Do you notice that your child spends less time outdoors, rarely gets together with friends, or has difficulty concentrating long enough to write a school paper? Do family members spend most of their time at home in separate rooms interacting with screens? These may be signs of digital overload.
In October 2013, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a policy statement calling on parents to limit their children’s access to electronic and digital media to no more than one or two hours per day. Only two hours a day…impossible, you say? Try these 12 steps to digital media relief:
- Make a plan. This may seem obvious, but most parents don’t think through how much time they want their children to use electronic media.
- If you live in a two-parent household, sit down with your spouse or partner and decide together on what your family’s digital media guidelines are.
- Communicate your plan to your children. Make sure they understand the rules, and then stick to the plan. Write it down so you can refer to it later, and make it a “living document” that can be modified as needed.
- Be intentional in when you allow access to digital media. Don’t deal with a fussy child by handing the child your iPad to quiet him down. A fussy child needs a parent to understand why they are fussy. Using a device to distract a child rewards fussy behavior, and bypasses the parent-child relationship that encourages bonding and attachment.
- Understand that technology is a part of your child’s life, as well as yours. Talking about technology as bad or something to be avoided will simply make children curious about what the big deal is. Their use of it will “go underground” and then you won’t have the ability to oversee its use.
- Start early. In their report, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends avoiding TV and entertainment media for a child’s first two years. “A child's brain develops rapidly during these first years, and young children learn best by interacting with people, not screens.” The earlier you set limits, the easier it is for your child to comply.
- When you do start allowing your child to use digital devices, be there to use them with your child. Make their use a part of your interaction with your child, not something your child does alone.
- If it is too late to start early: do a digital audit on your child. A 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation study found children between 8 and 10, on average, spent nearly eight hours a day using electronic media outside of school. Add up their internet time, gaming, TV, and movies and if you find your child is using electronic media more than a couple of hours per day, begin a slow-down period. Ask your child to prioritize the programs they watch on TV and limit non-homework access to the internet, for example.
- Do a digital audit on yourself. When you are out for a walk with your child, are you on the phone talking to someone else? When you’re grabbing a quick meal out with your family, do you look at your tablet more than you look at your child? Make sure some of the time you spend with your child is quality “face-time.”
- If you need to use the TV or other device to entertain your child while you get dinner or accomplish another task, do it intentionally. Know that this is part of the time you allow your child to be involved with electronic media, and count it in their “media time.”
- Engage in electronic media with your child. Watch TV or surf the internet with your child and talk about what you are watching or researching. This is especially important for young children. They need you to help them understand what they are watching and to put it in a context.
- Try this: spend 15 minutes a day devoting your full attention to your child—not multitasking. And allow them to decide how the two of you spend the precious 15 minutes. You might find this surprisingly hard at first, but research has shown it helps even oppositional children calm down and feel more connected to you, over time. Both of you will feel enriched.
Some children seem to handle exposure to the captivating effects of digital media better than others. But if your child exhibits distractibility, irritability, or social withdrawal—or if she is having trouble sleeping—consider whether screen time may be a culprit. Monitoring your child’s access to electronic media, and remembering to spend screen-free time, will reward both of you with more playful and satisfying interactions.
R. Keith Myers, LICSW
Vice-President of Clinical & Training Services for Wellspring Counseling
Beth Healy, MA, LMHC
Director of the Downtown Seattle Branch of Wellspring Counseling.