I’ve written on this blog before about screen use and its impact on children.
The inspiration for this has been twofold. First, observation of students in our martial arts school. I have noticed in recent years that children with behavioral issues and difficulty with focus often engage in frequent and regular use of screens. Since parents often introduce their children to martial arts in the hopes of helping them in these two areas, I became curious about the relationship between screens and child development.
The second part of my interest in the impact of screens is seeing their impact on me. During periods of heavy screen use, I typically find myself feeling distracted, irritable, and it is more difficult to engage in physical activities.
But I have also seen a long-term impact on my mind. I have had a smart phone for most of a decade now. Over that period, I have seen a loss of short-term memory. I believe this is a result of me off-loading so much memory function to my phone and laptop; it has gotten to the point that my brain’s capacity for remembering things has atrophied.
Similarly, I have seen a loss in attention span. Whether it is the constant distraction of having the internet in my pocket–or the fact that I seem to read more top 10 lists than books–I find that I have more difficulty engaging focus-intensive tasks than I used to.
Research on the real impact of screens on children and adults has been pretty thin. Media such as television, video games and the internet have been around for a while. But being able to carry them with you is a relatively new phenomenon. It has been less than twelve years since the first iPhone was released and only six years since smartphone ownership among American adults passed 50% (77% as of last year).
Clearly, mobile devices are having an enormous impact on us and our society, but it is happening so fast, the research has not been able to keep up.
So I will be revisiting this topic as the science is able to better inform my observations.
For instance, a study in Japan found that children’s use of mobile devices (smartphones and tablets) was associated with behavioral issues such as inappropriate conduct, hyperactivity and difficulty with focus.
The researchers theorized that this was because of a few factors, including the fact that increased screen use increases social isolation by crowding out opportunities to interact with family and friends. This undermines the development of social skills which in turn can lead to emotional and behavioral problems.
As more research explores the consequences of screens, I will present it on this blog. For this article, though, I want to look at how we can manage our children’s screen habits.
Restricting your child’s screen use and monitoring the type of media they are consuming is an increasingly essential part of parenting. Though a few tips and tricks can be helpful, you really need a comprehensive strategy to be successful in this area.
The first step is to create screen-free islands for your child. These are islands of both time and place. Here are some examples:
o Family Meals: Mealtime is one of the most important opportunities for family interaction. It is not just an issue of having a chat and catching up on each other’s day. A family meal can be an important ritual of reconnection. Even having a phone turned off and lying face down on the table can be distracting. It can be tempting to allow kids to use devices so that the parents can talk, but your children need that time to connect with you, not a screen.
o In The Car: This is the perfect time to connect. You are stuck with your child in a small space, why waste the opportunity on distraction? Our daughter, Imogen, has always done well on long trips because she never expected higher levels of stimulation and distraction than just looking out the window and seeing the world around her. As a result, we have had some great conversations on the road. Granted, talking to a child for long periods of time can get exhausting for an adult (I have often enjoyed the quiet spaces between chats on long trips), but I find my feeling of connectedness with Imogen are always stronger after long drives.
o Other Quality Time: You want to be sure that screen time is not crowding out healthy interactions with others, opportunities for play in the real world or the chance to get up and move. Identify these times in your child’s life and mark them as sacred from screen use.
o The Bedroom: This is the big one. Children need a ton of sleep because of their rapid brain development. Many kids are delaying going to bed because of screen use. Furthermore, it is much more difficult to manage the quantity of screen use or the type of media they are interacting with when they have devices in their rooms.
o Other Unplugged Spaces: Children need to be able to unplug. Identify places in their life where they have the opportunity to do other, healthy activities and keep devices out.
The next and possibly most difficult part of a comprehensive strategy for managing your child’s device habit is…to better manage your own.
I’ve written before about the importance of modeling behavior for your child. In addition to leading by example, modeling gives you better insight into your child’s experience.
For instance, when I go to see a movie in the theater (a rare treat when my schedule allows for it), I find myself in a bit of a daze when I leave. I have spent a couple of hours immersed in a high-stimulus environment, full of bright light and big sound. When I step out of the theater, it can take a bit before my brain adjusts to the real world.
When Imogen spends a significant time engaged with a screen (typically playing a video game or watching a movie), she also needs a transition time. She is often irritable and distracted during that time. Like me, her brain is adjusting to the change and, since I have experienced this for myself and can related to it, I am able to take that into account as I move her into a new activity.
But managing our own screen time is not just about setting an example and being able to empathize with our child’s challenges with devices. It can be an essential part of being a better parent in general.
One study found that parents who used phones during meals with family or friends were more distracted and enjoyed their interactions less. Creating an screen-free island for dinner is not just important for teaching your child good habits, it will help you better connect with him/her and enjoy your time together.
In another study, researchers found that parents who used their phones frequently during a visit to a science museum with their kids felt more distracted and less connected with their children. The study went on to evaluate their experience over the course of a week. Heavy day-to-day device use was also associated with feeling distracted and disconnected, both in general and with their children.
But the association between these feelings and phone use was not as strong as on the museum visit. The researchers theorize that this is a product of the science museum being an opportunity for a much more rewarding activity with their child than normal day-to-day life. The consequences of being distracted from such an experience carried much more weight.
This fits with the idea of creating screen-free islands for your child that maximize his/her positive, non-digital experiences.
It also emphasizes the importance of those screen-free islands for your experience as a parent. In another study, researchers observed parents at a park with their children. Parents were much less responsive to attention requests from their child when they were using their devices than when they were distracted in non-digital ways (conversation with another adult or child, interacting their dog, etc.).
In fact, parents looking at their phones were more likely to be completely unresponsive to their children.
Later, when the parents were interviewed, they reported feeling distracted when using their phones, but expressed confidence that their kids’ needs could pull them back into the real world. Based on the researchers observations, these self-assessments were incorrect.
To be effective at managing your child’s screen-time and media consumption, it is important have a comprehensive strategy. Central to such a strategy is the use of screen-free islands. This will teach your child the importance of unplugging and help them develop skills around how to transition from the digital world back into the real one.
It is also important to manage your own screen habits. In addition to modeling the behavior you want from your child, it can create a better understanding of what it is like for him/her to develop better habits. It also can improve how engaged you are with your child and even help you enjoy your time together more.
One final thought: do not use screen time as punishment or reward. As a recent study found this can increase your child’s desire for screen time.
For my wife and I, there is one exception to this “rule”. When Imogen is irritable after an extended period on a screen, we let her know that her behavior is telling us that she was on the screen for too long. If she is not able to better manage her transition back into the real world, we will have to further restrict her access to screens so that she has more time to make that transition.
The important distinction we are making here is that this is not a punishment, it is a consequence. She is in control. We are pointing to the transition and emphasizing the value of making it as smooth as possible, not adding a sense of value to the screen time itself.