Growing up, I remember feeling jealous of my best friend, whose mom was a secretary at our elementary school. The secretary had the highly desired perk of being able to take one of the computers from the school’s computer lab home for the summer. She was the only person I knew who had a computer in her house! She could literally play Oregon Trail ALL DAY.
The world my kids are growing up in is a very different one. Not only do most families have multiple computers/laptops/tablets in their homes, often several per person, but the phones we have in our pockets are capable of so much more than just helping me hunt, ford rivers, or be bitten by rattlesnakes during my adventure to the west.
We can’t turn to our own childhood for ideas on how to cope with the impact that technology has on our kids’ lives. Television shows are now offered commercial free with on-demand programming, and streaming platforms like Netflix can auto-start the next episode for us. Apps and games now live in our pocket, and are designed to engage us and extend our use for as long as possible by using advanced strategies that make it difficult for adults to resist, and near impossible for our children.
Honestly, screens can sometimes make parenting easier. The kids are engaged and happy (as long as there is wifi and we remember to keep everything charged) so we get some peace and quiet to get things done, and to think clearly for a few minutes.
The draw of screens is even more powerful in public. We especially want to keep our kids calm and happy out in public, to avoid the judgement, stares, and murmurs when they throw a tantrum in the grocery store or become rowdy in a restaurant. More and more I see kids playing with their parent’s phones while being pushed in a cart around a grocery store, or an entire family each engrossed in their own smartphone while waiting for their food at a restaurant. It may start as a last resort on a desperate day, but it quickly becomes a habit and the easiest way to keep our kids calm. There comes a point where we fear taking away the screen away because of the huge meltdown we know will follow. At the same time, we feel terribly guilty about how much time our kids are spending on screens, and yet, we feel too helpless to change that.
The answer is NOT to feel guilty, or to judge other parents who let their kids spend more time using technology than yours do. We are all trying our best, and this parenting thing is not easy! The answer is to acknowledge that this habit is a tough battle that we were not prepared for, and we should support each other in helping this next generation have a healthy relationship with screens.
Screen time is, more than anything, a habit. And like all habits, at first it’s hard to make big changes, but once you continue to work on it for a while it becomes second nature. Also like any habit, it’s hard to succeed when you are focused on what not to do. If you have a goal to lose weight, it is overwhelming to think of all the things you can’t eat. The more time you spend focusing on avoiding or limiting sweets and junk food, the more you want them. Experts all agree that people are more successful in their weight loss journey when they instead focus on adding positive habits into their lives. Adding exercise, and focusing on eating as many fruits, vegetables, and healthy foods as possible, is a lot more sustainable than never eating cupcakes ever again. The natural byproduct of focusing on adding a lot of healthy foods to your diet is that you will fill up on what is best for you, and when you are full it is much easier to say no to that cupcake.
The same is true of screen time. I find myself stuck in a cycle of feeling tremendous guilt over how much TV my kids watch, but then I run to the other extreme of trying to sneak our TV out to the trash while my husband is sleeping so that the kids can never watch TV again. This is not particularly healthy for me, my kids, or my marriage.
That said, I am much more successful when I think about what I want to add to my kids’ lives. Are they getting the 8-12 hours of sleep per day that they need? Are they getting one hour of vigorous activity per day? Am I spending enough time reading to them? Do we have family time where we are happily bonding together? Do they have free time to take care of their baby dolls and build lego creations and draw pictures and dress up as superhero ninja firefighters?
From this perspective, it becomes much easier to squeeze out screen time because there are only so many hours in the day. When I go through this mental checklist in my mind, I’m ensuring that I’m giving my kids lots of opportunities to live a healthy life, and I’m building a loving and engaged relationship with them. Breaking the habit of turning to TV all the time is very challenging at first, but all the other fun activities quickly fill the void and become the new norm. And I love this new norm in my family. And sure, we will watch TV sometimes when there is time left over, but I no longer feel guilty when we do.
As parents, let’s focus on adding fun experiences, special face-to-face moments, and the essentials for healthy development to our children’s lives. And if there’s time left over for a “treat” of screen time, then great. The more time you focus on all the other great activities to add to your child’s life, the less you (and your child) will think about the allures of screen time, and the more you will enjoy spending screen-free time with each other.
Also, there’s an Oregon Trail card game now, so you can die of dysentery screen free!