When the pandemic hit last year, the first thing many parents did was drop the rules they had in place for screen time. Just because the pandemic has made lazy parents out of us; this is because many of us suddenly needed to work in the same spaces where our children were learning, playing and arguing with each other.
Their sports, clubs, and extracurricular activities were canceled and we still had no idea how the virus even spread, let alone how to safely reunite our kids with friends for some social-distancing outdoor play. So, for many of our children, tablets and smartphones have become their lifeline for their friends – one of the few ways to connect to the outside world that the pandemic has not suppressed. We let them log in, and before we knew it, the extra screen time had become too much screen time, and bad habits were taken.
I’ve known for some time that my own 10-year-old’s screen time was out of control, and I decided that summer vacation, with its pleasant weather and camp possibilities, was the perfect time to spend. to a more limited lifestyle in front of the screen. But I wasn’t sure exactly how to handle it without making it sound punitive, so I reached out to child psychiatrist Dr Helen Egger to find out where to start and how to create new, healthier screen time habits.
First forgive yourself
Most of this introduction is about me trying to justify my own parenthood over the past 15 months. I believe every word of it, and yet we know that excessive screen time is not good for our children. But the first thing Egger, co-founder and chief medical officer of Little otter, a children’s mental health service, told me that parents need to forgive each other.
“The first thing is really to give yourself a break, and every parent should, really,” says Egger. “It has been such a difficult time with so many losses… and I think we have to recognize that this pandemic has been an emergency and a trauma for everyone. ”
So, hey, we’ve been through a pandemic, and maybe our kids are too much on their screens now, but it’s something we can fix – and they’ll be fine.
Dopamine makes them want more
What makes a child’s dependence on screens so prevalent is the physiological response he feels when using them. Of course, there’s the fact that using the device naturally becomes a habit over time – think about how you reach for your cell phone the second after you turn off the alarm clock in the morning. But it’s more than that.
Video games and apps “are designed to keep us on their platform,” Egger explains. “They stimulate a part of our brain that produces dopamine, which is the reward system; they call dopamine the “feel-good neurotransmitter”. So what’s important to understand is that it’s kind of a habit that can be hard to break the cycle, because it’s not just a social way of delivering something positive, it’s that screen time and games make your brain want more.
It’s not fundamentally bad, but when it gets hard to control or interferes with other activities they once enjoyed, like sports, independent play time, arts and crafts, or family time , it’s time to take care of it.
Evaluate their actual use of screen time, and yours
You may feel like your child’s screen time has increased during the pandemic, but if they are old enough to access these devices without your help, you may not have a full picture. of how and when they dive. Start noticing when they go online, especially if there are times when it’s more of a problem than others.
While you’re at it, Egger says it’s a good idea to take stock of your own screen usage, which has likely also increased over the past year or so. You can talk about reducing screen time as much as you want, but if you’re also checking your business emails at the table, you’re sending a mixed message. Chances are, we can all find ways to reduce the length of a day that our eyes are glued to a screen.
If you don’t know where to start, the The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has a media usage calculator which you can use to capture all the ways they (and any family member) spend the hours in a day, from sleeping and eating hours to housework, physical activity, time spent with family and, yes , to the time spent in front of a screen. You can fill it in with them to help them get an idea of how disproportionate their screen usage may be to other activities.
Once you have a better understanding of family use of the screen, you can use this information to research areas in which you can work. create new habits. For example, maybe they used to wake up and immediately turn on their iPad or grab their video game controller because they didn’t need to join their teacher’s Zoom call yet, but now they have a summer camp to get ready in the morning, which they look forward to and which can be a natural time to step away from the automatic onscreen jump.
Create a family media plan
Now that you’ve forgiven yourself for all your screen sins, recognized the role of dopamine, and Got your hands on the importance of these screens in your life, it’s time for everyone to discuss which direction to take from here. Assuming they’re old enough to understand, it might start with acknowledging to them how we got here in the first place.
Children who are old enough to access these devices on their own are also old enough to realize that we have just had one hell of a year, and that life has had to adjust accordingly for a while, but now we are in a situation where things are opening up again and it is important to do those other physical and social activities that are important to them. They can have their own opinion on what kinds of activities they want to prioritize this summer, and you can talk about how to make those things happen.
You can do this together to create a family media plan. the AAP has a tool for that, too much, we’ve written about in the past. It can help you decide together, as a family, how you will designate screen-free times and areas in the home, how you will balance online and offline time, and what media ‘ways’ you each engage in. .
In other words, don’t just let go of the hammer and decree that they’ll only be entitled to one hour of screen time per day after 15 consecutive months of way more than that. It is not a punishment; it’s a reorganization of priorities because we can finally rearrange them.
“It’s not about wasting something, like wasting screen time,” says Egger. “It’s really important to frame it around what we can get back that we love, and try to [talk about that] in positive terms.
Egger also points out that all screen time doesn’t have to look like each family member retreating to their separate corners in seclusion; you can also use it to bond as a family, either by asking them to show you how they play a favorite game or by watching a TV show together that you all enjoy.