Screen time and technology addiction has worried parents long before the pandemic. And now that online schooling is on the uptick, anxiety levels and concerns about the negative effects of screen time are more pervasive than ever. Major tensions can form as parents and their kids battle over how much screen time is the “correct” amount. This is especially hard when things like video games or TV can at times serve as tools for stress relief and connecting with friends. How often have we turned to social media or a good show on Netflix to detach from life’s responsibilities for a few minutes?
“It’s not just about limiting screen time; it’s about teaching kids to develop good habits in real life as well as managing their screen time.”—Cynthia Crossley, Co-Founder of Habyts
When we evaluate our relationship with technology, we often find that we’re using them to cover up deeper issues like anxiety, depression, loneliness, or boredom. But remember, screen time and stress don’t always go hand in hand. It can also be a reflection of increased connection with friends, a desire to learn new things, or even an expression of creativity through a project using technology—all great things! The challenge is in finding balance between the positive and negative uses of screens and learning how to identify ways we’re using screens well, and ways we’re simply using them as distractions.
How much is too much screen time for kids?
“Many studies lump all screen time together into one category, though it seems unlikely that video chatting with Grandma, for example, would have much in common with playing ‘Grand Theft Auto V.’”—Stephanie Pappas, “What do we really know about kids and screens?”
Discernment is key when dealing with screen time. There are several positive effects of screen time that allow our kids to use their screens well, and we should learn to look out for those instances instead of just calculating the number of hours spent on their screens. Especially in this time of physical distance, screens can offer an important means of connection, creativity, education, and more. We don’t want to take away our kids’ freedoms completely, but we also need to keep in mind the warning signs of too much screen time so we can help our kids to maintain a healthy balance.
According to Wired, media’s quantity should be mediated by its quality. So, screens shouldn’t just be boredom killers; they should be used for productivity, restfulness, and connection. Wired suggests that things like background TV and using screens before bedtime or during mealtime should be used sparingly, while activities like video chats, skill-building and creating, and music can be used freely because they have the potential for our kids’ personal growth.
With the election and the pandemic mixed into our teens’ already complicated lives, screen time is more tempting than we may like. It’s natural to worry about our kids’ well-being and whether or not they’re using screens in a healthy way, but sometimes that well-being can be boosted by a few minutes of watching their favorite show, playing video games with friends, or unwinding with a few funny videos on TikTok. If your kids are using screens more frequently than they did before the start of the pandemic, don’t panic. At the end of the day, we’re all just trying to cope with these ongoing circumstances, and sometimes screens are an easy way to fill the gap in friendships, schooling, and family relationships. Give your kid some slack, give yourself some slack, and live out of an abundance of grace and understanding for your family.
Managing screen time and stress as a family
Rules are best made when we respect and consider the person who will follow them. So, when approaching a discussion on screen time management with your teen, we encourage you to talk through some ideas together and let them be a part of the process. Our teens want to be the healthiest versions of themselves (click here to hear one mom’s story about her teen’s suggestions on screen limitations), so invite them into the process and encourage them to think of ways to create a personalized schedule for screen time management. Because remember, teens can find loopholes (language) in screen time limitations on their phones, so rather than forcing your kid into something, your best bet is to encourage them to be a part of the process and ignite a desire for a healthier lifestyle. Here are some ways we can limit screen time for our kids’ health and ourselves!
1. First, reflect on your own screen time and habits. By reflecting on ourselves, we can identify our problems with screen time and connect with our kids over struggles we may have in common. This can help us put in perspective what our kids are facing as “digital natives” who grew up in a world full of technology. We can ask ourselves “What do we prioritize on a daily basis?” and “Do our habits reflect our values?” and think of ways that we can better bridge the gap between our ideals and our actions.
2. Identify how you’re using screens. It can feel pretty hypocritical to our kids when they see us using our phones, laptops, etc. unfettered. So if you do use a device in front of your teen, try to specify what you’re actually using it for: checking the weather, looking up a recipe, responding to a work email, anything. And if you are just using it for fun for a few minutes, that’s ok! We just encourage you to practice the same limitations on those activities that you’re asking of your teen, that way you can keep each other accountable, and both parties feel respected.
3. Create a safe space for differing perspectives. Having an open conversation where our kids can express their own thoughts and opinions can generate a healthier way of dealing with issues (especially when these issues directly affect them). When our kids feel like their perspective is respected and valued, they’ll be more receptive of our reasonings as their parents. So, create a space that allows for both you and your teen’s voices to be heard and find a healthy balance together.
4. Ask the reason behind their device usage. Understanding why teens spend time on their devices paves the way to understanding what’s healthy about their screen time and what isn’t. If they’re spending hours upon hours playing Fortnite because they’re bored, there’s likely a better way to navigate their boredom. But if playing Fortnite is one of their favorite ways to connect with their friends, we might approach the situation differently. You may ask your teen, “Are there any other ways you can hang out with your friends?” or ask yourself, “How can my teen connect with friends in a more dynamic way without completely taking away this important activity?”
5. Devise a plan as a household. As you think about your family’s screen time use, devise a plan and list of activities that don’t involve your devices. Think of ways you can become closer as a family, and more intentional about your daily routine. Here are some tips when thinking about your family’s plan:
- Have regular mental health check-ins and look for signs of depression in your teen on a normal basis. Though it has its benefits, technology can also be the gateway to isolation, depression, loneliness, and several other mental illnesses that can get harder to conquer the longer you’re in them. By checking in with our teens, we can identify what they’re struggling with and help guide them out of it.
- Observe the Sabbath once a week as a family and use it as a time to disconnect from your devices and instead focus on family time, personal reflection, or hobbies you haven’t picked up in a while. Challenge yourself and your kids to reflect on life away from technology, and learn how to be less dependent on devices. Use it as a time to rest in God’s presence and give thanks for what He’s given you as a family and as individuals. And if you want to take it a step further, start a tradition of device-free time one day a week, one weekend a month, and one week a year!
- Section off areas of the house as screen-free zones. Whether it’s the living room, bedrooms, or the kitchen table, make sure that there are places within reach to escape from screens.
- Make a list of everyone’s values in the family, and evaluate how your activities reflect these values. This is a chance for everyone to work together, make compromises, and find ways to keep each other accountable to the family plan!
6. Remember, it’s okay to fail. There will be moments when you or your teen don’t perfectly practice healthy screen time, and that’s okay! We live in a time of constantly changing trends and technology that are easy to get caught up in. When you feel like you or your teen’s technology use is becoming a problem, take some time to reset to your plan. Or, if you find the plan isn’t working, try to isolate the problem, and look for new strategies that work best for you and your family!
Overall, it’s our kids’ mental health, development, and connection to others that matters most when analyzing screen time. Too often we mistake our teens’ good behavior for their well-being. We see their good grades and sports accomplishments and think, “My kid is doing great!” But when we take the time to listen and have genuine conversations, we may realize that they’re not doing as great as we thought. When we have these conversations about healthy screen time, we can make sure we’re doing what’s best for them.
- How much screen time do you have on a daily basis? (Hint: iPhones have weekly screen time reports that you can review!)
- Do you feel like you spend too much time in front of a screen? Why or why not?
- For adults and teens: What are some compromises you are willing to make in order to have a healthier relationship with technology?
- Do you feel like you're intentional with how you use your free time? Why or why not?
- What is the biggest struggle you face with screen time management? Why?
- What is your favorite thing to do with your screen(s)? Why?
- When do you feel the most connected with your friends and family? When do you feel the least connected?
- 9 Helpful tips from Homeschooling Parents
- A Parent’s Guide to Smartphone Addiction
- A Parent’s Guide to Smartphones
- Mental Health Check-in: Questions to Ask Your Kid
- A Parent's Guide to Sabbath & Rest