In my work with children, teens, and their families, one of the biggest categories of questions and concerns is screen time. Sometimes families want to be prescribed the “right” amount of time. Often families want to make sure that they aren’t doing their digital lives “wrong.” Mostly, families want some general guidelines and to be reassured and empowered to make decisions that feel right to them. The one challenge with the screen time questions is that there is no one size fits all answer, no right and wrong. Every family and child is unique and the way we interact and use our screens is unique, personal, and individual too. Also, not all screen time is created equal. It is nuanced and needs context. This can be quite anxiety-provoking because we’re learning, changing, and improving as we go and not all-knowing. But, it is actually quite normal to have screen use as a dynamic part of family life, not fixed. It shifts with our circumstances, growing right along with our family like any other part.
As a mother of five teenagers who love their screens, I can often feel overwhelmed by digital parenting too (and I think, write, and speak about it for a living!). One way that I ease my own screen time worries is to have some foundational and often non-negotiable iRules (tech agreements) that can be achieved in a relatively consistent way. Then, I reconcile screen use for my teenagers through the whole child lens of well-being. Aspects that I feel inclined to prioritize are sleep, school, and schoolwork, a relatively healthy diet, play (or playfulness/fun/joy), exercise, chores/contributions to the family system, as well as opportunities for connection, character, and communication. If these things are generally satisfied and my kids are behaving in ways that support who they are and who they want to be online, then I let go of screen time control. It is important to identify our lived values so that we can integrate tech into our family rhythms.
I know this is not a formula for a perfect equation to a perfect outcome, but I think in the flexibility and adaptability, we can find a frame we all feel good about and screens become less about struggle. Additionally, I rely on the tools of reflective parenting. On the days when I feel concerned about the overuse of screens, I slow down my reaction and become more of an observer with reflective questions. This list is a few that I draw from and offer to the families and caregivers I work with to help create some perspective in our responses:
- What might she be doing on her screen?
- Who are they with on their screen?
- What might he like about his screens?
- Is there another way to see their screen use besides a negative perspective?
- When am I annoyed by her screen use (the most)?
- When does it feel okay?
- Why might he be opting for his screen over all other options right now?
- Is their screen time about connection for them?
- Why am I anxious about their screen use right now?
- How can I get curious about her screen use instead of a space of criticism or judgment?
Once we start to become observers of our own thoughts, feelings, and experiences, we can look at them more critically. They become less “everything is wrong” and more “I’ll tune in here.” Attunement does not mean an absence of rules and boundaries, but more seeing of the child and the child’s experience online and the need for our intervention and support.
Today’s Takeaway: Over the next week, become reflective observers of your family’s screen time without making any immediate changes. Use the prompts above to consider a different, less anxious story. Then, build your screen use boundaries for the behaviors you do want to see in your home and family.