Let’s face it. It’s hard to unplug from our screens. Our devices connect us to other people, as well as to fun and useful information, but they can also have a downside. In this month’s column, I’ll share some reminders for managing screen time as a family.
This monthly column provides tips for anyone who is helping raise children, based on the world-renowned Triple P – Positive Parenting Program, available to families in Santa Cruz County. If you have a question or idea for a future column, email me at email@example.com.
We have a toddler, a third grader, and a tween who is growing up fast. If we let them, they’d spend all their time staring at a screen, and there are many days where it feels like that’s the best way to keep the peace. I know they enjoy connecting to friends online, but I worry about what else they’re seeing, what they may be missing, and the example we’re setting for our youngest. Any suggestions?
Your concerns are understandable and shared by many parents and caregivers. Finding the right balance between rules or limits and gradually increasing independence is a challenge. Teaching children and teens to use screens in healthy, responsible ways teaches them self-regulation skills and prepares them for responsibilities later in life. Here are a few ideas to try:
Inform yourself. Technology changes quickly; it’s hard but important to keep up. For example, social media whistleblowers recently exposed how some companies use algorithms to steer children, teens, and adults to harmful content (e.g., searching for exercise routines leads to content that promotes behaviors associated with eating disorders). Ask teachers and other parents or caregivers what kinds of limits they’re placing on children and teens, and why. You don’t have to adopt the same limits but can learn about specific situations to discuss with your own children, such as identity theft or cyber bullying.
Talk with your children to understand their screen habits. Show interest in what your children are doing online, keeping in mind that some screen time may be beneficial. Connecting with peers, creating art or music, playing an active game—these can be healthy activities that happen on a screen. Try to avoid lecturing or criticizing them about their digital world.
Help your children think ahead and plan for safety. For teens or older children, discuss sharing certain kinds of personal or financial information, how hard it can be to remove information from cyberspace (e.g., social media posts that a future employer might see), what to do about unwanted or explicit messages, or being alert to scams and computer viruses. Thinking ahead to possible consequences is a key life skill and takes practice, so expect some trial-and-error. For younger children, monitoring usage and messages more closely is appropriate.
Watch for other problems. Too much screen time can contribute to physical health problems (headaches, lack of sleep) and mental health concerns (depression, anxiety), especially if it increases social isolation, decreases physical activity, or exposes kids to bullying. Ongoing discussions about screen time can help you notice these sooner and intervene. Encourage your children to tell you if any online interactions feel strange or threatening. Help them support others who are experiencing bullying or other online problems.
Develop family agreements for screen time. Keep them simple and realistic. Consider setting weekly (versus daily) screen time limits, defining what’s acceptable versus off-limits, and agreeing on rules about when and where screens can be used (e.g., “Put away phones while we eat,” or “Turn devices off by 10 p.m.”). Involve your kids in defining these agreements, how they will follow them, and what will happen if they ignore the rules. Remember that logical consequences, such as temporarily removing screen time privileges, are meant to be a teaching tool versus a punishment. Emphasize that the more your kids can follow the family agreements, the less you have to intervene to enforce the rules. Then set a good example with your own screen time habits.
Encourage behavior you want to see more of. When your kids are managing their screen time well, show interest and notice. Ask about the music they’re listening to or thank them for putting away their phones during meals. This helps shift attention to the things your kids are doing well instead of things you wish they would stop doing.
FINAL THOUGHTS: Teaching kids about managing their own screen time is one way to help them become confident, competent individuals. Plus, we can all use reminders!
Nicole Young is the mother of two children, ages 19 and 22, who also manages Santa Cruz County's Triple P - Positive Parenting Program, the world's leading positive parenting program. Scientifically proven, Triple P is made available locally by First 5 Santa Cruz County, the Santa Cruz County Health Services Agency (Mental Health Services Act) and the Santa Cruz County Human Services Department. To find a Triple P parenting class or practitioner, visit http://triplep.first5scc.org, http://www.facebook.com/triplepscc or contact First 5 Santa Cruz County at 465-2217 or firstname.lastname@example.org.