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3 Small Changes That Can Make a Big Difference for Your Child’s Screen Time

2021-06-25 by Dr. Jenny
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It’s June 2021, and I want to take a moment to applaud all parents. We’ve all been through more than a year of lockdowns, social distancing, remote school, working from home or on the front lines, and doing the impossible job of juggling it all. Please pause and think about how remarkable that is!

If you’re like me, you may be feeling exhausted at the idea of setting up new summer routines, but this is a terrific opportunity to help change our family’s screen habits. 

How Can I Better Manage My Family’s Screen Time and Tech Habits?

Changing our tech habits won’t just mean reducing “screen time,” but also will mean re-training ourselves out of the multitasking habits that life has required the past year. My kids tease me that the phrase I’ve said most during the pandemic is “just a sec– ” because I’m always trying to do too much at once! Our children, too, have learned how to multitask between classroom Zooms and their favorite browser windows. This is a time to take a hard look at our new mental habits and figure out where we can stop fragmenting our attention and re-establish the pre-pandemic boundaries that were upended by remote school.

3 Ways to Think About Screen Time This Summer

This won’t be easy! Kids have established new preferences for pleasurable media this year, and play sometimes takes a lot of mental effort and social thinking. Here are a few ways to make small changes that hopefully stick for your family:

1.Put devices in their place
Many kids are now accustomed to having a laptop in their room for virtual school, to open up whenever they are curious or bored. However, this can also lead to late-night or early-morning use that disrupts sleep. It may also make children less likely to creatively figure out what they want to play, since video viewing and gaming are so much easier. Celebrate returning those school devices, and then have a family meeting to let the kids know that other devices can only be used in certain rooms or times of day. You can enforce this with wifi lock-outs and by showing kids that you are following the same rules.

Child playing with puzzle

Play solution: Help your child reorganize their room so that their favorite puzzles, books, toys, art supplies, or games are visible and within reach when they are bored, rather than defaulting to a device.

2.Make it a family effort
Some experts recommend a “digital sabbath” where no one uses screens for one weekend day (or at least an afternoon). Talk with your family about whether they’d like to experiment with breaks like this, and challenge yourselves to find other activities that you’ve “missed out on” since the pandemic started. Other digital challenges could include smaller changes like no tech at the table, wifi lock-outs during evening hours (for parents too!), or uninstalling the most habit-forming tech from your devices, and seeing how it feels.

A child uses a magnifying glass to look at a flower.

Play solution: If you take a digital break, you will need to schedule other playful activities during those hours, to show kids how rewarding it is to do their favorite family activities. If your child loves having weekend morning cartoons, try to create a new pattern where you co-view a really positive show or nature show, and then you transition to playing in nature or about the same theme. Find off-screen ways for kids to engage with their favorite characters, through, say, drawing or coloring. Kids often need this help transitioning from what they saw on a screen to their real-life play.

3.Celebrate little victories and baby steps
If you feel overwhelmed, you are not alone. Start with small, achievable steps and don’t feel guilty when it doesn’t work — just try new strategies or give the same strategy a bit longer to sink in.

Child on a plane coloring an activity book.

Play solution: Try getting devices out of daily activities where you can find easy alternatives — such as in the car or when traveling by train, plane, or bus (e.g., play “I spy” or the alphabet game instead), at the dinner table (try some conversation games). If your child is whining for a device, try distracting them with a singalong, podcast/audiobook, or handheld activity book.

These are some basic places to start, but the big task of this transition out of our comfort zones is figuring out what types of technology use are really meaningful to us, and deserve a spot in our busy days, and which ones just suck our energy, positivity, and attention. I wish you some quiet time to pause and reflect about your family’s relationship with technology, so that you can feel confident that your kids are getting the most out of their tech experiences.

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Dr. Jenny

Jenny Radesky, M.D., is a Developmental Behavioral Pediatrician whose research focuses on family digital media use, child social-emotional development, and parent-child interaction. She graduated from Harvard Medical School cum laude in 2007 and is an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor. Her clinical work focuses on autism, traumatic stress, ADHD, and self-regulation. Dr. Jenny’s ultimate goal is to help parents understand the individual ways their child thinks, learns, and feels; to help parents provide the best therapy and play experiences for their children; but to also allow parents to sit back and let their child’s mind take the lead sometimes. She authored the 2016 American Academy of Pediatrics digital media guidelines for young children.

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