We’re heading into Back-to-school around our house, and it always gets me a little bit stressed thinking about managing the amount of screen time my kids are exposed to. Gone are the days of Zoboomafoo, Arthur and CBC Kids. Now it’s Snapchat, Instagram and Grey’s Anatomy on Netflix. Anime on YouTube and Interactive Beta Online Gaming. I will say I miss the days when my biggest screen related worry was that my 4 year old might end up watching 15 minutes of Sponge Bob Squarepants before supper.
Forty years ago, my parents worried that my sister and I might watch too much TV, but they didn’t ban it (albeit, we had a 14 inch Black and White set long after our friends had great big colour screen floor models). But thank goodness! I loved the stories other people made up and turned into television shows. My bedroom bookshelf held all the Little House books, and on Monday nights I was allowed to stay up until 9 o’clock (or sometimes 10!) watching Melissa Gilbert and Michael Landon hash out 19th century teen-aged angst on the Banks of Plum Creek. I also watched The Brady Bunch, The Partridge Family, Family Ties, Eight is Enough, and Shaun Cassidy and Parker Stevenson as the Hardy Boys.
Then by the end of elementary school, as if there wasn’t already enough opportunity for screen time, we also had an Apple IIe and an Atari game system. But we also skated, hung out with friends, hiked in the woods, cross country skied, ran track, did chores, and managed to graduate from High school with honours. And spent hours on the phone.
But here’s the thing: there were never television sets in our rooms, (or phones!).
In our house now, on a daily basis, there are emails being read, written and sent, homework getting done, papers being researched, reports being filed, updates being studied, new curriculum deciphered, business being built, clients being helped, carpools being organized, grocery lists being written… You get the picture. All of these things are being done with the help of screens. This is all outside of Netflix, Snapchat, Instagram, Xbox and that crazy race game the kids love, Smashbrothers, for the Wii.
Screens are here to stay. They are part of our everyday lives, and even more so for our children. Part of school, work, household management, play. The key is to be the ruler of our technology and not the other way around. And it starts with us: the grown-ups. We have to send the message first that we can unplug, and that we can be respectful of our children when we expect them to unplug. That means not just clicking the off button on the iPad when your 3 year old is in the middle of their favourite Paw Patrol episode (imagine if your child did that to you during an episode of The Walking Dead!). Or snatching the iPod away when your 12 year old is in the midst of posting a skating video on Instagram. Preparation + Expectation + Respect. “In 5 minutes, we are going to turn of the devices so we can get ready to go to the beach.”
Some tried and true suggestions for household tech management & keeping the peace:
- Decide on an appropriate amount of leisure screen time, based on age, activity and time of the year.
- Focus on ensuring that exercise and fresh air are part of everyday first before stressing over screen time (supporting rather than taking away).
- Model behaviour you want to see. Ensure work responsibilities and household chores come before Grey’s Anatomy or Walking Dead, so you can have some clout when video games or Snapchat start to interfere with homework; or too many shows makes your toddler grumpy. Remember they are more likely to do what you do than listen to what you say.
- Start right away. Don’t wait until they are 13 to lay down the law (but if you have, then start where you are at! It’s never too late). Put story time, dog walks and helping set the table before Dora the Explorer or the 125th viewing of Frozen.
- Plug in as a family once in a while: a movie night with popcorn and hot chocolate, or have a “Just Dance 3000” party in your living room on a rainy Sunday afternoon.
Most of all, when your child, whether they are 3 or 13, comes to you in the middle of reading your friend’s Facebook status including pictures of themselves with Billy Idol, put down the phone, put down the tablet, close the laptop, and give them all of your attention. Show them that all that real, wiggly little love in front of you will always come before the virtual reality of the screen and you’ll both reap the benefits for a lifetime to come.