Scenario: It’s dinner time and the whole family is together in the living room ready to eat. The TV is on in the background, your five-year-old is busy swiping on his iPad, and your 12-year-old is glued to her Instagram feed on her iPhone. You try to start a conversation but all you get is unengaged, one-worded responses.
Today’s parents face a screen tsunami that is changing the way we interact, learn and live. While some parents claim that the only way their family can be happy is if the TV or computer are switched on (because then the children are quiet and parents are sane), evidence suggest that an unbalanced approach to screen time is unhealthy and promotes distress rather than wellbeing.
When children exceed recommended guidelines for screen time, it can lead to negative behavioural outcomes, mental health problems, academic issues and general health concerns.
If screens have invaded your life and all the rooms in your home, it’s time to take action and establish limits on how tech can enhance, rather than detract, from family life.
Here are Dr Justin’s four tips on how to get the screen-time balance right with your family.
Make screen-use the top item on your agenda at your next family meeting.
Share your rationale, invite perspectives, and then set up mutually agreed-upon screen-free times. Don’t be ridiculous about it, because sometimes screens can be important and useful. Just see how much screen time everyone thinks they need, and make your decisions from there. If your children share a perspective that differs from yours, problem solve together, and make sure everyone is in agreement.
Our children model what we do, including our screen usage. We cannot be upset with our children for being hooked on screens if we are addicted to our digital devices in the same manner. Banning our children from tech and encouraging them to go outside might work briefly, but our example is ultimately a critical element in our children’s screen choices.
Eating meals together without screens is key to having a happy family. Research shows that families who eat their meals together have children who grow up to be significantly less likely to drink, smoke, take drugs or experience internalising (depression and anxiety) or externalising (anger and delinquency) disorders. Conflict will be lower. Their wellbeing is higher – and their dietary intake is healthier! It seems the thing that leads to these positive outcomes is not the meal, though. Instead, it is the time that families talk during the meal that acts as a protective factor in children’s lives. Screens interrupt those conversations in dysfunctional ways, and reduce the protection that the family meal offers.
When screens are in bedrooms, children use them and this can lead to detrimental outcomes. They stare at the box or get busy swiping the screen. They stay in bed but sleep poorly. They interact on social media or with networked online games but have few quality relationships. Their schooling suffers and their health deteriorates. Parents have little idea of what their children are being exposed to on their screens, and may find their relationships becoming uneasy as their children are influenced more by the strangers on their screens than their loved ones in their immediate environment.
Ultimately, we ought to remember that screens exist to service us – and not the other way around. We cannot afford for our families to become slaves to our screens, or the outcomes will all too often be negative.
“In order to make screens work for you rather than against you, set clear limits, be a good example, keep tech out of bedrooms and spend more time in wholesome recreational family activities,” advises Dr Justin.