Last weekend we had an extended family dinner with many relatives. I was sitting on a cushion on the fireplace and looking at a large couch and an oversized chair stuffed with nine cousins ranging from ages 12 to 22. They were smiling, laughing, sitting on each other and…they were all on their phones! I didn’t realize it at first because I guess it has become so normal to see screens. At that moment I realized I was observing -- and living in -- a social experiment that is universal to all families today. Media and technology are a regular and normal part of our kid’s lives and our modern culture – a new normal.
While the specific struggles with screen time vary from family to family, as a counselor to parents, teens, children I know this is an issue parents struggle with every day. Here are 5 tips I try to implement in my own home and I tell my patients to practice:
1. Accept reality – Many adults fight technology in the same way our parents fought too much television (a different screen but still a screen). Most of our kids will not remember a life without smart phones. They grew up with this a small computer in their hands and the ability to access anything, any time. We can’t get mad at these kids for these habits – this is the time they are living in and we need to figure out how to deal with it and the first step is accepting this new reality.
2. Educate – We need to talk (not lecture but actually dialog) with our kids about technology – the pros and the cons. Ask your children what they think about technology and what they like about it. Ask them whether they think all technology is the same – smartphone, gaming, computers. Then tell them why you don’t feel comfortable with excessive tech use and ask them if what you are saying makes sense to them. Explain why you feel the need to regulate their use and promise it is not because you want to control them or micro manage their life but rather it’s your job to guide them as their parent.
3. Collaborate – Help you kids learn to self-regulate and be independent by inviting them into the conversation about technology usage, what is appropriate, and what is too much. It is always interesting to hear what our kids think as I have often had children clients be more restrictive of themselves than their parents were planning -- when kids are part of the technology plan, they will be more invested in the plan being successful.
4. Be Self-Aware – How much technology do you use? What are you modeling for your children? Are always on your smartphone or tablet? Are the things you are checking or researching more important than what your child wants to do on their device? You might want to ask your child how much they think you are on electronics. I find I need to be extremely purposeful to turn my phone upside down with all sounds off when I get home and resist the temptation for a “quick check” of email and texts. Remember, our kids are always watching us. Do they see your screen or your face?
5. Schedule breaks and family time – Even though kids want to be in charge of their lives all parents and therapists know they need guidance and limits. We need to provide limits based on their developmental age and their maturity level. These breaks can be co-created during the collaborative conversations you have with your kids about a family plan and this plan should include family activities (a hike, a game, cooking). Of course not all breaks should be “family time” because our kids need to learn to self-sooth, relax, and manage their own time away from technology. The perfect blend includes screen time, family time and alone time and this will work for all of us regardless of age.
We are living in a digitized world and it is only becoming more digitized every day. Help your children find balance and time to disconnect, and give yourself the same opportunity – together — and the world will open up to you all in unexpected and delightful “in real life” ways.