Let me get this out of the way right off the bat: I love the connectivity that comes from technology.
I love that so much information and inspiration can be accessed with just a few taps on the nearest internet accessible device. Quantity and quality of the moments I’m able to capture because my phone is also a camera is a wonderful technological bonus. Critical tasks have been streamlined to the point of saving me serious time each week. (I’m looking at YOU online banking and online grocery pickup.)
But despite all of the joy that digital convenience brings to my life, it also came bundled with some incredibly appealing distractions. These distractions come dressed in the same costumes—convenience, connection, entertainment—but they are distractions nonetheless.
The Key is Balance
How to balance the useful stuff with the optional stuff, while identifying and removing the detrimental stuff.
So for all of my attachment to my screens, I made some drastic changes to my digital habits.
First out of professional curiosity, then from necessity, then from an intense desire to create a different life for myself and children.
Why should we care about screen time?
While there is A LOT of discussion about whether screen time is the direct cause of some of the health issues that are impacting families, such as increased suicide rates among children and teens, or lower academic performance in phone-friendly classrooms.
Regardless of whether or not a definitive line can be drawn between these issues and phone usage, the fact remains that these devices have been engineered to grab and keep your attention. And when you consider that the average teen spends nearly 9 hours a day consuming media on a screen, it’s not surprising that parents are looking for help to limit screen time.
A Good Goal: 2 Hours a Day
San Diego State University psychologist Jean Twenge and University of Georgia psychology professor W. Keith Campbell released a study in the fall of 2018 focused on the fallout of time spent on screens.
Highlights of Twenge and Campbell’s study include these findings:
- Moderate use of screens, at four hours each day, was also associated with lower psychological well-being than use of one hour a day.
- Among preschoolers, high users of screens were twice as likely to often lose their temper and 46 percent more likely to not be able to calm down when excited.
- Among teens aged 14-17, 42.2 percent of those who spent more than seven hours a day on screens did not finish tasks compared with 16.6 percent for those who spent one hour daily and 27.7 percent for those engaged for four hours of screen time.
- About 9 percent of youth aged 11-13 who spent an hour with screens daily were not curious or interested in learning new things, compared with 13.8 percent who spent four hours on screen and 22.6 percent who spent more than seven hours with screens.
When all is said and done, Twenge recommends no more than 2 hours a day on digital media for 13-18 year-olds.
“The research points towards limiting digital media use to about two hours a day or less. That seems to be the sweet spot for mental health and happiness. So sure, use social media to stay in touch with friends, help plan things, and watch a little bit of video but keep it under that two-hour limit for 13- to 18-year-olds. Then you get all the benefits of social media and this technology without the big downside of it.”
-Jean Twenge, Straits Times
What Does Screen Time Mean?
The official screen time definition is: time spent watching television, playing a video game, or using an electronic device with a screen (such as a smartphone or tablet).
But the great thing about parenting is that you get to make your own screen time definition for your family. Often we segment our screen time and differentiate between screen time that is devoted to work/school and screen time that is optional/entertaining.
And where does texting and video messaging fall? You’re communicating…but also possibly frittering away hours of your life.
Does it count as screen time if you hand your toddler a phone to keep her entertained while you wait in line. It sure does.
This is why you have to come up with a screen time definition for your family and be willing to understand that there will be a gray area, and that as a parent you get to help your kids understand that.
Kids have more and more homework that requires them to spend time on a screen. I would say that 90% of my daughter’s homework required her to be on a laptop or tablet based app—now am I going to count that part of her 20 minutes of personal screen time? Nope. But am I going to let her move from the typing lesson on the laptop directly over to playing Minecraft? Also nope. I want her to move her body, blink her eyes, change her posture, help me with dinner, pet the dog, or interact with another human being for awhile.
Defining the screen time meaning for your family requires that you consider your collective and individual needs, goals, and values.
How Do I Set Screen Time On My Family?
Setting a screen time limit can be tough if your kids have had unlimited access to their devices until now.
Let’s start by setting some common goals and getting some buy in from ALL members of your family.
In The Tech Reset Project we outline four steps for this in the chapter about how to have conversations with your family to figure out what a healthy relationship with technology looks like.
Step 1: Shame Has No Place Here
Shame has no place in this conversation. We’ve all been part of a big human experiment with technology and we’ve all made mistakes. We can’t waste time blaming or shaming each other for those mistakes.
As parents, we have got to master the art of responding to our kids with empathy and understanding—and then funnel our energy into creating a shared vision where we support each other in our ultimate goals.
Step 2: Set a Positive Tone
What we are really going for is a POSITIVE relationship with technology. Our conversations and approach should also set a positive tone.
The reality is, we don’t want to make technology the enemy, and we don’t want to make setting up a better environment to reinforce our goals feel like a punishment.
Step 3: Discuss: Healthy vs. Unhealthy Technology Relationships
A healthy relationship with technology enhances our individual lives, connects us to each other, helps to solve our problems, and saves us time and money.
An unhealthy relationship with technology does just the opposite. It takes away from the quality of our lives and disconnects us from our real relationships. Causes more problems, and ultimately takes too much of our time and money. It can even result in dangerous behaviors and unhealthy addictions.
Step 4: Talk About It
We want to build an environment that reinforces healthier habits. Let’s all ask ourselves how we can do better. This should be a collaborative conversation, asking yourself (and each person):
- Do I think I can do better?
- Is there any technology on my list that needs time limits?
- Is there anything on my list that should be removed?
- “99% of both our problems and solutions come from technology.” What does this statement mean? Can you think of any examples?
Limiting Kids Screen Time
There are plenty of tools and apps out there that will help you manage and monitor your kid’s screen time limits.
Pinterest is PACKED with “Screen Time Checklists”—lists of things that must be done before a child can spend time on a screen. Homework done? Bed made? Dressed for the day? Read for 20 minutes? Those can be very helpful at automating the process, but as the parent, what are you modeling for your kids as you mindlessly scroll while you wait in the checkout line at the grocery store?
You can require your kids to jump through 10 hoops before they can play Minecraft, but when they make a basket during their game and turn to look at you to see if you saw it, did you make eye contact or were you playing Candy Crush?
So while you’re cultivating these positive conversations about devices and screen time limits, be sure that you’re walking the walk.
The value of setting screen time limits for your kids cannot be understated. Decreased screen time usage has been linked to better sleep, better grades, less anxiety, less depression, not to mention better connections with friends and family due to face to face interactions.
Introduction to Tech Reset
We live in a wired world, with technological advances and reasons to get ever more “connected” arising daily. These things are here to stay. And while we’d sometimes like to turn back the clock and completely unplug, it’s not realistic for the families of today.
The goal of this project is not only to reset our tech habits, but also to reset the way we think about our relationship with technology and each other. Without a change in mindset, our habits inevitably return to default.
“There’s only one way to radically change your behavior: radically change your environment.”
-BJ Fogg, Director of the Stanford Persuasive Lab
We’re going to focus on changing our environments in 3 areas:
- Mental + Emotional Environment
- Physical Environment
- Digital Environment
We’ve designed The Tech Reset Project series as a practical guide and resource for parents, with conversations and activities that you can and should share with your kids. We’ll be sharing how you can get a copy of The Tech Reset Project in upcoming weeks.
Best Free Apps to Limit Screen Time
There are so many apps and tools to help you manage your devices and to monitor the content on your kid’s phones—with more launching every day. Finding an app to limit screen time is only part of the equation.
The other part of the equation is having positive conversations with your kids about how to develop a healthy relationship with technology. Developing that healthy framework to think about how and why you’re spending your time “plugged in” will help every member of your family build healthy digital habits they can apply across all devices, regardless of the latest and greatest gadget.
Here’s our Recommended Starting Point
Use the native screen time management tools on Apple devices to set up limits and device settings and use tools like Downtime, App Limits, Always Allowed, and Content & Privacy Restrictions. You can lock these with a passcode and set it up across all of your Apple devices through the Family Sharing tools. To check out all of these options, select “Settings” and select “Screen Time.”
If you have an Android device you can use similar tools via the Digital Wellness app. Track your usage down to the minute and see which apps are using up all of your time. You can see how many times you picked up your phone and use nighttime features to help you more easily disconnect from your device and get to sleep.
As far as content monitoring goes, we recommend installing Bark on your kid’s devices. While Bark isn’t a free app, it’s well worth the affordable investment for the tools it provides. Bark proactively monitors text messages, YouTube, emails, and 24 different social networks and flags messages that are cause for concern and discussion with your kids. Bark allows you to monitor without feeling like you’re “snooping.”
Setting screen time limits for your family can be challenging at first, but we promise, you can do it and it’s totally worth it.