How to Model Healthy Screen Time: 5 Tips for Parents

By Michael Oberschneider, Psy.D., author of Ollie Outside: Screen-Free Fun

How to Model Healthy Screen Time: 5 Tips for ParentsAs a child psychologist, I frequently meet with children and teens to help them better manage their technology use. From video games to social media and everything else that is screen related, research has shown that there’s a very real relationship between children’s overuse of screens and the emotional, social, academic, and/or health struggles (for example, weight gain and sleep problems) they are experiencing. Putting in place restrictions and limitations on screen time can certainly help, but in my experience, parental involvement—including what parents model—is the key to success when it comes to healthy and balanced technology time for children.

Most parents I meet with aren’t aware of the impact their own screen time practices have on their children, and many parents also believe they model good screen time use when oftentimes they don’t. What I’ve found in my work with families is actually consistent with the literature in this area. For example, a 2016 large-scale survey conducted by Common Sense Media found a concerning contradiction between what parents say they want for or expect of their children when it comes to technology and what they actually do themselves. More specifically, the survey found that parents spend more than nine hours a day with screen media, with the majority of that time being personal screen time. While this is about the same amount of time children and teens are using media for entertainment, the vast majority of parents (about 80 percent) in the survey believed they were excellent role models with technology.

Thus, how we as parents use technology ourselves is important, and here are five tips to consider with your children.

1. Be mindful.
It has become more and more difficult, due to the ubiquitous presence of technology in our day-to-day lives, for parents to have conversations or engage in activities with their children without the interference of some sort of screen. But this disconnect between parents and children can be corrected—with effort and practice—when parents are mindful.

Mindfulness has been defined as a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness fully on the present moment, with feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations being calmly acknowledged and accepted and used as a therapeutic technique. So, for instance, by being mindfully present when talking to your child without allowing technology in at all, the quality of those moments will improve and so, too, will your connection with your child. Sure, we’re all guilty of walking into the house while talking on the phone or texting or checking social media or the news in the presence of our children, but why not make a conscious effort as a parent to cut down on technology distractions for yourself and your children? Having focused exchanges that involve thoughtful and intentional comments and active listening (without technology) will help your children read social cues better and be better critical thinkers and communicators.

2. Eat together as a family.
Research has shown that children who eat three or more meals a week with their parents experience greater social, academic, and emotional success than children who don’t. Sexual promiscuity, as well as drug and alcohol use, also appears to occur less frequently in children who enjoy sitting down to meals as a family. Thus, by planning family mealtime and by not allowing any technology use whatsoever while eating together, your child and you can have several go-to times each week to connect and communicate more meaningfully while at home.

How to Model Healthy Screen Time: 5 Tips for Parents3. Be careful with what you post and do online.
Children learn through the observations, experiences, and instructions they receive, and much of that learning occurs within the parent-child relationship. And this couldn’t be truer when it comes to how parents behave online. For example, a parent recently brought her eight-year-old son to see me to address his “Minecraft and YouTube addiction.” While the child acknowledged that he does indeed spend a lot of time on both Minecraft and YouTube in our first meeting, he also quickly pointed out, “But my mom is always on her phone playing Candy Crush.” Similarly, when recently discussing the inappropriate drinking of a teen patient of mine, the teen said, “My mom is a huge drinker. Just check out her Facebook feed—it’s full of I’m-stressed-out-where’s-my-wine memes.”

4. Create screen-free zones and times in your home.
Without putting in place some ground rules for where and when technology is used in the home, your child’s smartphone, computer, tablet, and/or gaming system can go from complementing his or her life to dominating it. Thus, creating screen-free zones and times for your child can be very helpful.

Certainly each family is unique, so I recommend that parents take some time to think about where and when technology is to be used in the home and how well that is working. In my opinion, when it comes to our children, bedrooms are for sleeping. So allowing children to have TVs or gaming systems in their bedrooms can lead to problems. And problems can also occur when children use computers in their bedrooms. When it comes to technology, it’s probably better to have an area in the home where children can go to watch TV, game, or complete their homework. So, if you have a TV or computer in your bedroom, as a parent, you might want to rethink what you’re modeling for your child.

And while structuring screen time may not always be possible, I think it’s important for children to know that technology is generally something that’s used after completing responsibilities and not during meaningful activities. It’s one thing for your child to send someone a quick text, but getting chores or homework done before prolonged technology use is a better practice in the short run, and it will help your child be a more self-disciplined and productive achiever in the long run.

5. Strive for balance.
Parents so often want to put restrictions on technology for their children, especially when its overuse has become a problem. But in my opinion, too many restrictions can feel punitive to children, who may in turn become defensive with their parents. So, rather than arguing or fighting about screens with your child, I think setting expectations for balance, and modeling that balance, is a more positive and productive approach to take when it comes to using technology more healthfully in the home. Think about it this way: If your expectation as a parent is for your child to join a team sport or an after-school club or activity, that’s time away from technology. Every moment your child is doing something enjoyable and productive away from technology is a good moment (be it small or large), and you won’t need to be so restrictive when you create more screen-free options or moments.

So, the next time you get the urge to look at your phone during storytime, mealtime, or playtime with your child, or the next time you catch yourself wanting to text while driving in the car or during a conversation with your child, try to remember that you’re the parent and what you model matters. Our children are watching what we say and do. So be moderate, lead by example, and practice what you preach when it comes to technology use.

Author Michael OberschneiderMichael Oberschneider, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist and the founder and director of Ashburn Psychological and Psychiatric Services, a private mental health practice located in Northern Virginia. He has been featured as a mental health expert on CNN, Good Morning America, and other popular media outlets, and he has written articles for several news agencies, including The Washington Post. Dr. Oberschneider has also received Washingtonian Magazine’s “Top Therapist” honor for his work with children and adolescents. He lives in Leesburg, Virginia, with his wife Liz and two children, Ava and Otto.

Ollie Outside: Screen-Free FunMichael Oberschneider is the author of Ollie Outside: Screen-Free Fun.

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