Benefits of Reducing Screen Time
I’m a mom who lives a life surrounded by technology. I struggle every day with the desire to do the best for my kids (Crafting! Healthy meals! No TV!) juxtaposed against the demands of working, chores and straight up exhaustion: “how bad is a half hour of iPad games so I can dry my hair?”
Screen time can offer educational benefits, particularly when there’s parental involvement and age-appropriate content. However, there are some definite dangers, not only to your children’s ability to develop non-electronic coping skills, but in your family’s ability to connect with each other. Here’s why you should consider pulling the plug, at least a little, and how to (slowly!) establish some healthy habits that will help your family connect with each other instead of with gadgets.
Anyone with a Smartphone has probably handed it to their child when standing in line at the grocery store, or when they need a few minutes to finish a work project. It feels harmless enough, but there are necessary life skills that are circumvented when you give your kid a technological distraction.
Catherine Steiner-Adair is a Clinical Psychologist and a Clinical Instructor for the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. In her book, “The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age,” Steiner-Adair interviewed more than one thousand children between age 4 and 18 to explore the effect of screen time on family relationships and child development.
She points out that “If you hand [a young child] a screen of any kind when they’re frustrated, you’re teaching them how not to self-soothe.” When offered the choice between an immediately responsive, stimulating electronic device and having to learn patience and calm observation, it’s not surprising that children gravitate toward the former.
Educators interviewed for her book reported that kids who spend too much time in front of a screen play and learn differently. They don’t have as much patience and play less creatively, reenacting TV shows or video games instead of creating a new narrative. Teachers interviewed by Common Sense Media for a November 2012 study, “Children, Teens and Entertainment Media: The View from the Classroom” report that entertainment media has adversely effected children’s attention span, writing skills, face-to-face communication abilities and critical thinking.
However, our young people’s increased use of electronics for entertainment and relaxation isn’t an independent development: they’re learning it from their parents. In a national survey published by the Center on Media and Human Development at Northwestern University in June 2013, researchers interviewed 2,300 parents of children from birth to age eight about how they are incorporating new technologies into their family lives and parenting practices. They discovered that about 39% of parents spend an average of 11 hours a day using media (watching TV, surfing the net, scrolling through Facebook on their phone, etc.) and 45% spend just under five hours of every day using screen media.
According to Steiner-Adair, as soon as kids are able to understand the meaning of the word, many describe their parents as hypocrites when it comes to technology. If you tell your teenager that he can’t play with his phone at the table but then you take a call, it doesn’t go unnoticed. Many reported being frustrated, sad or angry that they have to compete with screens for their parents’ attention. Kids notice that you’re distracted by that text or listening to a voicemail, and it gives the impression that they aren’t as important to you as the person on the other end of the phone call, text or Facebook post.
While it’s unrealistic that you could disconnect entirely and never be distracted when you’re with your kids, make an effort to reserve certain times to give them your complete focus, free from phones and gadgets. Meal times, when you’re in the car heading to or from school, and when you’re settling the kids in for bed are good opportunities to tune in to them completely.
Kids also notice when you’re distracted or disengaged in your interactions with others, particularly your spouse. When you interrupt a conversation with your spouse to take a phone call, or scroll through texts in the car while talking about plans for the weekend, it gives the impression that you don’t value your spouse enough to give them your undivided attention.
If it bothers you that young people rarely give eye contact these days, seemingly more comfortable staring at a small screen than looking at each other, the best fix is practice. Engage with your children and model polite interactions with others by putting your phone away before you start a conversation.