By Loren Lomme, LPC, RPT
Do you wonder about how much and what kinds of screentime your kids should be getting? If so, you are not alone. In fact, almost every parent I talk to is concerned, confused, and/or frustrated about their kids’ use of screens, and most of us have seen screen use significantly increase due to the pandemic, and let’s be honest….summer. Unfortunately, the research (which there is a lot of at this point) is a mixed bag. There are some studies that correlate certain types of video games to increased aggressive impulses. Some research has found that video games used by certain age groups are linked to decreased depression and improved social connections. Other studies highlight the brain responses that occur when kids interact with screens….which, to be clear, are pretty alarming. Other, newer research (and many of our own observations) have shown us that screens were a great way for kids to stay connected with their friends during the pandemic. If you’re like me, you might see that some games (I’m thinking of minecraft at the moment) facilitate all kinds of creativity and expressive opportunities. However, you have likely also experienced a meltdown when you ask your kids to turn off their screens, and more disturbingly, you may have noticed withdrawal and addictive behaviors related to screen use. So while there are no definitive answers or rules, I have some useful tips to guide your decision making in regulating screen time for your kids, yourselves, and your families as a whole.
The games, social media platforms, shows, youtubers, etc that our kids are into these days may feel totally foreign to us; however, showing interest in what your kid is into is a great way to strengthen your relationship with them. Our kids are often eager to teach us about the important things in their world if we just ask. Try playing a roblox game with them (it’s actually pretty fun), and ask them what youtubers they are watching right now and what they like about them. Offer to watch with them (or subscribe yourself) so that you can get an idea of who is influencing your kid (and this is definitely something you should be thinking about….youtubers have all kinds of impact on our kids, from what they are interested in to the language they use). The more attuned and involved you are in your childrens’ interests, the closer they will feel to you and you’ll be better informed about how to guide their screen use. Another benefit to paying attention to their screen activity is that you will know when they are engaged in something that doesn’t align with your family values or might be unsafe or inappropriate for them. Listen to how specific youtubers talk and interact with each other, pay attention to the language and actions that are present in video games and social media exchanges, and notice the themes that pop up in the shows and movies they are watching. There are so many opportunities to address important life topics that come up in the screen activities your kids are engaged in.
Set limits with your kids about how, when, and what screentime looks like in your household. It helps if you make this more of a family conversation instead of just handing down the laws of the land. Talk together about times of day when screens should not be present (many families don’t allow screens at the dinner table or for 1-2 hours before bed). Figure out how much screen time is appropriate for weekdays vs weekends and if chores/homework/outdoor time/etc needs to come first. Explore the types of ways that your kids use screens, and be clear about what is allowed (certain games, shows, calling friends, etc) and what isn’t (R rated movies, certain social media apps or behaviors, etc). If there is a disagreement, make sure that both sides have a fair chance to be heard before deciding on the rule, and keep in mind that rules can have trial periods (this is a great way to compromise with your kid and show them that you are willing to involve them in the decision making process). If there’s a rule you’re not totally set on, offer a 1-2 week trial period and then check in again to reassess if the rule should stick or be modified. If you end up making an exception, make sure to name it as such so that your child understands why the rule is different in that situation (car trips, playdates, etc). If you want something tangible and super structured, there are lots of great templates available online for setting screen time expectations. Healthychildren.org is an amazing free resource for creating a family media plan.
And it probably goes without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway (because I also need to hear it)….lead by example. It’s hard to expect our kids to regulate their screentime if they constantly see us on screens.
Finally, pay attention to game ratings. They are similar to movie ratings and give a good indication of the age groups that are appropriate for various games. If you want to know more about a specific game that your child is interested in, go to youtube and search “Let’s play (fill in the blank with the game you’re looking for).” You will find tons of tutorials that will help you understand what the game is about and what your child will be doing. I can’t stress this one enough: monitor your child’s screen use! Watch them play, listen to them interact with others, know their passwords, and check their social media accounts and internet search histories. You don’t have to go Sherlock Holmes on them 24/7, but stay tuned in to what they are doing online and on screens, and let them know that this is part of the expectation for media use. Lastly, have frequent conversations with your kids about how their screentime is affecting them. Ask them how certain activities, games, and interactions make them feel about themselves. If you notice that your kid is rage quitting every time they play a certain game, maybe this is a game to set a limit on or an opportunity to help them identify and practice some skills for managing strong emotions. Our goal is to help them learn to pay attention to the good, bad, and ugly aspects of media use and practice developing a healthy relationship with it by engaging in activities that affect them positively and bring out the best in them. This is a hard thing for us as adults to do, so keep in mind that your kids will need lots of guidance. Even if your kid is already deeply immersed in the media world, it’s never too late to find ways to engage, guide, structure, and support their healthy development toward screens.
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