When school is virtual and most peer interaction is happening on Minecraft and Fortnight, how do I know I know when the screen time has gone too far?
A lot of parents who had pretty strict screen time rules before the pandemic have changed their views or fully “given up” by now, but many are feeling guilty no matter how they’ve chosen to handle it. Too much technology is certainly a modern life concern, and it’s complicated. In some ways, technology can be incredibly helpful! When I talk to parents about screen time, I ask them two questions:
1. Do you think your child is addicted to technology?
The same thing that makes some adults prone to more common addictions can cause kids (and adults) to become addicted to “screens,” too. Interestingly, this has very little to do with a specific number of hours. Some kids can show signs of addiction in minutes whereas others could spend countless hours without any concerning signs. For those concerned about addiction, there are some telltale signs. What happens when you turn it off? Does behavior change before and after? Does your child talk incessantly about his/her videogames or shows and can’t put the topic aside? While the current diagnostic manual for mental health disorders (DSM-V) does not have a formal diagnosis for “screen time” addiction; it is currently being considered and it will soon be a diagnosable disorder in the near future. If your child is showing these concerns, there are treatment available in forms of CBT and behavioral therapy. Additionally, there is more research, and there are more resources coming out that will help parents and the kids with understanding “screen time addiction.”
2. What concerns you about your child’s screen time use?
Ask yourself: what is the most upsetting thing to me about my child’s screen time use? Am I most worried about my child losing interest in other activities? Am I worried about my child’s obsessions with video games and computers? Am I worried that they will not have enough physical activity or more diverse interests: e.g., reading, developing other hobbies? Or, am I worried about the impact on my child’s eyesight. Each parent has his or her particular concern.
If you feel that screen time has simply gotten a bit “out of control,” think about balance. Just like you balance your diet, your family could likely benefit from a more defined screen time balance. And just like different families have varied views on what is considered a balanced diet, screen time balance is subjective as well. Do you want technology in your family to be a main course? A snack? Junk food? In most cases, it’s helpful to think of what your child is missing (what are the metaphorical “veggies” in your house – reading? Physical activity? Homework? Music?) and ensuring that your child gets those “veggies” before jumping into screen time. In other words, assuming addiction is not a problem, most screen time is okay if it isn’t taking away from your child’s other daily “ingredients.”
If you find that in trying to make those changes in your family, you’re getting a surprising amount of struggle or new behavioral challenges — think obsessive talk or meltdowns whenever it’s time to turn it off — you may be moving more toward addiction territory. If struggles don’t seem to be getting easier over time, a psychologist or therapist may be able to help. Just remember — many games are actually designed to create addiction. There is no shame in breaking that bond.
One related note — some people have mentioned that they are allowing endless Minecraft or Fortnite because it is through these games that their children are socializing with other kids. While this is a fun way to connect, these games do not replace face-to-face interaction and are not ideal for socialization. Without seeing facial cues, children are not learning critical social skills, and many adolescents will tell you that this can result in “drama” — from bullying to inappropriate behavior that people would be less likely to act on if they were looking each other in the eye.