Screens don’t have to be controversial

Caveat: my husband is and I am formerly technologists by trade and my family is not anti-technology nor completely technology or screen-free!  Let’s talk about it all… this is a long one, but filled with good points to consider…  

Screens: are they good or bad?

We hear a lot of about screen time and whether it’s good or bad.  Some families note that the amount of time children spend on screen-based activities is eroding their quality interpersonal time with friends and family.  Others note that their children behave differently when they interact with screens for a period of time.  The reality is that for many kids, “too much” screen exposure causes noticeable negative issues.  Many accept the negative things they experience because they determine the positive gains are worth it.  Still others are saying those things because they don’t know how to change it and are trying to find the positive.

How much is “too much”?  That’s really going to depend on your child’s wiring.  It’s also going to depend on your family’s personal feelings about the role of technology in your lives.  Not all kids are capable of self-regulation where screens are concerned; and some kids have rather serious addictions to screens.  Likewise, if your family doesn’t have a solid set of lifestyle goals or a mission statement of some sort–there is no guidance for you to live by.

For the kids who can’t self-regulate or respond poorly

In April, I was discussing the plight of parents whose children have bona fide screen addiction with a therapist whose client base was mostly tweens and teens.  I noted that a lot of the support for those parents assumed it was as simple as parenting modifications and behavior changes.  He said “It’s an issue I see increasing and one the medical and mental health community haven’t caught up with yet.”  As a result, parents are left 1) without validation that their concerns are legitimate and that a real problem exists; 2) without guidance on what a problem looks like; and worse 3) no real help.

And there are parents for whom their child isn’t fully addicted, but there are definite changes in attitude and behavior that many parents have tracked to coincide with screen usage.  So these children are being negatively impacted, but not to the level of “addiction”.

Two sides to the issue

Not long ago, I lost a friend over the screen-time conversation.  She makes a living in educational technology and has a rather large social media following. She is seen as an “influencer” in this space.  Unfortunately, she could not separate the educational benefits of technology from the neurological issues around using that technology.  For her, the benefits outweighed the negatives; and she claimed that parents who claimed to witness the negative effects were overzealous holistic people.  But then, that included me–who struggled with this daily with my child.  Needless to say, it ended a friendship.

Nobody can deny that technology can do amazing things–especially for those of us who homeschool.  That doesn’t nullify the actual neurological effects screens have on children–especially those who have some kind of underlying predisposition to a problem.  Actually, it has effects on the fully developed brain as well!  Have you had this problem?  Have you been “sucked in” to screen use?  Have you had a problem self-regulating your relationship with technology?

How do we balance our screen use when technology is so integrated in today’s society?

Defining balance

Ultimately, parents need to think long and hard about the role technology plays in their and their children’s lives.  This is something that has crept up into most family lives rather than been a conscious and cultivated decision.  Now it’s time to step back and look at this very powerful force and decide how and when it’s best used to better your family’s life.  Will you only allow it for specific purposes?  For specific times?  These don’t have to necessarily be rigid schedules (although you might decide they will be).  How you define these things are going to depend on what works for your family; and they may need to be revisited and revised based on what works and how your lives and needs change.  But these should be conscious decisions.

  • Entertainment
    • What constitutes entertainment?
    • How much of our free time should be spent on electronic entertainment?
    • What are the boundaries (if any) on this type of entertainment?
  • Educational
    • Will you (or instructors) require a certain level of technology engagement?
    • What will the priorities be for educational screen engagement?
    • Are there online subscriptions or applications that might be worth having to optimize educational screen time?
  • Productivity
    • What online programs or apps would best support the people in your family?
  • Safety
    • Will you monitor specific devices in your family?
    • If you choose to monitor, what is your end-goal specifically?  List out the specific goals for monitoring and the progression to get to independence with the checkpoints/milestones that help you determine whether you’ve achieved them.
    • What are the options and costs for monitoring the devices you want to monitor?

These are just examples of the many questions you need to start asking yourself to help cultivate a conscious use of technology in your family.

How to change the relationship with screens (for any reason)

So how do you do it?  You should now have your family’s conscious ideas of how technology serves (or should serve) your family in hand.  Moving to that direction is going to take some adjusting. Take stock and ask yourself what your goals are for your child and their non-screen time.  If you don’t have a rather clear goal in mind, you’re not going to be motivated to see this through the challenge of transitioning.

Keep in mind that some of you are moving your children from a source of entertainment to what they will see as “absolutely nothing”.  That’s a hard transition.  A lot of parents have a hard time reducing screen time and/or changing the role of screens in their family because of their children’s reactions to removing their screen-based activities.  Some parents have even said “it’s just easier to give them the screens”.  Well, using that logic, it would also just be easier to give them donuts for breakfast every day, wouldn’t it?  And in reality, if it’s THAT hard to change direction, doesn’t that indicate a problem?

You need to know where your boundaries are before making changes so that you are not caught off-guard by what may become hostage negotiators disguised as your children.  For some kids, every action will be an opportunity to negotiate for screen exposure.  Knowing this ahead of time will help you to be better prepared.  You should also have done the research above regarding what technology will be used, for what, when, how and what monitoring you want in place.

Next, think about what non-screen activities will move towards your non-screen goal(s).

  • Does that require effort on your part?   Whether that’s playing taxi, finding resources, or actually engaging–what will be required of YOU?
  • Have screens been playing “electronic babysitter” for you?
    • If so, what have you been doing during that time?  Have you been doing things that should be (or could be) done at a different time?
    • How are you managing YOUR transition to being more engaged with your children?
    • Is there a level of relationship-mending work that may need to be done between the various members of your family?  How will you tackle that?  Will it require help?
  • Are there activities the children should be engaged in that move further toward that goal?  Can the kids navigate those activities without assistance?
  • Is there anyone else that needs to be involved with all of this?  Or that you would like to be involved?

These are just some of the questions to ask yourself as you start to navigate this journey.  Some families change their screen usage for the summer and then return to where they currently are for the school year.  But really, the goal is that you do these things purposefully and consciously rather than requiring a break for part of the year.  You may still decide to be screen-free for the summer; but understand the real goals you are trying to reach in the process.

Two things that might help with physical reactions

In the process of my research, I found two interesting things about screen use:

  • It can cause blood sugar dysregulation
  • It can impact people particularly sensitive to blue light

Blood sugar dysregulation has seen a significant increase in younger people. In fact, where we used to call Type 2 diabetes “late onset” diabetes, we now see it in children (even toddlers) and we also see it with people who also have Type 1 diabetes.  Blood sugar dysregulation may be one of the reasons children’s behavior changes with screen use–making them nasty and cranky.  It’s possibly that giving children a snack rich in fats and proteins could help if this is your particular child’s issue.  Black olives, celery with nut or sunflower butter, or a slice of avocado with some salt or seasoning could be a great, healthy snack to help with this issue.

The other possibility is that there is a sensitivity to blue light.  Some people’s eyes are not able to respond to this particular wavelength of light well and the result of exposure can be a sensory overload that affects behavior.  In reality, people are exposed to blue light everywhere; but there is a HEAVY exposure when interacting with screens.  Having children wear blue-light filtering glasses while using screens could be a potential help on this front.  For more information, I’ve written up a blog post about it here.

Parting words…

This parenting gig is not for the faint of heart.  Know that you’re going to screw some stuff up and don’t let that be cause to throw in the towel.  Remember to find ways to connect with your kids and talk to them.  Opening the lines of communication is so very critical for so many reasons; but technology has created an entire new world that they will be navigating in ways that we never had to contend with.  If you need some help getting there, find a good family therapist or support group.  If you’re looking for reading material, here are a few good ones:

Hopefully, all of this helps you move in purposeful directions for technology and it’s use in your family.  I would love to hear about your journey with it!

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