Healthy Children Happy Family – Setting Limits in Screen Time
The world seems to be changing so rapidly—-all of our lives are filled with things that didn’t even EXIST just a few years ago. One in eight people on the planet are on Facebook (including me). I used to fill albums with my photos — now they are in my computer, and I am learning to make scrapbooks through Shutterfly. Every morning while I drink my tea I check out several blogs, and I can listen to a podcast on my long walks. I am learning a lot, and I am enjoying developing my own relationship with new technology. As a parent, though, I need to know how to handle the relationship my children have with all of these exciting developments. There are studies that show that violent video games alter brain activity in kids; there are parents who claim that their teenage sons are addicted to video games. I’m alarmed by news stories about cyber bullying and sexting. Bottom line, we don’t know what the impact of all the time we spend on social media, games, and technology will be on our children– we are all making this up as we go along. We can’t possibly understand it all, but we have to do our best to set age-appropriate limits — and we need to start when our children are as young as possible.
What is screen time?
Experts define “screen time” as the total time spent in front of screens of all kinds–TVs, laptops, phones, ipads, video games — and other digital devices with a screen. A Kaiser Family Foundation study reported in 2010 that children ages 8-18 spend an average of almost 11 hours a day interacting with electronic media. This is an increase of three hours a day since 2004. One very basic strategy for coping is to delay each electronic purchase as long as possible. Put off the purchase of the x-box; don’t give a young teen a cell phone until you deem it absolutely necessary. One mother of three has a rule: no Facebook or cell phone until after 8th grade. Once you do make the decision to put this new technology in the hands of your precious child, think of it like putting him behind the wheel of a car — he needs a big safety talk and a lot of supervision. Communicate and make rules. Discuss safety, protecting identity, managing time, and setting boundaries, and model this behavior yourself. Discuss cyber bullying and sexting. There are many parental filters, apps, and programs to help, but start with your own rules.
How to Set Limits
Preschoolers - Preschoolers need dolls and blocks and dress up and drawing to develop their fine and gross motor skills. An article in Psychology Today calls this kind of imaginative play the fruits and vegetables of a preschooler’s diet. If you have small children, dole out time for play on an ipad or your iphone in the same careful way you would allow sweets. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting screen time to 1 to 2 hours per day at this age. The time that is allowed — whether it is games or TV — should be good quality and geared specifically for a preschooler. Experts say not to use digital media as a babysitter — but we all know there are those times when we do. Try to make those times few and far between.
School aged children - Children between the ages of around 6 and 11 are more willing to have rules imposed on them than teen agers — so make rules early and enforce them. Let them know what is off limits — for example, certain games you think are too violent, movies rated PG 13. Setting firm rules and establishing good media habits means the ground work is already in place when the world enlarges and texting and Facebook come into play.
Set time limits
Set time limits. Different families do this in different ways. Some use a timer to enforce the limits. Others require balancing online or video time with exercise or reading time. One mom requires that a reading and math module on “Learning Today” be completed before any game time. Create incentives; make sure each child has chores that must be completed before allowing screen time. Another mom lets children earn online time by tallying up minutes; making beds is worth five minutes, cleaning out the litter box earns ten minutes, and putting laundry away is worth fifteen.
At this age it is important for internet time to take place on a computer out in a public room in your house, so that you can oversee what sites your child is on. Let your child know that you will monitor the sites she visits on the internet. If you allow your child to have an email account, be sure to check it occasionally, as well as the history of sites visited on your family computer.
If you have a gaming system, screen games for violence and content. You can check specific games for ratings given by the Entertainment Software Rating Board. Encourage games that can be played with others and use the body, like Wii and xbox Konnect .
If your child is interested in posting videos on YouTube, make sure she doesn’t use her real name, or show things like names of locations or schools. Explain that you need to watch videos before they can be posted. Mark videos private so only friends can watch, and read safety tips posted by YouTube.
Teens – According to the Nielson Company, the average teenager sends six texts per waking hour. Set expectations for what is acceptable to you. One mom says, “I absolutely do not tolerate texting or computer use when you should be in conversation with anyone. This includes but is not limited to: at the table, in a restaurant, in the car even as a passenger, unless the text is very brief and pertains to our errand, or we are on a very long road trip.” Make sure that you also follow any rules you set. Another mom has a rule that all cell phones go in the glove compartment when they get in the car. She likes that the children aren’t distracted and are more open to conversations with her, and she also says it helps her be a good example– otherwise she is often tempted to check an email or send a quick text. Explain that you know friends are important, but during these specific times, the people you are with take priority.
On Facebook, it is important to be “friends” so you have access to your teen’s page, and make sure to check privacy setting regularly. A mom with teen girls says, “I have tried monitoring Facebook pages, but the content is inane for the most part, completely benign when I have looked, and I don’t have the time or energy to stick with that kind of vigilance . . . I just default to trusting them, which so far has worked for me.” In order to have this kind of trust, it is important to the lay the groundwork, explaining why some pictures should not be shared, and that people should be treated with the same kind of consideration on a social network as they are in a real social situation.
Establish hours and zones that will be technology free
As our children grow, we lose the control we had had over their worlds. When they were babies we could decide what kind of food, toys, experiences to offer them. Now you need to come up with rules that work for you and your family. For example, you may have decided not to allow a TV in your child’s room; you may have banned TV during meals. Now you have to specify hours and zones where technology will not be allowed, and respect these limits yourself as well. The dinner table is as obvious no technology zone, and you may also want to extend that to bedrooms after a certain hour, having everyone in the family leave phones in a designated place when going to bed.
Spend time with your child while you are unplugged. Amanda, the author of the blog “High Impact Moms,” recommends instituting a regular time when the whole family “unplugs.” Her family unplugs once a week every week, a whole weekend once a month, and for week once a year.
In most other areas of parenting we have at least some experience from our own childhoods. When my son struggles with math, I remember my own struggles and the way my parents dealt with it. I can follow a similar course in my parenting or choose a different one. We don’t have any background for dealing with all the new technology that is so present in the way we interact with the world, but we have to come up with our own personal game plan for how we allow it to be a part of our children’s lives.
Caroline Baxter Lambert likes to read, think, and write about parenting issues. She is the mother of two ever-evolving children.