Screen Time, Family Time, Time well spent
Forty years ago, parents just complained about their kids watching too much television. Then there were video recordings and an explosion of cable channels. Then home computers and video games. Today, "screen time" comprises all the above plus social media, smartphones, and online everything-and we face the possibility of a day when everyone could be wearing virtual-reality goggles that would allow digital activities to be completely multitasked with walking through the physical world.
Small wonder parents despair, more than ever, of convincing their kids to take a break from electronic screens.
How Much Is Too Much?
If your family lives anywhere but in solitary confinement, there’s no way you’re going to keep screens out of everyone’s lives. You use screens, your friends use screens, our kids go to schools that teach on screens and assign homework that requires screens. And here you are right now, reading this on a screen.
That does not mean, however, that you should allow your children (or yourself) to keep up an unchallenged screens-on-every-waking-hour habit.
The question of screen-time-to-age ratio has been much covered, but since expert opinions are still generalizations, I don’t advise setting rules without considering your family’s unique needs. Instead, watch for warning signs your children may be overdoing it:
- Developing a "zombie expression" that follows the screen without registering visible emotion or comprehension
- Being unable to answer questions about what they’re watching or its takeaway points
- Keeping an eye on the screen while walking, eating, or interacting with physically-present people
- Rarely expressing interest in non-screen-related activities
- Complaining about frequent headaches, sore wrists, or stiff neck or back
- Developing a slouched posture
- Loss of ability to concentrate
If any of these are a problem, it’s time to encourage kids to get interested in more non-screen activities. (Two hints: talk with them about their personal interests instead of just pushing them "out to play"; and set an example by letting them see you enjoying non-screen things.)
Some Fun Non-Screen Activities for Kids and Families
- Go to a playground.
- Run through a park.
- Play with a pet.
- Do some cooking.
- Take an "observation walk" centered around a theme, such as "things I never noticed in our neighborhood."
- Draw or sculpt.
- Read a hard-copy book (try a classic story from a pre-screen era).
- Put on a play.
- Have an informal songfest.
- Play a classic outdoor game such as tag or hopscotch.
- Blow soap bubbles.
Again, do these with your kids when you can.
Family Screen Time
Finally, you can nurture positive use of screen time by making a regular family activity of sharing television programs or video games. Some how-to tips:
- Get advance input from everyone.
- Schedule a specific time—usually 2–4 hours in the evening.
- Choose something everyone can enjoy and enjoy talking about throughout. (Individual sensibilities vary more than you’d think: some people love ribbing movie characters during the action, while others would rather listen to fingernails scratching on a blackboard.)
- Sit close and serve refreshments that can be passed around.
- Remember to enjoy the company as well as the screen!
That last point is a good one to emphasize with your kids (and yourself) in every aspect of life.