Better Balance Screen Time: Simple Tips for a Happier Family

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by Christa Melnyk Hines 

With mobile devices readily available anywhere and everywhere, striking a healthy balance between online and in-person interaction is difficult for today’s families. How do we find a happy medium between quality family time and the siren song generated from the pixelated forest of apps, games and social media?

According to Common Sense Media, mobile media use among children, ages zero to eight years old, has doubled from 38 percent to 72 percent since 2011. On average, kids spend a little over an hour a day on the devices, downloading apps, playing games and watching videos.

“Perhaps my biggest concern about the overuse of technology in families is ‘opportunity costs,’ which is an economic term that means that time spent in front of a screen is time not spent engaging in healthier and more meaningful activities such as family time, exercise, faith, cultural, education, etcetera,” says Dr. Jim Taylor, psychologist and author of Raising Generation Tech.

Find your middle ground. Overexposure to media can lead to obesity, poor school performance, sleep deprivation and invasions of privacy. But, banning kids from technology can effectively shut down conversations about appropriate media use, spurring kids to sneak around, creating accounts and playing games on friends’ devices where you have no oversight.

“Technology use becomes unhealthy when it hurts physical or mental health, relationships, school work or healthy avocations like sports, music and charity,” Taylor says. “The bottom line is that technology should be the exception and not the rule: a tool, not a toy.”

Use time wisely. Make the most out of the time your child interacts with technology by choosing educational apps and games. Although kids may be attracted to games featuring casino-like sounds and colors, these weren’t designed for children and they can be addictive.

“It’s important that you dictate the way your child goes down the path of gaming. I’m not a big fan of allowing kids free rein of time wasters because that’s just sunken time,” says David Lord, CEO of JumpStart, a gaming company that produces learning games for kids like the popular MathBlaster app and DreamWorks “School of Dragons,” a science game based on the movie “How to Train Your Dragon.”

Be a healthy role model. A 2012 Google study found that 90 percent of us engage in multiple screens at once like watching television while also scrolling through a smartphone. Kids will follow your lead when it comes to how you interact with electronics. Become conscious of how much you use technology and if you engage with technology in a healthy way.

Designate tech-free spaces. Silence or put away electronics during homework and chore time and during family-oriented activities. Meals in particular present a rich opportunity to connect with your kids without electronic distractions.

“We no longer plant vegetables or quilt on the front porch together so meal time is one of the few times of the day when a family connects with one another,” says Dr. Anne Fishel, author of Home for Dinner: Mixing Food, Fun and Conversation for a Happier Family and Healthier Kids. “If family members are distracted by checking their phones and other screens, they miss out on the chance to really focus on each other, and convey that essential message–‘you come first.'”

Studies find that families who eat dinner together experience lower rates of substance abuse, depression and teen pregnancy. Kids who regularly eat dinner with their families are also more likely to have higher self-esteem, better grades and even stronger vocabularies.

Set limits. “Cell phones, computers, the Internet and tablets are not rights–they are privileges. And like any privileges they need parameters and rules for their use,” says Dr. Michael Osit, a child psychologist and author of Generation Text: Raising Well-Adjusted Kids in the Age of Instant Everything. “Be firm with time limits and content limits.”

If you have trouble keeping track of how much time your kids spend playing video or computer games, set a timer.

“Only one hour a day or only after other important priorities have been fulfilled like homework and household chores,” Taylor advises.

The lights and sounds electronic devices make can interfere with quality sleep. Collect your kids’ phones and electronic devices at bedtime and plug them into a main charging station in your home.

Plan ahead. Decide when, where and for how long you will allow computer time–mobile or otherwise–during the week.

Also consider the amount of television your family watches. Plan ahead which TV shows your children can watch during the week to avoid mindlessly turning to television whenever boredom sets in. Viewing family-oriented shows together can invite conversation opportunities like “What would you do if something like that happened to you or one of your friends?”

To prepare for unplugged times, meet as a family to come up with alternate activities that you and your kids can enjoy that aren’t screen-related. For example, go on a family walk, play board games, toss the football, ride bikes, build, read, cook, draw or explore your community.

Play with technology together. According to researchers at Arizona State University, gaming together offers teachable moments to share values and explore creative problem solving.

“Parents miss a huge opportunity when they walk away from playing video games with their kids. Many video games are meant to be shared and can teach young people about science, literacy and problem solving,” says researcher Elisabeth Hayes, Delbert & Jewell Lewis Chair in Reading & Literacy and professor in ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College.

Use technology together in other ways to strengthen communication skills and creativity. Invite your child to Facetime or Skype with grandparents. Show her how to start a private blog about one of her favorite subjects. Take digital photos together and collaborate on a photo book or a calendar.

By taking a proactive, balanced approach to technology with boundaries firmly in place, you can focus on using technology to complement rather than control your life. In the process, you’ll grow closer and happier as a family.

  • Control the games and apps that your child downloads by implementing a parent-controlled password into your device.
  • Some electronic devices and software allow you to set time limits on games and online activity.
  • Check out www.commonsensemedia.org for reviews of apps, games and other media.

The amount of screen time among children has tripled in the past three years. A 2011 study conducted by the Kaiser Foundation found that kids spend an astonishing average of seven hours a day in front of screens.

Are you role modeling technology in a healthy way? Consider these questions and grow more conscious of your technology-use:

  • Do you frequently scroll through your phone while your children (or others) try to talk to you?
  • Do your incoming calls or texts usually trump in-person conversations?
  • Do you text while driving?

Freelance journalist Christa Melnyk Hines and her husband are the parents of two boys who are charmed by all things digital. Christa’s latest book is Happy, Healthy & Hyperconnected: Raise a Thoughtful Communicator in a Digital World.

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