Parents, Make Less Screen Time New Year’s Resolution #1

With parents busy juggling the run-up to the holidays, it’s nice that the media is taking a break from their usual alarmism and guilt-mongering. A recent report from Common Sense Media about technology use among parents elicited gentle rebukes, such as this from PBS‘s Laura Santhanam:

“If you want to scold your teen or tween for their screen time on smartphones, tablets and computers, think twice: You may be setting their example.

On average, parents of children ages eight to eighteen consume screen media for more than nine hours each day, and of that, these parents devote nearly eight hours to watching movies, playing video games and scrolling through social media . . . .

And nearly eight out of ten parents surveyed said they were ‘good media and technology role models,’ according to the report that is consistent with previous research.”

The write-up encourages parents to consider how they are using their time, recognizing that while some use of technology—watching a family movie or working on an educational research project, for example—can be valuable, much of it isn’t.

And that’s an important message for parents to hear. Parents who worry incessantly about their children becoming addicted to their smartphones need to take a “heal thyself” approach first. Nine hours a day in front of screens—and work-related computer use accounted for less than two hours of that total time, compared to about seven spent watching TV, playing video games and checking out social media or websites—is a pretty jaw-dropping investment of time, and one that isn’t paying any returns for the family or personal mental health.

This massive amount of time spent online is particularly important since feeling rushed and harried is an accepted part of contemporary parenting culture. Stand around any school at pickup time and you’ll undoubtedly hear parents complaining about how busy we all are, juggling work and children’s extracurricular activities and school, with the many projects and homework assignments that seem to fall on Mom and Dad as much as on junior.

All that certainly feels true, especially at this time of year (this week alone I have three different desserts to prepare for class parties, two holiday concerts, and a series of specific costuming needs for my kids). But if parents are somehow managing to cram an average of seven hours of non-work-related screen time into their days, then perhaps the real problem is not that we are too busy, but that we are losing too many hours to entertainment and online nonsense.

Getting away from screens is no easy feat. It’s often important to have our phones on us to stay connected to those we love, as well as to keep the ball rolling at work. Once the phone is out of our pockets, it’s easy to move from whatever relatively important message we need to read to other tasks that aren’t important at all—checking emails, responding to friends’ posts on Facebook, checking the sales, or clicking on the latest outrageous celebrity headline.

Even when we aren’t pulling out our smart phones, screens tend to be all but ubiquitous in America. They are blinking in front of me when I fill my car with gas; as often as not, they are in the bars and restaurants I go to in hopes of reconnecting with friends or family, but which can easily become another invitation to watch cable or some obscure professional sporting event that’s being played on wall-sized televisions. My children’s elementary school, rather than acting as a partner in trying to peel kids away from electronic devices, pushes them into our hands. Sometimes that’s for a good reason: the internet offers access to a wealth of information and educational platforms that bring subjects to life and make learning fun. Yet it becomes hard to police what’s useful and what is ultimately just another video game with a slightly educational theme. As parents we are expected to visit online sites for each of our kids’ classrooms, check in on schedules and sign up for classroom activities, all of which pulls us back in to the technology vortex.

Parents should aspire to do better in the new year, and truly model a healthy relationship with technology, which has to include major chunks of time entirely free from it. Time management guru Laura Vanderkam encourages people to think of their time, which she breaks into thirty-minute blocks, as tiles of a mosaic that we use to paint a picture of our life. Most of us are happy to have part of our mosaic include lazy time watching the latest, great Netflix series or sharing pictures with friends on social media. But surely we don’t want technology and screen time to be our picture’s focus. Sadly, too often today, it is.

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