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Screen Time and Parents: Do You Need to Cut Back?

By now you’ve probably heard quite a bit about the dangers of too much screen time for young children. We’ve done two episodes on it. NPR’s Anya Kamenetz talked with us about real things parents should consider and Dr. Jordan Shapiro says we should teach our kids how to have a healthy relationship with screens.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends zero screen time for children under 18 months, and only one supervised hour per day for kids between age two and five. Although, this is up for debate, as Anya Kamenez shared with us on the podcast. For children age six and up, physicians recommend consistent limits to avoid obesity, irregular sleep patterns and loss of social skills.

But what about you, Dad? Do you have a healthy relationship with your devices?

If you’re like most Americans in the 21st century, the answer is: probably not.

Tech Addiction Is Real

There’s a reason that tech gurus like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs kept their kids away from the very things they invented: Screens are highly addictive, and—here’s the kicker—they’re designed to be.

Social media apps, iPhone games, and all sorts of other modern delights use a time-honored psychological trick called operant conditioning to trigger your brain’s reward centers. Take Facebook, for example. All those likes make you feel good, so you keep coming back for more. But just like a slot machine, you never know when you’re going to get that coveted thumbs-up sign. It’s the random nature of the reward that has you logging in all the time, just like a lab rat pressing a lever to get a treat.

As software developers get savvier at manipulating human behavior, the problem is likely to get worse. Until apps come with warning labels, we’re on our own to try to develop a healthier relationship with technology.

Do You Have a Problem?

The tricky part about tech addiction is that it’s a slippery slope, and what feels useful to one person might be unhealthy for another. It’s pretty personal: If you suspect that you’re on your phone too much, you probably are.

For parents, the problem is even stickier. We have a lot of demands on our time and attention, and kids know immediately if you’re even a little bit checked out. It’s also crucial to model healthy behaviors, and a “do as I say, not as I do” screen time policy is destined to fail.

As you examine your own screen time, consider your answers to these questions:

  • Have you ever felt irritated when your child interrupts your screen time?
  • Have you ever lost track of time while on your devices?
  • Have you ever turned down your child’s request because you were immersed in your device?
  • Do your children get frustrated when you’re using your phone or tablet?
  • Do you feel on edge if you forget your phone or if its battery dies?
  • Do you ever look at your phone while driving?

If you answered yes to two or more of these questions, your screen time could be affecting your parenting. Fortunately, you can work to cut back right now. Start by grabbing a copy of How to Break Up With Your Phone, by Catherine Price, to start a 30-day journey to become more mindful about your screen use. Some quick tips from the book:

  • Delete social media apps
  • Turn off all notifications
  • Put your screens on grayscale to make them less inviting
  • Don’t charge your phone in your bedroom
  • Ban screens from mealtime

Finding Balance as a Family

You’ll have better luck citing back on your screen time if you share your goals with your family—and get them on board to do the same thing. Talk to your kids about the addictive nature of apps and video games, and brainstorm together the ways their favorite apps make them want to keep using them. Recognizing their power is the first step!

It’s also a good idea to come up with house rules about technology together. When everyone has a say in creating the rules, you’re more likely to get the buy-in needed to enforce them consistently. You might decide to establish phone-free hours of the day, create a tech-free room in the house, or decide that video games are now part of family time instead of a solo activity. Post your rules for all to see—you might even establish a small fine that gets put toward a trip to the ice cream stand to give your rules some teeth.

Tossing out tech entirely isn’t the goal. After all, it’s useful, fun, and it’s here to stay. With a positive attitude and spirit of partnership with your kids, you can create appropriate boundaries that help your family enjoy a healthy relationship with all those screens.

About the author, James

Thank you for joining me for the Positively Dad journey! My name is James Shaw and I'm a husband and father. I live in the Tampa Bay area with my wife, Terri and our young daughter, Naomi. The goal with Positively Dad for us to think, learn and grow. It's easy to get caught up in the day to day and miss opportunities to become amazing fathers. I trust that the conversations we have on Positively Dad will help you see that fatherhood is truly a journey and that we are better together than figuring it all out on our own.

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