Screen Time Out

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How parents can set digital boundaries in a boundlessly digital world

As if enough distractions do not already compete for the attention of children, 21st-century parents have to worry about the alluring glow of LED screens, which saturate culture and are an easy trap for wandering minds.

Mobile technology has certainly revolutionized the consumption and dissemination of information, which, considering what is available at one’s fingertips, is not necessarily negative. But just as television, computers, tablets and mobile phones can illuminate with but a swipe, tap or click, they can easily become a black hole wherein time flies and creativity drains.

In the battle for a child’s attention, parents tend to feel outnumbered (even with just one tot), so it likely comes as no surprise to hear that, as of 2014, active mobile devices outnumber people on earth, according to data from GSMA. The figure grows at a rate of about five percent annually.

The challenges of child rearing now include considering more digital boundaries than just “don’t sit too close to the TV,” not to mention setting limits for oneself.

Elena Ridge, mother of a 2-year-old son, has found that it’s easier to monitor a child’s use of technology when you are mindful of your own.

“I know that if my husband and I are constantly on our phones then he will want to be on our phones, too,” she said. “So, the easiest way to stop his preoccupation with technology is for me to use technology less.”

Like many parents, Ridge has some reservations about the over-saturation of technology in culture.

“I do worry sometimes [about my child spending too much time in front of a screen]because when I was growing up all I remember is playing outside,” she said. “My parents did not have cellphones when I was his age … they never chose to try and distract us with technology. I do remember watching TV, but not nearly as much as playing with my siblings and playing outside.”

Currently, Ridge does not have any specific limits set on her child’s screen time. She sees the benefits of moderate usage—he has learned his ABCs from songs on children’s programs—but, in the future, Ridge plans to have a playroom in the house that is free of screens, to avoid the distraction and promote spending time as a family.

For some, using screen time can be a powerful tool for communicating with and educating children. Amber Gentala, mother of a son (9) and daughter (5), has found her philosophy in regard to screen time changing with different seasons of life.

“I was one of those moms who vowed, ‘My child will never use more than 30 minutes a day of screen time,’” she said. “That’s slowly changed over time, as TV/computers have made such an impact on our ability to communicate with our children, teach them and enjoy hobbies with them.”

She has found many benefits to allowing more screen time into her homeschool curriculum and the children’s playtime (though as recreation it is complemented by outdoor activity and reading). Some video games and YouTube videos help her kids flex their creativity. The internet helps them answer questions and delve deeper into topics of interest.

In fact, educational shows and games were critical in helping her son who has autism catch up academically and socially.

Gentala remains mindful of how obsessive her kids become of screen time and scales back as needed. She and her husband are also vigilant in monitoring the content they consume and talking with their children about balance in life, not being controlled by technology (or other vices) and priorities.

“If we want our kids to be able to balance their time between computers and other activities when they’re adults, we want them to practice some of that now, while we can help guide them.”

Lynchburg City Schools (LCS) is equally committed to preparing children to be well-rounded adults in the 21st Century. Through the LCS-ONE initiative, the school system is engaging students with digital learning, providing each student with a personal computing device (Google Chromebooks). Currently, LCS-ONE is being implemented in 8th-12th grade, with plans to extend that from 4th grade up in the next few years.

“To be successful in almost any job, students are going to need an understanding of the internet and an ability to learn how to operate whatever device is put in front of them,” said Robert Quel, LCS Supervisor for Instructional Technology. “Adaptability and learning are the most important things because change is happening so quickly.”

Benefits of the program so far have included increased efficiency for teachers, more collaborative opportunities for students and significant reduction in paper waste. Teachers and students alike are finding greater flexibility and engagement in the classroom.

“There is a benefit of increased engagement when the work moves from passive listener to active participant,” Quel said. “There is also the benefit when data [can be]gleaned from quick assessments and [used]to differentiate instruction based on student needs. When this happens, students are less restricted and can move at the pace that suits their learning style.”

While there are dangers of technological saturation, it is important for those to be addressed at home and in school, since ignoring them will not make them go away.

“We, as educators, need to work harder to help students understand how [any]technology can and should be used as a tool to deepen their understanding, to provide alternative ways to present material and review certain concepts,” Quel said. “Students are very familiar with technology as a distraction and entertainment. The challenge we face is teaching our students that all of these devices are powerful tools to advocate for their own learning, networking with experts around the globe and demonstrating their work in ways that could now be viewable to the world.”

At home, one of the best things parents can do is set boundaries for their children’s (and their own) use of technology.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended guidelines that are pretty straightforward—no screen time for children under the age of two, and no more than two hours a day for older children.

Dr. Teresa Brennan, Developmental Pediatrician with Centra Medical Group, explained the former is because babies and toddlers are at such a critical stage in development at that time.

“Eye contact, social interaction, communication, language skills are developing, and they don’t develop with the kid watching TV, they develop with human and reciprocal interaction.”

As children get older she advises parents to encourage moderation.

“You do want to keep in mind that the amount of time can sneak up on you, you want to be sure that you are encouraging—especially in children—creative play, reading and social interaction and exercise,” Brennan said.

Brennan recommends having toys and books on hand to help keep kids entertained, even in waiting rooms, because parents may not realize how much using the phone as an easy distraction can add up.

“It is really hard; it happens all of the time; kids get fussy, and you are in the car, and so you give them the phone,” she said.

Physical activity, playing outside and getting dirty are quickly becoming “lost treasures” she warned, noting that sweet drinks and inactivity, tied largely to screen time, are the two main reasons for the obesity epidemic.

Screen time can be mesmerizing and transitioning away can lead to tantrums, fights and meltdowns.

Conversely, there are “evidence-based” benefits to aerobic exercise, especially for developing children, which (on top of the cardiovascular and weight benefits) include improved focus and attention, sleeping longer and improved mood—and, therefore, less irritability.

Creative play—art, board games, building, pretending, etc.—and active exercise play a vital role in a child’s life. So Brennan recommends a simple rule of thumb to help parents as they keep track of screen time: match, minute-for-minute, screen time with something aerobic, preferably outside. (For example, if they play on a tablet for 15 minutes they should ride their bike for 15 minutes.)

Parents also need to be mindful of what content children are exposed to and always supervise internet use.

Brennan recognizes the benefits of technology but emphasizes the importance of people controlling their use, rather than being controlled by it. They should also practice screen etiquette, such as putting all devices away when engaged in conversation or at an appointment.

“We do want to keep it in balance with human interaction,” she said. “[Learn to] live as a citizen of the world, and appreciate [and]live in the moment.”


By Drew Menard

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