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Power on/power off: Mentoring kids’ screen time helps develop healthy habits

Do you text a friend—or maybe even just glance at your phone--while your child is telling you a story? Do you withhold device/screen time for kids’ misbehavior because it’s something that matters to them? Are kids learning a good screen time/other time balance from you?

Whether we are trying to get kids to be more physically active or more face-to-face interactive, we would do well to look at our whole family’s device usage. Not surprisingly, there’s an app for that—more than one, including Screen Time for iOS devices, which “lets you know how much time you and your kids spend on apps, websites, and more.”

Even researchers, along with moms and dads, are only beginning to appreciate the complexity of the issue of screen time. Anya Kamenetz is an NPR education correspondent, a host of Life Kit, “NPR’s family of audio guides for navigating your life,” and author of Parenting: Screen Time and Your Family. She has reported extensively on the subject of screen time, often quoting Jenny Radesky, a developmental and behavioral pediatrician at the University of Michigan and lead author of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ guidelines for children and media.

In a Life Kit podcast titled, “Can Screens Help Your Child’s Brain? 4 Tips to Get the Most from Kids’ Media,”by Kamenetz and Lauren Migaki, they note that how media is used can be more important than how much. For example, the podcast reports that “Radesky is very much in favor of screen-free family meals. But depending on your family…that could be dinner, or it could be breakfast.”

Other questions to ask about screen time are “Is it solo consumption? Is it social or creative?” Similarly, in Radesky’s research, she “prefers to look at what families are using and how they’re using it” with limits based on individual children and their health.

A Brookings blog post last February titled “Screen Time for Children: Good, Bad, or It Depends,” by Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Natalie Evans, and Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, notes that when TVs became “an indispensable feature of home life,” similar concerns and debates arose. They say that research “suggested that “Sesame Street” and “Blues Clues” were great, and the nightly news should be avoided,” highlighting the issue as “more nuanced than ‘Is television bad or good?’” and suggesting the answer was “it depends.”

The authors suggest that even some recent studies on kids and screen time “lumped all screen time—computer, gaming system, television—together and the effect they report, while significant, were not strong.” The article further notes that one thing science “can tell us, however, is that face-to-face interactions are critically important for development and that sometimes the digital technology gets in the way,” and they urge parents to become “like mentors, guiding children to make smart choices until that are old enough to do so…”

Likewise, the “4 Tips” NPR podcast notes that “When parents become digital mentors, children can learn empathy and resilience and prepare for careers,” and it suggests that “Rather than focusing on controlling the amount of time a child is clocking on screens each day, look at the overall balance of the child’s day.”

Also important to that mentoring and guidance is how kids see adults use technology. Kamenetz, this time writing for the WQED Mind Shift series, in an article titled “How Parents Can Model Better Screen Time Behavior for Their Kids,” again interviews Radesky.

One of 4 research takeaways in the article is “Put your phone away whenever possible when you’re with your kids,” noting that “some researchers have dubbed” the phenomenon of phones being disruptive to small interactions with children as “technoference.”

And though life sometimes involves less than ideal choices, another takeaway is “Stop using the phone as a pacifier—for you or your kids.” As Kamanetz quotes Radesky: “We need to be watching, listening and gathering evidence so we can respond in the right way and help our children develop their own self-regulation skills.”

Kamenetz goes on to suggest breaking the habit of “using a screen to calm your child” with instead, “a short video or audio track that teaches more mindful calming techniques.”

As for taking away or restricting devices or screen time as punishment, a Healthine article by Leah Campbell, “Taking Away Screen Time from Kids Leads to More Screen Time Later, ” reports that “A new study finds that children of parents who try to control their kids’ behavior with screen time, spend more time on screens than their peers.” And though the study goes unnamed in Healthline, Kristin Dalli reported similar findings last January for Consumer Affairs. Like using food as reward and punishment, it can result in unhealthy relationships to the “object.”

Bottom line? Devising and modeling a healthy strategy for using our devices requires full-on family participation. Screen time is not all the same and neither is every child—or every family.