As a counsellor for kids and families, but also a parent, I am aware as many of you are about the power of screens. Whether it be cellphones, tablets, televisions or laptops, it can be very difficult to moderate one’s connection to the world when we wish to. Along with most of us having a favourite program or two that we can watch on-demand, it seems there are always important calls and texts that demand to be answered, or media that entice us to monitor them at length. I find it fascinating to note that where once a message or email could certainly wait several hours before being dealt with, our society has developed in such a way that near-immediate responses are often expected, since most of us have the ability with technology to do so. While this is not necessarily harmful on the surface, the implications of this evolution are felt keenly by our children.
In the summer especially, kids are at home much more, and often have a large amount of time to engage in screen use. On a weekly basis, I see parents in my office who are acutely concerned about this, yet at a complete loss as to how to change it. Most often the parents have either done very little to regulate screen time, for fear of a fierce and unpleasant reaction by their children, or have attempted to impose an outright ban on screens, unfortunately often in a way that stirs resentment and harms relationships within the family. The allure is strong for young people, as many of their friends are communicating online, and the pull of social media can be tremendous, especially during late hours when there is no school the following day.
There is perhaps no more powerful teacher about appropriate uses of screens, however, than a parent figure in the home. It should come as no surprise that parents have a significant role in showing what appropriate screen use looks like, whether they realize it or not. Parents almost always set the tone within the family, and what they demonstrate as healthy or not healthy is taken in by other family members more than we usually realize. The key point here: adults are far too often the ones who have few boundaries that they adhere to personally with their own screens. An article I read this past week contained a quote from a child that even made me re-examine my own cellphone use, and temptation to answer texts in front of my kids:
“I feel like I’m just boring. I’m boring my dad because he will take any text, any call, any time, even on the ski lift.”
Whoa. My own children can receive an unintended message from me checking my work email regularly, and that message can involve feeling like they are less important to me than a screen? This is not reflective of what I wish to create in my own family in any way, and I suspect I’m in no way alone on this one. So if my own screen usage is teaching my children what appropriate usage looks like, and their own feelings of worth can also be connected to this, suddenly it becomes very important for me to take charge of this element of my own behaviour!
So what are the most effective ways to reduce a total reliance on screens by our kids and teens, and particularly during the summer? Here are two I will present for your consideration:
1) Have clear, firm boundaries in place that apply equally to everyone in the family regarding screen usage at home. That can mean 1-2 designated hours per day of gaming and media usage for example, and a willingness to enforce these boundaries in healthy (i.e. non-emotional) ways.
2) As parents, limit that irresistible desire to check texts, email, and the weather next week for times of the day when our children are not potentially seeking to connect with us, such as when we wake up in the morning or when they are off playing with friends. This demonstrates a healthy way to prioritize screen usage, but also validates them as being more important to us than technology (of course!) in ways that they feel and understand.