By James J. Crist, Ph.D., author of What’s the Big Deal About Addictions?
As any parent knows, getting kids to stick to limits when it comes to screen time can be a challenge. With so many enticing options, from gaming and social media to chatting with friends and watching funny videos online, it’s not surprising that getting kids to take care of more boring, offline responsibilities such as schoolwork and chores is so difficult.
But it’s not only kids who struggle with screen time limits. According to a 2018 Pew Research Center report, 36 percent of parents of teens admitted spending too much time on their phones. About half of the teens surveying in this study reported that their parents are sometimes or often distracted by their phones when teens are trying to have a conversation with them. The average adult spent about four hours a day on their phones. And with the pandemic over the last two years, everyone is using screens more often.
Educators are also having to deal with the challenge of screens, both in the classroom and at home. As a teacher, you probably use technology in your classroom, and you know its potential for increasing student engagement—and distraction. Devices can distract students from the task at hand, and they can make it more difficult for educators to say focused if they are needing to field messages or emails from staff, parents, or their own families. All this is to say, tech can be overwhelming.
While excessive screen use is associated with a number of negative outcomes, including depression, the good news is that our own experiences with setting screen time limits can help us understand how hard this can be for kids and teens. This understanding can then help us see kids’ resistance to limits as more than simple opposition or defiance. Fortunately, you can set a good example for kids by limiting your use.
Some Problems with Screens
Changing Expectations of Availability
One downside to virtual learning and more employees working from home over the last two years is that you may be expected to be on call 24-7. This can create anxiety if, when you try to disengage after work hours or over the weekend, your coworkers continue to send and respond to emails and texts. Educators in particular face pressure to respond to parents’ emails or texts and may receive complaints if they don’t respond quickly. Many people, teens included, have an expectation for an immediate response and can take it personally when people delay responding.
Screens in the Classroom
Many schools have given up the fight over screens, and may even require students to use personal devices or other tech during class. One downside to this increased screen use is that cheating becomes easier and may be more tempting for students. Other students may have difficulty limiting personal use and may text friends or parents during class or post on social media—all of which can be distracting and make your job as a teacher more difficult and frustrating.
Talking with students about their experiences with screen time and the pros and cons of using social media can get them thinking about their use. Feel free to share your own experiences with screens during these discussions. Knowing that adults also struggle with keeping phones from taking over their lives can help kids and teens feel understood and may inspire them to take steps to limit their own screen time.
Signs You May Be Addicted to Screens
When it comes to tech addiction (and any addiction) there are four main signs to look for to tell if your use is becoming a problem:
- You are using screens longer than you intended.
- You are neglecting responsibilities as a result.
- Your use is causing problems for your family or friends.
- You feel worse when you try to cut back or stop.
For cell phones, specific warning signs include:
- Feeling a need to respond immediately to all texts and emails
- Constantly checking your phone even when it’s not ringing or vibrating
- Feeling anxious when you don’t have access to your phone
- Consistently ignoring conversations because you’re looking at your phone
- Family members or friends complaining about your phone use
- Texting while driving, even when you know this is dangerous
One thing to remember is that phones and apps are designed to be addictive. The more often you check your phone, watch videos, or click on ads or links, the more money someone else is making.
How Screens Can Facilitate Learning
While excessive screen use can cause problems, screens are also good learning tools. Remind101 is an app recommended by the National Education Association (NEA). It allows students to sign up for text reminders of when assignments are due. Parents can sign up too. For other suggested apps and uses of screens in the classroom, check out this list.
Some students (and adults) work better when listening to music. As long as a student’s music is not disruptive to the class, allowing this can be helpful and is worth a try. Some teachers ask students to use only one earbud so they can still hear instructions.
Having students use their phones in class to check out or share information as part of an assignment or discussion can be an opportunity for hands-on learning, which appeals to many students.
Ways to Keep Screens from Running Your Life
Even though screens can enhance learning and communication, practicing no-screen times can help kids and adults maintain a healthy balance. One of the best ways to encourage kids to put away their screens is to let them see you put your own screens away. Setting aside your phone or tablet during dinner or family time is a good example of this. Putting everyone’s phone, including yours, in a basket or in another room during no-screen times reminds kids and adults that family interaction is important.
Setting your devices to silent or do not disturb mode so that you don’t receive every notification can be another way to break your dependence on tech. You can still program in exceptions so that you’ll always get notifications from elderly relatives or your kids, for example. These features can be especially useful overnight.
Consider a 24-hour screen detox. Turning off your devices for a full day can give you an idea of how attached you are to them. You might also challenge your children or students to do a detox. The important thing is to participate in the assignment along with kids, so you can get a feel for what it is like.
In the classroom, you can ask students to put their phones face down on their desks during specific times. Or you might have students put their phones on a separate table to make them less tempting to use.
I hope you try some of these ideas to begin practicing and modeling healthy screen use!
Dr. James J. Crist is the clinical director and a staff psychologist at the Child and Family Counseling Center (CFCC) in Woodbridge, Virginia, and a substance abuse counselor, working with addictive disorders in teens and adults. At CFCC, he provides psychological testing and individual, couples, and family psychotherapy for children, adolescents, and adults, specializing in children with ADHD, depression, and anxiety disorders. Visit his website at jamesjcrist.com.
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