Screens are all around us. From smartphones to TVs, we interact with screens all day long. And so do our kids.
Is it any wonder, then, that more than half of all moms and dads feel guilty about their children’s screen time exposure?
Parental remorse regarding youngsters’ screen time isn’t a new phenomenon, of course. Since the advent of televised entertainment, mothers and fathers have been warned against the “boob tube,” “idiot box,” and “electronic babysitter.” After all, tons of studies have shown a correlation between couch potato-ism and childhood obesity.
Here’s the problem, though: We can’t just unplug anymore, especially in light of COVID-19. Today, kids and screens are intertwined. This makes it tough for parents to completely eliminate screen time or just make it an occasional reward.
In a perfect world, parents would want their kids to experience the childhood they themselves remember: playing outside, using imagination to play, enjoying board games, and the like. But they’re finding it harder and harder to cut the tech cord because it’s simply impractical in today’s world.
Until they come to terms with that fact, many parents will continue to feel bogged down with guilt. So how can they overcome the feeling and face the issue of screen time head on?
Screens: Not Going Away, But Not the Enemy
Currently, screens are essential to modern life. Who hasn’t been in a Zoom meeting? Or used a platform like FaceTime to chat with friends and family? Many schools and even extracurricular activities are online, too.
What’s more, offering socialization experiences for kids while social distancing often means using screens. Pew Research Center findings suggest that although almost two-thirds of all parents worry about screen time for their little ones, practically as many worry about their kids’ maintaining friendships. Ironically, screens could help ease problems with the latter.
This isn’t to suggest that screens aren’t without their drawbacks, of course. Parents and teachers understand the limitations of live video interfaces. During the pandemic, educators discovered how difficult engagement could be when it was impossible to pick up on body language or provide one-on-one help during school time. Nevertheless, the world has had to rely on screens to move life, learning, and work forward.
Take the case of remote working parents who leaned into screens to provide a respite from childcare duties. Though they might not have wanted to expose their kids to more screen time, they had little choice during working hours. Without screens, they might have lost their jobs, which would have led to even less ideal situations for their families.
Hitting the Right Screen Time Balance
What’s the answer to figuring out how to monitor and reduce children’s screen time without feeling overwhelmed and even more guilty? Parents can adopt the following strategies to balance screen use without letting them take precedence in children’s lives:
Position unnecessary screen time as a treat.
When kids are in online schooling, they have no choice but to use screens most of the day. When they’re playing Minecraft or exchanging Snapchats with friends, however, they do. Screen time can therefore be divided into necessary and unnecessary buckets. Work with their kids to reduce their amount of unnecessary screen time, treating it like a “dessert” rather than a healthy main course.
Talk about screen usage.
Parents should have conversations with their kids around reasonable screen time per day and week. If kids already have smartphones, you can equip their smartphones with screen time monitoring. Having a baseline understanding of how much time a child is already spending with screens can become a good starting point for discussing how much is too much. From that point, you can set screen usage rules, such as when and where screens are acceptable (in the car, waiting for appointments, etc.).
Know recommended screen exposure guidelines.
No definitive study has shown what excessive screen use does to kids. However, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has screen media guidelines. With the exception of video chatting or high-quality media, AAP cautions parents to avoid screens for toddlers as much as possible. Children who are preschool age can handle limited screen time, according to AAP — ideally in a supervised setting so you can help your kids understand what they are seeing and how it applies to the world around them.
Rely on screens for education and digital literacy.
Remember when owning an encyclopedia was a huge family asset? Now, everyone has a wealth of knowledge available 24/7. You can teach your kids to use technology to increase their knowledge, whether it’s understanding a card game’s directions or finding out how to fix a squeaky door. Leveraging screens to solve problems, find recipes, refresh a memory, or research information is wise and productive and will help grow your children’s digital literacy.
There’s no doubt that screen time has increased in the past year for both kids and adults. Still, parents don’t need to feel that they’ve let their children down if they’re spending more time than usual with screens. Without technology, the lockdowns and quarantines would have felt even more constraining and learning and work would have been impossible. Now, moms and dads just need to find ways to make screens work in their favor and find an attainable balance. It’s a doable goal that can lead kids to appreciate the value of screens without losing their ability to unplug.
Suzanne Barchers, Ed.D., is the education advisory board chair at Lingokids, a language-learning service for children ages 2-8. Suzanne is the former editor-in-chief and vice president of LeapFrog Enterprises and managing editor at Weekly Reader. She is an award-winning author of more than 250 books for teachers and children and served on advisory boards for PBS and the Association of Educational Publishers.