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Screen Time is Not Always Bad: How to Make Most Out of It?


Most children and adolescents were well over the recommended 2 hours of recreational screen time per day before the pandemic. Restrictions on activities and sports prompted many parents and professional organizations to relax these recommendations. However, now that the horse is out of the barn, rolling back these hours is very difficult, especially for parents of older adolescents.

Over the past decade, increases in screen time have affected children around the world. According to international guidelines, children ages 5 through 17 should not exceed 2 hours per day of recreational (non-school) screen time, but most children are up to 6 or more hours per day. Most adolescents are using their smartphones more than 4.5 hours a day. Experts are concerned about adverse impacts of excessive social media use on mental and physical health. Parents accept that modifying the family’s screen habits is important for managing one’s weight, getting enough sleep, and even regulating our moods—but how can parents realistically throttle back their teen’s screen time?

Modifying screen time is possible, but manage your expectations

According to a systematic review of 216 studies, incremental changes in screen time are possible to achieve, but the magnitude of change is small. This suggests that it is possible to influence screen time, but parents or caregivers need to keep their expectations reasonable. Some factors which increase the odds of success include setting goals and self-monitoring.

Talk over the expert recommendations with your child and assess what your current patterns are together. You might need to monitor usage for a week to figure out where the time is going. Does the child come home from school, grab a snack and immediately sit down at the computer to watch YouTube? How long does the child watch? What kinds of things does your child enjoy doing on the device? Make an inventory of how much homework time is needed and what activities your child would like to be able to do. Then think about goals and how to structure after-school time. For example, screen time can be a reward for getting homework done.

Set a goal and pair it with another behavior

Once you have an inventory of where the time is going, you can think about setting goals together. Goal setting is an important first step, but the child needs to be motivated to follow through. Pairing the goal with a complementary behavior may help to create a self-perpetuating feedback loop. For example, shooting hoops with a parent or sibling can help reduce screen time while increasing the motivation to put the device down and stick to screen-time goals. Getting homework done first then enjoying down-time is a very good habit to form, and one that parents can model for the children.

Interrupt patterns to create new habits

If you have the opportunity to work from home, maybe you could make a point of putting a snack out on the counter—”bait” the child with yummy food—and have a chat about the day? This will help interrupt the usual patterns with something he or she looks forward to. It is always much easier to replace a habit with something attractive than going “cold turkey.” If your child comes home alone, maybe you could put a snack out in advance and ask the child to meet up via video. Finding an after-school club or activity several days a week may break up the routines and foster new friendships. Youth sports are a terrific way to reduce screen time, increase fitness, and promote good eating habits.

Adopt your high schooler’s point of view to avoid conflict

Most young adults will not respond well to suggestions for self-monitoring and taking inventory of screen time. Parents can reach out by adopting the teen’s point of view in order to avoid a major confrontation. Reflecting on the importance of social connection and the fears of being left out may help a parent connect constructively.

Realistic parents appreciate that teens may not readily disengage from intense or even harmful social networks, so this should not be the initial focus. Instead, a parent may wish to open up about their own struggles with moderating social media use, such as the distractions or destructive nature of certain interactions. Family dinners are a good chance to talk about these everyday struggles, just be sure to flip the phone over or park it somewhere else to minimize interruptions and aim to get everyone talking if possible.

Consider the continuum: is the child creating vs consuming content?

Behavior change is highly complex and dependent on an individual’s needs as well as family dynamics and resources. Finding other families with shared values and goals can help with this transition to a more balanced life. It may also be helpful to reframe how screens are being used, because not all screen time is necessarily “bad,” we just need to manage our intake like we do with food.

  • It may be useful to think about whether the child is passively consuming content (such as viewing videos or playing games) or creating new content (such as drawing). Videos can teach a child how to draw a horse or a mountain, play a guitar, or solve a Rubik’s cube.
  • Is the child cultivating new friendships by building something together in a shared world?
  • Is the teen collaborating on a design project or coding challenge with a diverse community of creators?
  • Some teens really enjoy watching comedy, which may be self-preserving from a mental health perspective. These channels may inspire them to create their own content.
  • Practicing a second language through a safe app is a great way to learn about other cultures and create a shared sense of responsibility for planet Earth.

Set-up for success

Where the child has access to a screen can influence what they do and for how long. Avoid putting the computer or TV in the bedroom if you can, but if you have already lost that battle try to negotiate communication channels your teen will accept. For instance, some will not tolerate what they perceive to be an “invasion” of their room but will respond to a text message asking to connect for a few minutes when it is convenient. Come up with a list of “terms” that are agreeable to both of you. For instance, acceptable grades, morning routines, laundry and chores might make it to the list of your teen’s responsibilities. In exchange, you might agree to certain privacy concessions.

Finally, make sure everyone is clear on the ground-rules. For example, if your teen does not respond within a reasonable time to the request for a meet-up, he should expect you to arrive unannounced. If grades fall, ask your daughter what her recovery plan is. Recognize that some teens may become anxious and overcompensate when they trip up, others may rely on avoidance as a survival tactic. You can help your teen juggle all of his or her commitments if you both try to maintain mutual respect. Try to adopt his or her point of view and accept that mistakes will be made as your teen learns these crucial time management skills.

Susanne Navas, a certified Life Coach and Recovery Coach who works with youth and adults, emphasizes the importance of healthy role-modeling by adults. “I often hear kids complain that their parents are always on their phone, so they resent it when their parents tell them to get off their phone. I am guilty of this myself - I know how hard it is. If we can be mindful of our own use, monitoring our digital hygiene by docking our phone away from our bed, having phone-free meals, turning away from the screen when a family member is talking to us, etc., we can be part of the solution.”

Key takeaways

Improving family’s screen habits is important for managing one’s weight, getting enough sleep, and even regulating moods.

It is possible to influence screen time, but parents or caregivers need to keep their expectations reasonable.

Come up with a list of “terms” that are agreeable to both you and your child and make sure everyone is clear on the ground-rules.

It may be helpful to reframe how screens are being used, because not all screen time is necessarily “bad”.

Resources:

Identifying effective intervention strategies to reduce children’s screen time: a systematic review and meta-analysis | International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity | Full Text (biomedcentral.com)

When Pandemics Collide: The Impact of COVID-19 on Childhood Obesity - PubMed (nih.gov)

The Use of Social Media in Children and Adolescents: Scoping Review on the Potential Risks - PubMed (nih.gov)

Sedentary Behaviors in Today’s Youth: Approaches to the Prevention and Management of Childhood Obesity: A Scientific Statement From the American Heart Association | Circulation (ahajournals.org)

CDC: CDC - Infographics - Screen Time vs. Lean Time - NCCDPHP: Community Health

AAP: Institute for Healthy Childhood Weight (aap.org)

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