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  • Writer's picturePanorama Psychology

Navigating Screen Time: Building Strong Family Communication in the Digital Age

If you are like most parents, your childhood days consisted of playing outside, listening to tapes or CDs, engaging with family and friends in person, and maybe playing some early video games (N64, for me!). Additionally, although our parents certainly had TVs, they were not constantly distracted by smartphones, and they still paid their bills by mail and printed out MapQuest directions. It would have been impossible to imagine how screens would come to dominate so many areas of life, and the influence they would come to have on family life in particular.

In today's digitally connected world, screens are an inevitable part of daily life for all of us. Whether it's smartphones, tablets, computers, or TVs, screens offer endless entertainment, education, and social interaction opportunities. In our therapy practice, screen time is one of the major concerns that parents have for their kids and teens - especially when it it involves boundary pushing and family conflict.

While we cannot tell you what amount of screen time makes the most sense for your family, we can provide some guidelines to bring your family screen time habits in line with your family values. We also provide some tips for having routines, habits, and systems in place to make screen time something that the family can enjoy rather than being a constant point of contention. In fact, we often educate families on the benefits of screen time when used in healthy ways; for example, one study found that kids who play video games have better impulse control and working memory, as well as brain activation changes in areas related to vision, attention, and memory processing.

American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Screen Time Guidelines by Age

Before 18 months old

Limit screen use to video chatting along with an adult (for example, with a parent who is out of town).

18-24 months old

Screen time should be limited to watching educational programming with a caregiver.

2-5 years old

Limit non-educational screen time to about 1 hour per weekday and 3 hours on the weekend days.

6 years and older

Encourage healthy habits and limit activities that include screens.

We believe the key to finding a healthy balance lies in fostering open and effective communication within the family. By addressing concerns, setting boundaries, and engaging in meaningful discussions, parents can guide their children towards responsible media use while maintaining strong connections. Let's explore some strategies for navigating screen time and media use while prioritizing family communication.

1. Establish Clear Guidelines:

Setting clear guidelines around screen time usage is essential for maintaining balance. Establishing specific rules such as screen-free zones (like during meals, in the bedroom, or before bedtime) can encourage face-to-face interactions and strengthen family bonds. You may also instill a culture of getting work/chores/tasks completed before pulling out the screens. Collaboratively develop these guidelines with your children, ensuring they understand the reasons behind them and feel involved in the decision-making process. A good resource is the Family Media Plan published by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), which you can create with your family online.

2. Lead by Example:

We all know that children mirror their parents' behavior, so when parents ask us about their children's media use, one of the first questions we ask is "how do the parents use screens?"

It is crucial for adults to model healthy screen habits, and unfair to ask children and teens to follow drastically different media use habits from the parents.

Parents can demonstrate mindful media consumption by limiting their own screen time and prioritizing quality family time without distractions. We also encourage parents to talk through their media use choices out loud; for example, you might say "Mommy's eyes are getting tired from this texting! I think it's time for a phone break." Engage in activities like reading together, playing outdoor games, or having meaningful conversations to show the importance of offline interactions.

3. Foster Open Dialogue:

Encourage open communication by creating a safe space for discussing screen time habits and their impact. Regularly check in with your children to understand their experiences, challenges, and interests related to media use. Encourage them to check in with themselves around screen time, asking questions like "how did you feel after playing that game for 2 hours straight?" or "do you think watching an extra episode tonight might help you feel calm before it's time for bed?" Be open, empathetic, and non-judgmental, allowing them to express themselves freely without fear of criticism. Use these conversations as opportunities to educate them about responsible online behavior and digital citizenship.

4. Co-View and Co-Play:

This is perhaps one of the most often overlooked strategies for managing media use at home. Instead of viewing screen time as a solitary activity, embrace opportunities for shared experiences. Co-viewing TV shows or movies and co-playing video games can strengthen family bonds and spark meaningful conversations. Show interest in your child's video games, and ask them if they can show you what they are working on. The goal here is to have positive interactions around screens, rather than the more common struggle that many families experience. You can also use these moments to engage in discussions about the content, values portrayed, and real-life implications, fostering critical thinking skills and empathy in your children.

5. Encourage Diverse Activities:

Promote a balanced lifestyle by encouraging a variety of activities beyond screens. This also goes back to modeling - if a parent's life consists merely of going to work and then coming home to be on screens for the evening, it's hard to expect much different from the kids. Introduce your children to hobbies, sports, arts, or community activities that stimulate their creativity, social skills, and physical health. By diversifying the family's interests, you provide alternatives to screen time and foster holistic development.

6. Monitor and Supervise Responsibly:

While granting autonomy is important, parents should also monitor their children's online activities and set age-appropriate restrictions when necessary. Utilize parental control tools, privacy settings, and filtering software to safeguard against inappropriate content and ensure a safe online environment. However, maintain transparency and communicate openly with your children about the reasons for monitoring and the importance of digital safety. Additional safeguards and support may be helpful if you are worried your child or teen is experiencing screen addiction:

  • If your child always becomes angry or lashes out when they don't have access to media.

  • If their media use is affecting their functioning in academic, family, social, or extracurricular life.

  • If media use is getting in the way of healthy activities like sleeping and exercising.

  • If you child seems unable to enjoy anything besides screen time.

7. Adapt and Evolve Together:

The families who do the best with screen time do not have all-or-nothing rules, or pretend like screens don't exist in everyday life. Instead, they are led by parents who stay informed about current trends and emerging platforms, and have digital literacy skills to navigate these changes alongside their children. Recognize that screen time norms and technologies will continue to evolve, requiring ongoing adaptation and flexibility. Regularly reassess your family's screen time guidelines and adjust them collaboratively based on individual needs and developmental stages.

In conclusion, managing screen time and media use for children and teens is a journey that requires proactive communication, empathy, and collaboration within the family. By establishing clear guidelines, leading by example, fostering open dialogue, engaging in shared experiences, promoting diverse activities, monitoring responsibly, and adapting together, parents can navigate the digital landscape while nurturing strong family connections.

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