I have long thought about the importance of being mindful regarding our son’s media use. We have verbalized daily time limits that we try to stick to and I monitor content of his screen time fairly closely. This does not mean we are perfect or that we don’t have setbacks. Over the holidays we strayed fairly far from our from our usual limits and have not quite gotten back to where we should be. I’m taking a piece of my own advice and writing down a family media plan. Here are the important elements:
- Quantity: It is important for families to think about how much screen time they consider reasonable for their children. The American Academy of Pediatrics has long recommended no screen time for children under two and a maximum of two hours for all other children, but has recently acknowledged that this is not the reality for most families. Data from Common Sense Media (2013) tells us that kids between 8-10 years old have an average of 8 hours of media exposure per day, and teenagers have in excess of a whopping 11 hours per day of screen time. This is more than time spent sleeping or time in school! Clearly, we need to get a handle on this stuff. Why are limits important? Excess screen time has been associated with problems like obesity, disordered sleep, and behavior problems. Perhaps most importantly, any time spent in front of a screen is less time spent interacting as a family. It is helpful to set “device curfews” and to keep all devices and screens out of bedrooms.
- Quality: More and more, we are learning that it is not only the quantity of screen time that matters, but also the quality. Our family is pretty good in this regard. I use Common Sense Media as a guide to gauge the appropriateness of any videos or apps my son is viewing. Any program with adult content is off-limits. For any shows that are borderline, we watch together to provide context and share any teachable moments. Recent data suggests that certain “pro-social” media can be beneficial in teaching empathy, respect for other cultures, and in sending anti-bullying messages. Researchers are also exploring how interactive media, such as iPad use, may influence kids in different ways than more passive media exposure. More to come certainly, and it is well worth our time as parents to stay abreast of developments.
- Role-modeling: An essential component of any family media use plan is to address parents’ media use and set limits for ourselves as well as our kids. This is important from a role-modeling perspective, but it is also important from a relationship perspective. A recent small study observed 55 parents’ behavior with their children while eating together at a restaurant. 40 of the 55 parents looked at a device during the meal. Researchers found that the more immersed a parent was with their device, the more harshly they responded to their children, even if the child’s request was simply asking for help with their food. My own personal goal is to stay off devices between the time I get home from work and the time my son is asleep. I don’t always succeed, but I’m recommitting to it in writing here. My son knows he can hold me accountable. Kids are much more likely to buy in to a media plan if they see that their parents have to follow the rules as well.
- Safety: All media use plans should address safety. Do whatever you need to in order to refrain from using your phone while driving. For many of us this means placing the phone out of our reach. There are also now apps that make it impossible to text and drive. Consider installing one if the pull of the phone is just too great. For those with older children, being thoughtful about when they are allowed to enter the social media world is highly important. Having conversations about cyberbullying and being a good digital citizen are essential. For more information on these topics, take a look at the American Academy of Pediatrics’ excellent resource, SafetyNet.
How this looks for our family:
Quantity: We have a limit of 30 minutes of screen time for my son on weekdays. I’d rather this was zero, but frankly I really enjoy relaxing together on the couch after dinner, so I’m staying realistic on this for now. He has a two hour max on the weekends. These limits seem realistic, but require discipline. I am going to set more timers to avoid some of the “just a few more minutes” that easily turn into an extra hour on weekend mornings.
Quality: We will continue to use Common Sense Media to gauge appropriateness and to co-view with our son whenever possible. I will explore more interactive, educational apps and games and try to decrease the percentage of my son’s screen time that is passive viewing.
Role-modeling: Perhaps the most challenging section, but here goes. I’ve installed the “moment” app on my phone that lets me know how much time I’m spending looking at my phone each day. It also counts the number of times I pick it up. This has been eye-opening. I’m using this tool to help me stay under a total time goal per day. I’m also pledging to stay off my phone from the time I get home until the time my son is asleep, and he knows this and will help keep me accountable. I’m going to take a “digital sabbath” twice a month- two days a month when I am completely off-line. I will turn off all devices at least 30 minutes before my desired sleep time (this should probably be an hour, and I’ll work towards that by the end of the year).
Safety: Intentional, continued commitment to no texting or looking at the phone while driving. No excuses. No exceptions. For me, this means always remembering to set my audio book or music selection prior to starting out.
Do you have a family media use plan?