My 5-year-old's moderate screen time limits showed me I'm on my phone and computer too much
- My son is 5 and starting to notice more when I'm on my computer or phone.
- As parents, we are role models to our kids when it comes to screen usage.
From his earliest days, my son has slept and played by my side while I'm on my laptop and scrolling through my phone. I'm often working — writing articles, researching, sending work-related texts and emails. But sometimes, I'm simply surfing the web — listening to music, checking social media, reading whatever piques my interest.
As my son gets older, he's becoming more curious, and knowledgeable, about the online world.
While his burgeoning interest worries me, I'm far more concerned about my digital-media consumption. My son's use of screens is moderate. Mine is not. What is he learning when he sees me hunched over my laptop or glued to my phone? Will he inherit my bad online habits?
Parents are role models to kids on screen time
Screen-time guidelines for kids abound. Far less has been written about what parents can do to exemplify responsible digital behavior. Scan the crowd of adults at a youth-sports event or a busy playground, and you'll see parents staring at their phones while their children play.
"The biggest thing to remember is that you are the role model in their life," said Catherine Steiner-Adair, a clinical psychologist and coauthor of the 2013 book "The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age."
If you're like me, and your smartphone and laptop are ever present, this is a sobering thought.
The good news is that parents can adopt simple habits that demonstrate how to balance family and friends with healthy screen behavior.
On its website, Common Sense Media, a California nonprofit with a mission of creating a healthy digital world for kids and families, details four steps parents can take:
- Setting device-free times and zones, such as dinner or the drive to school.
- Establishing screen-time goals for yourself. Erin Wilkey Oh, the content director for family and community engagement at Common Sense Media, suggests parents track how much they use their phones and set limits.
- Keeping distractions to a minimum, perhaps by turning off notifications.
- Watching and playing movies, shows, and games together, rather than separately.
Rules have to apply to everyone in the house
Above all, it's important for parents to adhere to family rules around screen time.
If there's a rule against using phones at the dinner table, "that applies to all of us," said Jennifer Manganello, a professor at the School of Public Health at the University at Albany who studies the health implications of social media on young people.
Mother to two teens, Manganello said her children noticed if she's overly absorbed in her phone. "They will call me out," she said. "My son might say, 'I saw you on your phone a lot during my game.'"
"Kids basically feel like they don't matter when you're on the phone," Steiner-Adair told me. "Five-, 6-, and 7-year-olds will say to us, 'I must be boring.'"
For parents worried about the message they send when they're attached to their screens, experts say good communication can make a big difference. Talking to your children about what you're doing online teaches them that devices are multipurpose tools that enable us to work, look up information, and stay connected with far-flung relatives.
Steiner-Adair recommends parents put their iPhones aside for specific periods, such as bedtime and bath time, when their kids are getting ready for school, and when they return home from work. At these times, your kids "need you to be present," Steiner-Adair added.
There are exceptions
There are exceptions to every rule — no one recommends switching off notifications during an emergency — and every family is different. What works for some might not work for others.
My son is 5 and barely understands what work is. Still, I've started telling him what I'm up to when I return to the office with my laptop. I see these brief exchanges laying a foundation for better communication about screen time as we age.
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