Do you sometimes feel that media is all-consuming and interferes with your family life? This is a common sentiment we hear from families. There are many unanswered questions about the impact of digital media on our lives. Some studies show correlations between media use and depression or loneliness, while others show that media can foster positive connections to others. There are not definitive research-based answers about how to best manage digital media use, and yet we still need to make decisions about how we model, message, and set guidelines for our families.
What We Do Know
- Screens and digital devices can interfere with sleep, and getting enough sleep is critically important for learning as well as mental and physical health.
- Not all screen time is created equal. There are passive, interactive, creative, and collaborative ways of engaging with digital media.
- Too much time on digital media can get in the way of face-to-face interactions, and other important activities like being outside, exercising, and family time.
- There are fears about the potential negative effects media has on children and teens, and there are still a lot of unknowns.
- It’s not just about the kids. Adults also struggle to find balanced approaches to media use and to model appropriate use and self-regulation for their children.
Questions to Guide Conversations about Media Use
- When and where are we using media? Are there times when digital media gets in the way of connection and communication as a family? Is social media disrupting focus on homework and learning? Is it interfering with sleep?
- What are we doing on digital media? What is interesting or engaging to us online?
- Why are we online? How are we using media to connect, learn, create, or distract?
- What are we NOT doing (or not doing enough) as a result of time spent online? In-person time with family and friends? Spending time outdoors? Pursuing interests? Exercising?
- How do we feel and act after using media? How does this differ after various types of digital activities? How do we feel when we unplug?
5 Tips for a Balanced Approach to Digital Media
While we recommend including teens in the process of establishing rules around media for your home, it is ultimately your job as the parent to enforce them. Here are some suggestions to get you going:
1) Create device-free spaces for family time.
- Prohibit devices during mealtime. Check out the Device Free Dinner campaign on Common Sense Media.
- Restrict the use of devices in the car. Car rides offer a great opportunity for conversation with our children. When parents talk on the phone while driving with kids, we inadvertently tell them that a conversation with the person on the other end of the phone is more important than an in-person discussion with them.
2) Ensure that devices don’t interfere with sleep.
- Disengage from technology at least 30 minutes, preferably an hour, before bed. The blue light that devices emit stimulates the retina and decreases the brain’s production of melatonin, which makes falling asleep more difficult.
- Create a central docking station for family devices, and set a time in the evening by which all devices are out of the bedroom and plugged in. Not only will your teens get more sleep, but this digital “curfew” will help support time management skills.
- Don’t use phones as alarm clocks. If a phone is by the bedside, it can be tempting to respond to texts and social media, which can delay or interrupt sleep.
3) Determine appropriate digital limits and rules of conduct as a family.
- Explore creating a digital device contract, like those offered by Common Sense Media or the American Academy of Pediatrics.
- Encourage kids to do their own digital audit using tools like Apple’s Screen Time or Moment to see how much time they spend online..
- Some monitoring is okay. Through middle school, consider looking through your children’s texts occasionally. Let them know you’re doing it and use it as a discussion starter to remind them that online activity is never truly private.
- Discuss digital citizenship and decision-making. Talk about how kids might respond to a social media message that is scary, mean, or inappropriate. Discuss what is appropriate online behavior.
- Build an agreement with other families to set aligned rules for specifics like when kids get phones (e.g. Wait Until 8th campaign) or when devices need to be turned off. This may reduce pressure on both kids and parents if your child is not the “only one without a phone” or the “only one with a phone curfew.”
4) Model and practice good digital boundaries and self regulation.
- Avoid reaching for your phone first thing in the morning. What you see in your inbox instantly frames your day and doesn’t allow you the opportunity to create your own agenda — it immediately places you in a reactive mode.
- Turn off/limit notifications. Seeing a a new ‘like’ or text pop up on your device can serve as a dopamine hit, but it’s also a distraction if you are trying to focus on a specific task.
- Don’t text your kids during the day at school. This can be disruptive and takes away the independence they deserve during school time.
- Let kids (and adults) be bored. It’s easy to fill every spare moment with a device. Model for your kids that it’s okay to be bored and encourage them to seek non-digital ways to occupy those down moments.
5) Be curious.
- Express interest and create a dialogue — your children are often doing something productive and would value your genuine interest and support.
- Help kids be curious about when and why they choose to be on devices as a way to help them develop habits of self awareness and self-regulation.
Resources to Explore
Organizations & Articles
- 5 Media Resolutions Every Family Should Make in 2019
- How much screen time is okay for my kids?
- What Teens Really Think About Their Social Media Lives
- Social Media, Social Life Infographic
Challenge Success Media Rules Parent Education event featuring Catherine Steiner-Adair, Ed.D. is available on YouTube.
The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age by Catherine Steiner-Adair, Ed.D.
It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens by Danah Boyd
Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World by Devorah Heitner
Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World by Cal Newport
Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age by Sherry Turkle
Media Moms & Digital Dads by Yadha Yhls