The Summer Screen Time Blues

A kiss of sunlight. Birds lightly chirping. The smell of coffee permeating the essence of our home. I hear a giggle. I feel the patter of footsteps lightly reverberating on the floor. I pull the covers back and greet the new summer day with anticipation.

If only.

Waking up at my house goes more like this:

The noisy squeals of the five-year-old, as she plays with her sister. The rattle of shelves from the latest LEGO war in my boys’ bedroom. The scratching of paws on the bedpost indicating a full canine bladder. The slamming open of my bedroom door, with the inevitable question of the summer:

Can we have screen time?

Most mornings, the first interaction with my kids is not warm cuddles or whispered greetings. It is not well-planned breakfasts or fun activities. Their mind seems to solely revolve around their next pixel fix.

Honestly, we didn’t set out for things to be this way. I don’t think anyone really does. For my family, we try really hard to avoid it. We limit screen time, and require certain things before allowing it. No screens in the bedroom. No passwords on our kids’ devices. We have our home Internet set up to restrict inappropriate content. We have parental controls on every device.

Yet, their desire to glue themselves to a screen kicks in as soon as they wake up. Where did this desire come from, and how does it affect them?

The Effects of TV on Children

Commercial television is a lot different today than it was when we were growing up. The level of violence and sexuality has skyrocketed. And the effect is has on our kids can be life-changing. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), television can be a powerful force in shaping the value systems and behavior of our kids. They summarize hundreds of studies on the effects of TV violence on children and teenagers, finding that children may:

  • become numb to the horror of violence
  • begin to accept violence as a way to solve problems
  • imitate the violence they see on TV
  • identify with certain characters, victims, and/or victimizers

In my opinion, the type of TV programs shown today are leading us down a path towards greater desensitization to violence and sex. At my house, we can hardly watch TV with our kids. Even some their favorite shows (Little Big Shots, America’s Funniest Home Videos) require screening or, at the very least, muting and fast-forwarding of certain parts. The off-the-cuff references to sex are rampant.

How Much Is Too Much

So where do we draw the line? How do we let our kids use their devices while teaching them moderation, safety, and appropriate use? According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), kids today are spending an average of 7 hours per day on entertainment media, including televisions, computers, phones and other electronic devices.

7 hours. That’s not a typo.

I’m not sure about you, but that seems like a lot. I know my kids would love to have 7 hours of screen time. But the attitudes and behaviors of my kids during and after using any screen can be cranky and disrespectful at best, and downright combative at worst. They seem to emerge from screen time more irritable and irreverent, a shell of their usual selves.

This behavior is not uncommon. The AAP states the following:

Studies have shown that excessive media use can lead to attention problems, school difficulties, sleep and eating disorders, and obesity. In addition, the Internet and cell phones can provide platforms for illicit and risky behaviors.

I’ll admit, there are days we let our kids have a lot of screen time. 2 whole hours. At one time. And every four years, on Leap Day, they get what we call a “Yes Day.” We say yes to everything, within reason, on Yes Day. Whatever they want to eat, and whatever they want to do. The last Yes Day we had, they played on their tablets or watched TV for most of the day.

The hangover lasted several days. We even discussed the day with them later, to see what they thought of how the day went. My boys recognized that the day seemed to have flown by, and that they had wasted a lot of time. My girls were cranky and tired throughout the next day.

Screen Time Limits and Guidelines

So, how do we find balance? What is the right amount of time for kids to have using some type of device? Here are a few questions I would consider as a parent the next time your kid asks, “can I have screen time?”

Is this bringing our family together?

We love Dubsmash. Some of the craziest, funniest things we have done as a family involve record ourselves singing and acting to the recordings on this app. Another of our favorites is the face-swap feature in Snapchat. We can spend hours laughing at ourselves. I am reliving the feelings of joy and happiness as I write this. It can be a special time using technology to create memories for our family.

However, technology has an immense power to separate family members. It can distract us from interacting with each other, and make time pass by quicker than we recognize. If we are not careful, we will all be on the couch or at the dinner table with our noses buried in some device. Let’s use screens to bring our families together.

Is this strengthening our relationships or damaging them?

We have a saying in our house that we stole from one of my sisters-in-law. It’s simple, and has become effective at reminding us to be mindful of others when using our devices. When someone in the family is talking, and another is on the phone (usually my wife or me), someone will yell out the following catch phrase:

“Eye contact!”

It’s a light-hearted way to say “Hey, I matter more than your phone. Whatever you need to deal with is much less important than the person right in front of you. Whatever you’re looking at can wait.” It matters to our kids that we are engaged with them when we are physically present. Furthermore, as parents we need to set good examples for our kids by the way we live our lives. We need to demonstrate self-control with our own devices if we expect our kids to follow suit.

Sometimes, it’s really hard to get away from our phones. I get it…I really do. With me running a business, my wife homeschooling our 4 children, commitments at church, and all the activities our kids are involved in, it seems like someone always needs one of us. There is a constant string of work emails, school planning, and schedule-juggling going on. But our kids are watching and learning. They will emulate who we are in a lot of ways, and I want my kids to look back and remember a father that made them a priority instead of some distant digital being.

Regardless of the urgency of the matter at hand, the perception our children have of our screen use is their reality. Use it wisely, parents, to shape their self-image and build their self-worth. Don’t make them feel less important than your phone.

Is this exposing my children to attitudes or concepts they aren’t ready for?

As I stated earlier, we can hardly watch TV with our kids and not see some form of violence or sexual innuendo. And it seems to be getting worse. And just because your child doesn’t show a reaction to something scary or violent, doesn’t mean it isn’t affecting them.

Similarly, the attitudes displayed by characters on TV shows can be frightening. The negative talk, sarcasm, belittling, and aggressive attitudes shape the way they interact with people in the real world. It’s no wonder kids can be abrasive, rude, and seemingly heartless. Evidently, it’s “funny” to act that way.

When handing over a screen to your kid, do you know what they are watching? Do you pre-screen the shows and apps they use? Do you ask questions about what they watched, played, or listened to? If not, you’re missing out on two important opportunities.

First, kids need you as a parent to help them figure out how they fit in the world. If we leave them on their own, their peers or the media they consume will shape their worldview. We have to know what they are watching to have the best chance at having the biggest influence on their heart.

Second, and more importantly, things they are exposed to have a huge impact on their belief systems. There is no question that the more we see instances of violence in media, the more desensitized to it we become. It becomes our normal. We end up having less empathy. We see violence as a way to solve problems. And down the road, it can lead to bigger problems like bullying, low self-esteem, and pornography.

Final Thoughts and Resources

Whether you have a screen policy in place, or this is the first you’ve thought about it, I urge you to consider the effects screens have on your kids. Is what they watch showing up in their behavior? I would challenge you to consider dialing back their use to 1-2 hours per day. And make sure they are watching things that are appropriate for their age.

The website Common Sense Media is a great resource for parents to research movies, TV shows, books and games. They give great advice, and have reviews of popular media from both a parent’s and kid’s perspective.

And if you struggle with this yourself, take inventory of your habits and see if there is room to improve. One app that may help shed some light on your own use is called Break Free. It monitors your phone and will give you a report on how often and for what purpose you use it.

Be warned…when I did this I was shocked at how often I look at my phone. For really unimportant stuff.

Most importantly, talk with your kids about the games they play and the things they watch. They want your input. They need your guidance. Take charge of this for them. They, and their world, will be so much better for it later.

Do you have rules for screen time? How have they worked? I’d love to hear what you do in your home. Leave a comment below and share what works for your family.

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