-the-iPad. These things will accumulate and we might end up back where we were. That’s life. That’s reality. So we agreed to do this again in 6 months. And we’ll keep doing this so we can be sure that our screen time is right for our world. I encourage you to do the same.