Managing Screen Time Together

Screen Time and its Big Influence on Family Life

I open my son’s bedroom door to make sure that the glow from the screen is no longer peering through the covers. Tonight, just before I go to bed, I will check his room again to make sure his phone is silenced and is charging for tomorrow. We know our children, especially our teens,  love those mobile phones. Through them, they receive an abundant supply (maybe even an oversupply) of conversations, fun, gossip, Instagram and Snapchat hilarity. They love their screen time in general.

But we don’t love the fact that screen time so often takes away from important time interacting with our family. And we worry that it’s taking away time from relationships in general. So we try to get our kids to cut down on screen time and pay attention to other things, but sometimes that’s easier said than done. But what about us as parents? As parents, many of us love our screen time too. How can we expect our children to limit themselves when we may be spending too much time on screens as well? How can we best manage our screen time as a family?

Change Behavior

The easiest thing to do is to limit screen time to help change our children’s behavior. It is among the recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics as a way to help curb the challenge of children and teens spending too much time on their devices. But that alone doesn’t get to the heart of the matter. This mustn’t feel like a restriction. Restrictions can be interpreted as controlling, or even as a punishment. Telling kids what not to do doesn’t work as well as offering them something better. Family time is better. And it can sometimes include screens as a modern-day strategy for building stronger connections.

Below are some family-based strategies to address screen-time:

Do a Screen Inventory

First order of business: perform a screen inventory in our daily lives. A “screen” is any device with a screen that has the ability to captivate, interact, or engage with. Examples include smartphones, televisions, computers, iPads, etc…

My son may not be the only one who is spending too much time on a screen. I start with my older son’s room. Books, an analog radio, a host of once played with toys, and his phone. My son’s room has one screen. My younger son has no screens in his room. Across the hall, I survey my own bedroom.  Interestingly my wife and I have five screens: two cell phones, a flat screen TV, and two laptops. Seven screens including the wearable tech watches we have that both have screens. After surveying our home and our cars, I realize that we live in an environment full of screens. While I focused on my son’s phone screen, I had not considered how our own behaviors and environment could contribute to an issue I was treating solely as my son’s.

Each family is unique, with beliefs reflected in individual households and daily practices. As experts in your daily lives, you are the best evaluator of what your family must wrestle with. A screen inventory can open a conversation on the role technology plays in our daily habits and the values that technology promotes. If you have a television, a computer, and/or an Internet connection, consider carefully how your media values are communicated through the household environment.

Telling kids what not to do doesn’t work as well as offering them something better. Family time is better. And it can sometimes include screens as a modern-day strategy for building stronger connections.

Disclose Honestly

Don’t make it sound like the screen itself is the enemy. Be honest. You want high-quality time (not screen time) together.

Opening my son’s door, my reaction was partially to the phone but more about my concern about not having a chance to talk before he went to bed like we used to. I mourned the lost engagement opportunity we had together since he was a baby. More recently we talked about sports or cracked jokes about his beloved Sixers. The phone seemingly took that away. Rather than tell him to turn the phone off, I need to tell him that I miss our times chillin’ at night. I need to say that I enjoy talking sports for a few minutes before his bedtime.

Make Commitment to Our Relationships a Group Activity

Our issues are not with the phone itself. In fact, they benefit our lives greatly. We must state clearly, as family and communities, that our concern is not the addition of screens, it is with the possibility of the diminishing of our face-to-face relationships.

The truth is we bought our son a phone because we considered it a useful communication tool. Our kids are now commuting to school and outside our grasps. We want to make sure they are safe. After the results of the screen survey, I realized we all needed a change, not just my son. If I was going to make the mandate, it would be a family thing. A good place to start is to limit your screen time to two hours a day. The whole family would join this new directive.

It was not so easy for all. Everyone creates their own value system around what is important. The text, the IG message, the Facebook notification, and the after-hours work email all move up the list of activities that must be done immediately. We all justify in the moment with a brief glance at our screens. Most of us are guilty of usurping our “real world” engagement for our “screen” world interactions. In today’s world screens are ever present (supermarkets, restaurant menus, malls, cars, billboards, elevators, phones, retail stores, medical offices, etc…) That makes it even harder to hold on to those times when the collective “we” includes interaction and engagement with each other.

Create New Opportunities

Your child, teen or tween mustn’t feel like you are coming up with new rules to take away screen time. They will feel punished and different from their friends. Let’s make our children feel like they can use screens AND have close relationships with us. Don’t make this feel like it’s about managing a problem. Make it a win.

Smartphones and other screens now play a role in my feeling additionally connected to my sons. They create new opportunities to engage and interact with family. Now I focus my efforts on creating collective chances to engage more together. We work on being more intentional and active together — even with our screens.

Connection gives children an essential sense of belonging, from infancy through an ever-widening circle as they grow into a larger community. While smartphones, televisions and other digital mediums can have some engagement drawbacks, they also can provide opportunities. Phones are especially useful. There are a host of activities that include screens that can foster love and engagement.

Here are some examples:

  • Record their favorite moments. Let them be the protagonists. Record sports games, recitals, or simple funny moments. Then as a weekly activity, watch it together on a shared screen. For us, it is the living room television. It is a great way to capture and share family highlights.
  • Play video games. If you miss spending time with your adolescent, try spending time in their world. Walk down to where they are playing NBA 2K and say, “I got next.” A chuckle and a healthy digital beatdown may be the reaction, but there’s potential quality time to be spent, not to mention plenty of jokes to share. You can even just watch your teens play online (believe it or not, gamers like an audience). Haven’t played a video game in a few decades? Let your teens give you a tutorial on how to use the controls and the game itself.
  • If your family must all be on your screens at some point, try to spend that time in the same room and devote the first 5 minutes towards finding a funny meme or interesting video to share with each other. (Lip reading videos are a thing in our home).

Screens will continue to be a 21st-century issue that we all must learn to grapple with. In fact, in our consumer-driven, efficiency-seeking society,  expect screens you haven’t even imagined yet to create new hurdles. Commit to being disciplined with screen time together. It will work better than each of us trying it alone.

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About Jacques Louis

Jacques Louis, MS, is Director of Operations at CPTC. He brings nearly two decades of experience in positive youth development settings and oversees center operations.

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