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Issue 22013

Screen Time

Thai and Dan Courtney monitor their children’s screen time and talk to them about making the right choices. Dan advocates that parents “get online and get involved.”

Cecily Holland and
Angela J. Hudson

Photo by Allen Kramer

A few years ago, no one said “screen time,” because there was only one screen — the slightly bulging one on the television. There was television-watching time, and the most sage advice for limiting it was keeping the TV in a central location where all could watch family-sanctioned programming together.

That wasn’t the ’50s. It was less than 20 years ago. That was before mainstream use of the Internet and Google (yes, there was a time); before there were more televisions in the average American home than people living there; and before there were more people in the world with access to mobile phones than have access to toilets. Fancy that.

Technology is changing the game and the rules, and paired with social media, it’s challenging the heck out of parents.

“We had one television in our house growing up with my parents,” said Dan Courtney, 40. “Now, you turn off the television, they turn on the iPod. You turn off the iPod, they turn on the iPad. You turn off the iPad, and they go to their friend’s house and get online. It’s so much more complicated than it was when I was growing up.”

Courtney and his wife, Thai, have two children — 5-year-old Dylan and 11-year-old Larissa. He’s also an administrator at a private school where students use technology on a daily basis. As an educator, he’s seen the positive effects that have come with the shift toward greater technology in the classroom in the last 10 years.

“It’s about allowing students to use technology to enhance their learning,” he said. “We have a lot of educational programs that help enrich instruction. We even train teachers with technology-based resources.”

Texas Children’s psychologist Amy Acosta, Ph.D., suggests that parents think of technology as just one part of a well-rounded upbringing.

“Technology provides opportunities for connectivity and creativity,” she said. “There are innovative opportunities for learning with the tools technology provides, but this should not be in lieu of all traditional learning and interacting.”

Unplug and Reconnect

The use of technology in the classroom means additional screen time for kids who often resume their high-tech pursuits as soon as they leave school for the day. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), children and adolescents spend more time with media than they do in any other activity, except sleeping. Televisions, game systems, computers, tablets and mobile phones fill their rooms — and their time. The AAP suggests media consumption can affect young people not only by replacing time they spend doing homework or sleeping, but also through influencing their beliefs and behaviors.

“Technology can pose a challenge to time management,” Acosta said. “Some children may find it hard to break away from limitless amounts of screen time.”

The AAP suggests a one-to-two-hour daily limit for entertainment media and also suggests having a screen-free zone for children, such as their bedrooms. Courtney follows this advice, telling his children not to bring electronic devices into the bedroom at night.

Chana and William Traylor make “unplugging” and reconnecting with their three girls — 7-year-old Willow and 11-year-old twins Kira and Kari — a daily practice.

“Being so engaged with technology, their attention span and ability to communicate can be impacted,” Chana said. “So we create those moments [to reconnect] with hands-on activities. We do a lot of family cooking. Other times we’re making up songs, writing poetry. We just hang out.”

Traylor called it “getting back to basics,” and when her kids are unplugged, she and William are too. Acosta thinks they’re on to something. She said that in addition to rules, parents should remember that children learn by example and that behavior modeling is a powerful influence.

“Parents should ask themselves ‘Do I have mindful, fully engaged moments as a parent? When do I unplug as a parent? Do I show my kids that I can unplug?’” Acosta said.

“Modeling the behavior you desire in your children can help your children follow your lead. This can sometimes serve as a conversation starter with your children about your own management of technology and digital decision-making.”

World Wide-Open Web

Even if families have managed to limit their household screens to what they consider nominal, monitoring what children do online in the age of social media presents its own constantly evolving challenges. Easy access to technology — and social media — demands diligent parental involvement.

“I’m a big advocate for parents getting online and getting involved,” Courtney said.

A year ago, Courtney’s daughter asked to download Instagram, and her mother gave permission, not knowing it was a social networking site. Within a couple of months, Larissa had hundreds of followers on the platform.

“I’m a big advocate for parents getting online and getting involved.”

“She had innocent pictures posted, and people were commenting,” Courtney said. “Some of the comments were inappropriate, and that was a real eye-opener for us as parents. We said, ‘Let’s talk about this. Do you know all these people?’ We used it as a teachable moment.”

Courtney and his wife reviewed the site’s rules and regulations and decided they would give Instagram another try when their daughter is older. They got involved, and they pulled the plug, but how does a parent balance vigilant monitoring with a child’s right to privacy? Traylor said it’s a matter of private versus public spaces.

“Their private spaces — like their bedrooms or their personal diaries — that’s their space, and I respect that,” she said. “But when they’re engaging with other people in a public domain and having conversations, they’re then exposing themselves to the world — so that’s where privacy stops.”

Digital Identity

Like the Courtneys, the Traylors also have decided to limit access to some social media sites until the girls are older. And children do, of course, get older, which is why managing their digital identity now is so important. Acosta said young people should consciously manage their online reputations and “clean up” their online presence if necessary.

“Rather than fearing technology, we have the opportunity as parents to show our children critical thinking skills,” Acosta said. “We can teach our kids how to unplug, to choose words with care and behave in ways they can feel good about.”

When sharing information online, practicing discretion is key. Social networks are meant to feel comfortable, and it’s easy for young people to feel as if they’re having private conversations, forgetting that social networks are fundamentally a public forum.

“No online conversation is a private conversation,” Acosta said. “It can be easy to forget all the people who have access to your information. This network will likely grow as you get older and include an even more diverse group. It’s important to remember that early on — and act accordingly.”

Parents’ best strategy? Stay engaged and ask questions, model positive behavior like unplugging regularly, and talk to children about what they’re doing online.

“I completely understand that kids need technology, and this is a form of socializing,” Courtney said.“I’m just going to be very much in tune with what they’re doing and hopefully coach and counsel them along the way to make the right choices.”

That’s #smartparenting.


Photo by C.J. Martin

Chana and William Traylor, with daughters Kari, Kira and Willow, take time to “unplug” from electronics and reconnect with each other every day.