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Screens and Your Children

Author Dr. Raun Melmed shares his tips for monitoring children’s screen time during a time when screens are a constant. Read along to learn how to teach your child to be mindful about their screens.

Screens are everywhere.

Let’s face it—excessive use of screens is a major problem for children, and parents are often at a loss of how to solve that. That is why I wrote Timmy’s Monster Diary: Screen Time Stress (But I Tame It, Big Time). It’s part of the ST4 Mindfulness series and empowers children to take charge of their time—and their screens. Indeed, time management and the use of excessive screen time are integrally connected.

Now at the time of COVID, children are using screens more than ever before—as is the case for adults. We thank our lucky stars for the benefits of Zoom and FaceTime, but at the same time, parents remain wary as to the downside of excessive screen watching.

But first, let’s review some of the advantages of screen time.

Our children have unprecedented access to wonderful, educational opportunities through digital media. There are apps that enhance cognitive development, social and emotional awareness, moral development, language skills, executive functioning, and creativity. Sure, parents must be selective, but there are available resources that help with that, such as Common Sense Media.

For grandparents who are in isolation or who are quarantined—or for loved ones living far away—video chatting has changed the landscape! It is not always easy to maintain a younger child’s attention to a talking head, but with a little creativity, funny hats, and finger puppets, it’s a marvelous way of staying in touch! I have experimented with all of these and the younger grandchildren just eat that stuff up

Are there disadvantages to screens?

We have all read horror stories of violent programming, cyber-bulling, and sexting. With excessive screen time, the socialization opportunities that would typically present themselves on the playground through play and the “school of hard knocks” go missing. There is also a concern that a child might become socially isolated and less socially adept, especially those who have existing social communication challenges.

Of course, it also results in time away from play and family time. Screen technology and its content can lead to poorer sleep quality, which in turn results in inefficient cognitive functioning, moodiness, and irritability the following day.

Many people ask whether ADHD can be a consequence of excessive use of screens. This is unlikely; however, those with ADHD appear to be more vulnerable to excessive screen usage, which serves to aggravate their underlying challenges. For those with ADHD, the individual’s inherent over-focus—along with the highly stimulating nature of the technology—makes disengagement and transitioning that much more difficult—not to mention that the core symptom of impulsivity often leads to socially inappropriate online activity.

So where does all that leave parents?

What’s a parent to do? We should aim to establish guidelines that balance setting rules with flexibility, all the while allowing and encouraging children to participate in the process. We should not be authoritarian or restrictive, or for that matter adopt a laissez faire approach. Rather, we should strive to be an authoritative parent who aims to instill confidence, resilience, self-esteem, and self-reliance in our children, while at the same time be knowledgeable of the digital landscape, its pitfalls, and its virtues.

Parents must carefully weigh that risk/benefit ratio to help their children successfully navigate the digital environment. And the truth is that parents feel poorly prepared as to how to address these issues, especially when things start to get out of hand. That has parents worried. In fact, in my developmental pediatric practice, it is a universal concern. “How do I get my kids to stop demanding screen time? It’s driving us crazy.” Well, no need to go crazy, but there certainly is a need for guidelines.

What about establishing a Family Screen Time Plan?

How about setting up a Family Screen Time Plan? Invite all family members to attend your first meeting. Maybe send out formal invitations! Let everyone know you are going to be taking this seriously.

Meet at the same time on a weekly basis. Let each family member participate, but appoint one member to be the Chief Technology Officer! Any rule applies to everyone. Yes, parents also need to tame technology! Review the plan each week.

Start with some basic ground rules—choose whichever works for your family, such as establishing “screen-free” zones; disallowing TVs, computers, or video games in bedrooms; and, certainly, no screens at mealtimes! Come up with times during the day when screens (and phones) are allowed and times when they are off-limits. Maybe designate one day a week as being “screen-free.” How liberating!

Make it fun!

Instead of focusing on rules and restrictions, switch it up and make routine activities fun! Start with retaking the family dinner! The more interesting the events at the table, the more children will join in and the less likely will be the desire to go online or rush away from the table. Draw cartoons or cut out newspaper articles or comics to share at the dinner table. Encourage everyone to do the same.

Once or twice a week, choose a theme for the meal, such as a color or a country. Dress up, prepare decorations, create a menu, cook a special dish, wear a funny hat. Print menus and have “pretend” waiters. Let your child prepare a dessert, such as fruit kebabs or home-baked cookies. Maybe eat outdoors in the yard or at the park. Take mealtimes back!

What’s a kid to do?

So, the focus shifts from rules and restrictions to the use of screen time alternatives in order to create a stimulating, fun, home environment. It’s simple. Children will use screens more when they are not otherwise occupied.

Here’s an idea. Fill a “Creativity Jar” with fun objects and activities, such as pipe-cleaners or even shaving cream to draw on a tray. (That one’s always a favorite!) Have craft items available, such as macaroni for stringing, finger paints, and paper and scissors for making daisy chains. Puzzles have become immensely popular during COVID. Play cards or a board game together. Maybe even construct a family “Coat of Arms.” Timmy the Monster does this in his book!

Timmy uses several tools to take charge of time and his use of screens. One activity that’s easy to use is his Time Log. This is particularly helpful when children are expected to make homework completion a priority before being allowed to use screens. Children often feel overwhelmed when looking at what they perceive as lengthy homework assignments and believe that they will never be able to finish them. Parents need to help break it down for them. Here’s how it works:

Draw three columns on a sheet of paper. The first column is “Task.” The second column is “Estimated Time,” or the length of time the child guesses the task will take. The last column is for the “Actual Time” the task took.

For example, let the child guestimate how long their math assignment will take. Under “Task” in the first column, write “Math.” The child’s estimated time is written in the second column. In the third column, write the actual time the task took to complete. Everyone will be in for a big surprise! We all might under- or overestimate how long things take, and for those with ADHD, the swings in time estimation are even wilder. This tool helps to address an important executive function, namely the awareness of time.

Similarly, a child can keep a log of how much time is spent on screens. Timmy uses it to see what activities he enjoys most and chooses those to spend time on. Let your child enter the activity they enjoy, including screen time. Use the Time Log to demonstrate how much time they thought they would spend on any activity and then how long they actually spent doing that task! Once again, they are in for a revelation!

Managing screen time is a family affair. In Timmy’s Monster Diary: Screen Time Stress (But I Tame It, Big Time), tools for empowering children are taught to help them take charge of their screens. While children are using more screens during this time of COVID than ever before, they will always remember how the adults in their environments taught them skills, harnessed their strengths, and overcame difficult challenges. Yes, it is a family affair. As authoritative parents, we will be able to rise to the occasion and our children will the better for it.

Screen time stress can be tamed!

Dr. Melmed, a developmental and behavioral pediatrician, is Director of the Melmed Center in Scottsdale, Arizona, and Co-founder and Medical Director of the Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center in Phoenix.

He is an author of Autism: Early Intervention, Autism and the Extended Family, and the ST4 Mindfulness series for children, including:

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