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Therapist Says Screen Time for Kids An Extremely Volatile Issue For Families

Moms, how do you handle screen time at your house?

Kersti Spjut is a therapist who says screen time is a very volatile issue with her clients. She posted her advice to parents on Facebook and got such a response that she decided to start a blog. Here’s her blog post about screen time for kids.

With her permission I’ve republished her post below with my comments. I’m working with a client right now called WebSafety. It’s an app for parents to screen, monitor and limit screen time so you get alerts when certain words, photos or actions happen on your kid’s phones.

This topic has been on my mind professionally as well as in my own parenting.

Here’s Kersti’s post:

There are many days at work where 70% of my time is spent mediating conflicts between parents and children about screen time (not at all what drew me to the field of child psychology, but it is what it is). I have not found any other issue that so reliably leads to intense disagreements and yelling/crying in the therapy office.

10 Tips for Parents to Manage Kids Screen Time

1. Start Teaching Young. It is a lot easier to set low limits for daily screen time and increase with age/maturity than to set no limits until it becomes a problem and then try to dial it back.

2. There’s no one size fits all answer. The most common question I get from parents about this is “How much screen time a day is good for my kid?” And my answer every time is “It depends.” It depends on your kid and their needs, your family culture, the type of screen time (consumptive vs. creative), and many many other factors. Most of the time my approach is to create an individual plan for that family with the current age and needs of their child. So please don’t judge other families for the way they use screens in their home. As this article mentions, socioeconomic status plays a big role in the messages people receive about screens, as well as their access to non-screen extracurricular activities. (p.s. The article oversimplifies some things, but it’s a good start.) It’s best to assume that other people are trying their best.

3. That said, keep in mind that your choices about screens will impact your child’s social life and will likely get back to their friends’ parents. If their friends’ parents are more lax, you will definitely hear about it and will be tempted to be judgey, because their choices make your life harder. I get it, and I don’t blame you for wanting to be judgey. I want to be judgey too. But whether it’s screens or some other parenting decision, no good will come to your child (or yourself) from dragging other parents through the mud.

4. Screen time is a privilege, not a right (especially recreational, non-school screen time). It’s reasonable to expect children to earn screen time by completing other tasks first. You had to earn money to pay for that screen–they can earn it in their own way too. Plus, it’s a lot easier to transition from homework to screen time than the other way around.

5. Screens are not the enemy. For your child to be successful in the world, they need a certain level of digital literacy. Quite frankly it’s just as necessary at this point in history as being able to read or write. So work WITH them rather than AGAINST them on this.

6. Until they are 18, it is reasonable for you to have access to all of their social media accounts and check in on their usage. I really love this article for explaining why: http://momastery.com/blog/2015/06/29/safe-ish-online/

7. Teach them how to be critical consumers of media. When someone does something inappropriate in a movie/television show, use it as a chance to open up dialogue instead of just shutting it off and labeling it BAD. It’s okay to set limits as to what is age-appropriate, but don’t feel like you have to completely shield your child from every bad thing. Instead, talk about it and help them think critically about it. Ask questions like “What do you think about what they just did?” or “How would it feel if someone did that to you?” or “Do you know what our family believes about that thing?”

I remember to this day a conversation my mom had with me on this topic when I was in kindergarten. We were watching a tv show set during the civil rights era, and someone did something racist. My mom said to me, “Did you see how he treated that girl? That’s not okay. Sometimes white people treat black people mean just for being black, and that’s never okay. So if someone says something like that to Suzie [my best friend at the time who happened to be black], you need to stand up for her.” Getting that message from an early age has made a big difference for me. It hasn’t completely erased society’s racist messages in my brain, but it sure helped.

8. Be interested in what they’re consuming. Not just in a gotta-make-sure-it’s-not-porn kind of way, but genuinely interested. Ask what they like about it, let them explain their favorite parts of the game, let them teach you the characters’ names, etc. I know I am a heck-of-a-lot more interested in hearing about a kid’s day at school or his friends than I am in hearing yet another monologue about Minecraft (seriously what is it with that game??? whoops, I’m being judgey again), but for most kids these days, digital worlds ARE their worlds. Being accepting of their interests lets them feel heard and trusted, and they’ll be more likely to open up to you about other things as well. Plus, it does help you keep track of whether the content is age-appropriate or not 😉

9. Speaking of porn, that’s a whole ‘nother post for a different time. I have much to say….

10. Stay focused on the reason for limiting screen time: to help them not miss out on other parts of development. Being socially engaged (in person) and being physically active are a lot harder when screens are on. Also, being bored is crucial for child development, because it gives them a chance to be creative (although I tell ya what, S sure gets sick of hearing me say that…”I’m bored.” me: “Oh good! I can’t wait to see what you come up with!” Him: “You ALWAYS say that!”). So encourage them to focus on what they’re gaining and what they GET to do when the screens are off rather than making it seem punitive.

Okay, you made it! Give yourself a high five (AKA clap), and go forth to be a screen savvy parent!

Note: Higher levels are screen time really are correlated with higher levels of depression/anxiety. Very very often one of my first treatment steps is to limit the amount and type of screen time (to make space for other goodness), and anecdotally I’ve seen this make a big difference for a lot of kids. I think the same is true for adults too.

Don’t underestimate the power of getting involved in your life! Counterpoint, though, is that cutting off ALL access to internet/phone for depressed teens could make suicide more likely. So use balance and wisdom and love in your approach 🙂

What Parents Don’t Know About Social Media…

The following is what I’ve added. If you think your kids don’t need guidance on this issue, please read this article about a Utah teacher who asked her 9th grade class to anonymously submit an answer to what their parents don’t know about social media. She had them write their answers on postcards. The results went viral, here’s the story: https://www.ksl.com/?sid=46278943&nid=148&title=why-teachers-parents-and-psychologists-are-worried-about-teen-social-media-use

She found that kids were encountering cyber bullying, sexting, porn, and a feeling that “people that don’t care about you and try to make you feel like crap.” In many cases kids are relieved when a parent steps in to limit their phone use so it’s not a temptation and they can opt out of the negative parts of the culture.

  • It’s a lot easier to set boundaries in the beginning than to do it retroactively.
  • Technology like the WebSafety app makes it easier to set limits so you don’t have to remember the rules, you just have to set it up once and tweak as needed.

WebSafety is an app to help parents, protect children and help them use their mobile devices safely. It monitors where your kids are going, who they contact and who’s contacting them on their phone. You set up alerts so you can be aware of what you want to know.

WebSafety Monitors your Kid’s Activities and Only Alerts you if There’s a Problem

Here are some screenshots to show you more about how the app works and the things you can set up alerts for.

This part of the app shows you what websites your child is looking at.

I also really love the How to Talk to Your Kids about Porn book series from Educate and Empower Kids (affiliate link goes to Amazon to read reviews and/or purchase).

Our Family’s Social Media Rules

Social media and phones can be used for kindness too and I love catching those kinds of posts! My son’s middle school had an Instagram account where they spotlighted a student every day and asked people to comment with what they loved about that person. It made him feel so good to see that people cared. I want to emphasize how much good you can do with social media and hope that’s part of your conversation. When your kid sees other kids use social media to bully, they can call people out or write something supportive. They can share the positive.

Help avoid the more negative and damaging content that’s out there.

When Bjorn was younger I saw a few of his Facebook friends weren’t who I liked him hanging out with online. For example, one young woman shared very sexy photos. There was a man in his 30s who didn’t have any other friends in common with him. I asked Bjorn why they were connected and we talked about only friending people you know in person or whom you share a lot of common friends with. He also downloaded some games with some shocking titles that I talked to him about.

Each night we have him bring his computer and all electronics to a basket upstairs at 9pm every night. We also have his phone turn off (later on weekends). We could still do better and WebSafety is part of making that seamless. I hate solutions that make me work harder to try to enforce rules we set up. It’s a game of cat and mouse, plus I forget, which means I’m inconsistent.

We’re just starting the process with our daughter who’s only 6. It’s easier with her because as parents we’re a lot more informed than when Bjorn was that age.

How does your family to handle screen time? I’d love to hear in the comments what’s worked or not worked for you.

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