Rebooting Your Family Media Habits

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 Order and discipline are not natural states of being. At least, they’re not in my life or family. I’m not a naturally disciplined person or parent. It’s easy for me to slide past (and let my kids slide past) the limits my wife and I set. Saying yes is easy. Saying no—to ourselves, to our children—is harder.

Parenthood rams home this reality, especially as children get older. Psychologists tell us that well-defined boundaries provide a safe and secure environment for children to grow into healthy adults. Boundaries, coupled with consequences when they’re transgressed, communicate the reality and importance of limits. That’s why consistency in these things is so important.

These days, though, consistently setting and honoring boundaries when it comes to media may be harder than it’s ever been. I suspect it’s always been difficult. But with the proliferation of screens of all sizes that can be carried almost anywhere, parents’ limit-setting responsibilities are arguably harder than they’ve ever been.

In the face of this digital media onslaught, I think there are two opposite extremes we might naturally drift toward. One is to just get rid of as many screens as we possibly can, staging a countercultural tech boycott of sorts. The other is to surrender to the perpetually incoming tide of content and rationalize, “Ah, it just doesn’t matter.”

I know (and admire) some families that have gone the first route, those who’ve gone so far as to toss out TVs altogether and to give gotta-have-it tech like tablets and smartphones a pass, too. I also know some that have gone completely the other way, and their lives are practically overrun by all this newfangled stuff. But I suspect most families are probably somewhere in the middle, striving to set and keep limits but not choosing to separate from mobile tech and media altogether. I’d place my wife and myself squarely in that middle group.

Which brings me back to my opening point: the difficulty of sticking to boundaries when it comes to media and our kids.

Working at Plugged In and being the caretaker of Culture Clips, I have regular exposure to what experts and scientists say about media’s influence on kids. I know that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than two hours daily screen time for kids 3 to 18, for example. I know that violent video games have been repeatedly linked to aggressive behavior and lack of empathy. I know what the recommendations are … but sometimes I (along with my wife) struggle to stay within the recommended limits for our children.

By the end of this summer, for instance, we were letting our kids watch more TV than we did at the beginning of the summer because, well, we were tired and ready for them go back to school. It’s not an excuse, but it is an example of what can happen in the real world.

So when school started again, we hit the reset button on screen time, striving to set limits and stick to them. We try to make sure that things like reading and piano practice have been done before our kiddos plunk down in front of the TV or grab our tablet for a video game or two.

My point is this: Our family’s goal isn’t perfection when it comes to media and technology. Rather, our goal is to be engaged and aware of our habits, and to periodically reset them when discipline wanes (because we’re tired or sick or had a bad day … or week), as it naturally tends to do.

It can feel like a losing battle sometimes—a battle that gets even tougher as kids move into their teen years. That said, I believe that if we stay engaged relationally, keep setting healthy limits and keep hitting the reset button when we drift outside those boundaries, it gives our kids a model for relating to others and technology.

As long as we don’t give up and give in altogether, I believe our children will reap the benefits of our determination—frayed though it may feel at times—not to give up the media fight but to get back in there again and give it another try.

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Alyson Scott More than 1 year ago

--Hithwenur said what I was thinking better than I would have about how screen-time can mean so many different things.

One interesting thing I have noticed is that doing so much reading on screens has made it harder for me to read real books because their font is usually small and single-spaced. It's not an eyesight issue, it's just harder to read when you're not used to it.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

--Screen-time is definitely complicated, not the least because it's not just one monolithic topic. Screen-based media can cover anything from traditional-style movies and tv shows, to opinion blogs, newspapers, long-distance social interaction, music, viewing and critiquing 2-D art, making and receiving input on 2-D art, exploring employment options and submitting resumes, signing up for college courses, communicating with college professors, joining class discussion groups, filling out and submitting homework assignments, writing stories, sharing stories with the world, getting input from the world on your stories, reading other people's independently published stories, reading C.S. Lewis or Charles Dickens, playing shoot-em-up games, playing beautiful artsy peaceful games, playing traditional games like checkers or chess - and the list goes on and on.

If you want to limit "time spent looking at a screen" for whatever reason, whether because that new-fangled technology is something you should be suspicious of or just because it might conceivably contribute to eye-strain, do you compose limitations for the monolith of all screen-things, or limitations per activity? Is it "so much time spent on a screen," or it it "so much time spent on screen-based school, then another time-bloc for internet and miscellaneous visual entertainment, then another time-bloc for creative pursuits like art and writing which might help develop future skill-sets"?

Andrew Gilbertson More than 1 year ago
I think the limitation of the monolith is significant for purposes of eyesight, social skill development, etc.- but notably, any number of those things, from reading Lewis and Dickens to playing checkers and chess or listening to music, can easily be done without the screens. I suspect that seeking alternatives to the screen and fighting the mindset that it is necessary for such activities is the first step toward cultivating a healthier childhood.