Washington Policy Center
My Pillow

Screen Time Blues

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By Diane Medved, Ph.D.


Parents, have you lamented that it’s difficult to restrain kids from too much “screen time?” With kids now owning smart phones at ever-younger ages, it seems they’re replacing interactive play with years bowing heads toward distractions in their palms.


Let me suggest a simple way to teach your children that real-life relationships and experiences are more important, beneficial and compelling than anything on a device: Model the behavior you want them to learn.


Start with this: when you welcome your child back—into your car at a carpool lane, through the door after school, when he comes downstairs in the morning—give your child your full attention.  No screens.


Most of the time, you know when to expect your child, and you can be ready, thinking of a loving greeting or a question about his day. You can close your computer or put your phone down in advance, and look your arriving child in the eye with a big smile. That teaches her that she’s valued above all else, and it demonstrates the correct way to receive others.


What if that’s inconvenient? Well, kids are learning from your example whether you put them first or not. Consider your priorities. Is taking a phone call more important than what you show your children? You can’t undo what they see; won’t your kids end up happier and more productive throughout their lives if they respond first to what’s really around them rather than on their screen?


Rules are helpful in setting boundaries, but if we tell kids to limit screen time, shouldn’t we walk the walk? Naomi Schaffer Riley, discussing her new book Be the Parent, Please on my husband’s radio program, said she doesn’t allow her kids any screens until their homework is done. The only exception is when teachers require online assignments.


Not all screens are the same. Hand-held personal surfing removes attention to one’s surroundings, while working on a more stationary device like a laptop or better, a desktop computer becomes the focus. When seated at a desk facing a larger machine, users intentionally place their attention there. But smartphones are with us everywhere; they fill any aimless minutes, waiting in line, sitting in the car, eating lunch—time that formerly would have invited awareness of surroundings.


There’s a psychological cost to always-accessible internet. Kids who fill every stray moment with smartphones become generally more impatient and easily bored, because they don’t practice calm waiting. They get in the habit of receiving input at all times.


Researchers José De-Sola Gutiérrez, Fernando Rodríguez de Fonseca and Gabriel Rubio, in a review of the literature on cell-phone addiction, reported myriad harms, including family conflicts, loss of interest in other activities, dependence and craving, insomnia and sleep disturbance, anxiety and loneliness when unable to receive immediate response, and even physical danger from ignoring hazards.


They found smartphones have spawned a raft of new disorders that now plague adults and youngsters, particularly adolescents. Have you heard of “’Nomophobia’ (No-Mobile-Phobia)”? They also list “‘FOMO’ (Fear Of Missing Out) – the fear of being without a cell phone, disconnected or off the Internet, ‘Textaphrenia’ and ‘Ringxiety’ – the false sensation of having received a text message or call that leads to constantly checking the device, and “Textiety” – the anxiety of receiving and responding immediately to text messages.” The disorders may sound cutesy, but they cause real distress and familial discord.


Avoiding these problems is a good reason to start young with screen control. Without encouragement, children are now smartphone savvy even before they can talk. I watched an eleven-month-old baby, whose mother is vigilant about restricting screens, spy a phone on a coffee table, crawl to it, press the home button and start swiping. If the phone’s on, she knows to press app “buttons” and when she recognizes someone in a photo she brings up, she makes an approving coo.


The millennial parents of this precocious child didn’t have such early experience, as smartphones weren’t widely available until they were in high school. Now, like everyone else, they carry their phones on their person, and respond to reminders and texts soon after they arrive– observed by their infant daughter. She unconsciously learns that a certain noise on a device will immediately gain Mommy’s attention. Yet when she’s in her crib and awakens during the night, the response from Mommy is not so fast.


Like kids, we have lots of reasons for our phone-focus, but if we don’t want excuses from our kids, we ought to catch ourselves when we’re device-distracted. Even if you’re in the midst of an important call, setting a reminder, or hear the “ding” of an incoming text, put down the phone when joined by another. You can reinforce your good example by talking often about the difference between online and experience-based relationships.


Also make a point to express your reactions when children are rudely engaged with devices. For example, you might say your feelings directly, such as “I feel you care more about your phone than our limited time together.” Or, “It’s hurtful to me to play second-fiddle to your phone.”


But you can’t just complain. As a parent, your job is to be up front with your expectations for your children. You’re in the unique position to tell kids “It’s rude to give priority to your phone rather than the person who’s there to be with you.” At home meals and in restaurants, you might set a rule to turn off your phones (not simply put them on still-distracting “vibrate.”).  That’s an opportunity to confirm verbally the value of precious time together. When you give your family and friends that validation with a grateful word, you’re also reinforcing the benefit of the occasion for yourself.


Admittedly, I carry my smartphone, too, but my big desire is to document occasions with the camera rather than check Facebook, post on Instagram or respond to texts. We need to acknowledge that our smartphones are a useful fact of life now, and they’re not going away. However, more than ever we need to make distinctions between appropriate and inappropriate use of technology. By discussing and stating those distinctions, we teach children, and remind ourselves, of the values and people we treasure, and the ones that complicate rather than enrich our daily experience.



Diane Medved, Ph.D. is a psychologist and author of six books, most recently Don’t Divorce:  Powerful Arguments for Saving and Revitalizing Your Marriage (2017). 

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