It's Not You, It's Me
The Role Parents Play in Too Much Screen Time
By Jen Holman
We recently canoed and tent camped the Buffalo River with friends. A gaggle of kids from ages 3 to 12 swam and played and explored and—wait for it—used their imaginations. We held real conversations and observed the stars together, which are so much clearer and brighter away from the lights of the city, aren’t they?
Not once did an electronic tablet grace their grubby fingers. There were no requests for tablets or phones, to my knowledge. And yeah, so it was just a few days and they were busy skipping rocks and making s’mores. But you know what? In their downtime, they worked together to build a five-station make-believe spa, complete with a meditation center. They dug in the sand and built river rock towers. They learned to paddle a canoe. It’s true that camping trips are special and rare occasions; and, of course, kids are entertained when taken out of their element and into the great outdoors. Home is where screen time gets to be a problem.
This topic has come up several times recently among other moms I know. It seems every household that owns a tablet or television has difficulty deciding how much is too much. If your house is like mine— and everyone else’s—kids think there’s never enough screen time. If I turn my head for five minutes, someone has found a tablet or switched on the TV. It’s habit now. And by habit, I mean habit.
Did you know, research that took images of brains using technology like tablets, phones and game consoles has shown the same effects to the frontal cortex as cocaine? And clinical studies show that too much screen time increases anxiety and aggression, depression—even loss of touch with reality. No wonder we have such a hard time peeling tablets away from our kids. And no wonder they’re agitated and angry when we do.
When I read this information my initial thoughts were, “Oh, not my kids. They don’t have enough screen time to be affected like that. It’s just here and there.” But then I started paying attention. Instead of a book or a Lego, they reach for their iPads at every free moment, and many that aren’t free. They’ve watched so many home video feeds from the YouTube Kids app they’ve started singing the homemade theme songs. In no time at all they’ll be little robot children, I just know it. “I. Want. iPad. I. Want. iPad.”
My husband and I conducted an experiment. A weekend at home without screen time resulted in noticeably less fighting among siblings. They paid better attention and, gasp!, obeyed without having to be asked 16 times. There were no Chernobyl-level meltdowns when asked to put the tablets away because…there were no tablets. One child reported reading a book, but like trees in the forest, if no parent is there to see the book being read, did it really happen?
What role do we parents play in our kids’ addictions to screen time? I recently discovered with horror that I may be the lead, or at least the supporting character. Even with the topic weighing heavily on my mind, when my 3-year-old came into the kitchen whining about some wrong her brother had done, I said without thinking, “Just go get your iPad and sit down for a few minutes.” And to be honest, many times I’m glad to have an hour to pick up the house and make dinner unencumbered by their incessant demands. Before a long car trip, we load the tablets up with movies so the kids will veg out in the backseat and we can drive in peace. Last week I let them take their tablets onto the deck as some sort of partial-credit compromise for getting fresh air. What?? Someone has seriously gotten off course here, and it’s not the kids. Where does the buck stop in this scenario? With me.
So, what are we parents to do? Do we become e-totalers and sell off every tablet and smart phone and declare the house tech-free? Do we set strict limits? If we go with limits, how much time should kids get per day? Per week?
Here’s what I know: Restrictions range from household to household. Some families have no restrictions. Others allow an hour per day. Some are OK with an hour only on the weekends, and though I don’t know anyone personally who does this, I read that some people are refusing any kinds of phones or tablets before age 10.
At our house, we’ve put the restriction at an hour per day, and trust me when I tell you, I have a hard time admitting that. It seems like an awful lot. This is our test run, and it may very well change in the near future. But, we’re making a conscious effort to redirect the kids to books or trucks or baby dolls when they can’t resist the call of technology.
How do you handle screen time in your house? I would love to know—this imperfect mom could use the advice!
Jen Holman is often irreverent and frequently imperfect. But she’s happy, by God, and that’s what matters. She lives in Little Rock with her husband and three children, striking that delicate balance between inspiration and frustration. Jen has published three novels under the pen name Jen Crane, the second of which was selected by iTunes/ iBooks as “Our Pick” in fantasy sci-fi.