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Children and screen time: How to cultivate media manners

Are your kids spending too much time on a tablet, smartphone or in front of a TV? Help them change their habits by first changing your own.
Image: Brothers Watching TV
Chris Stein / Getty Images

Many children spend a considerable amount of time using screen-based technology every day, so the big question is: “how did we get here?” There is one standout answer that may surprise you.

“Children spend much of their early years watching and learning from their parents and siblings,” Dr. Alexis Lauricella, associate director for the Center on Media and Human Development, wrote in a 2015 study on children and screen time. “Young children likely watch their parents model media use in a range of scenarios throughout the day, and with multiple devices.”

She concluded that there was a “robust interaction” between the screen-time habits of a parent and his or her child. A parent who spent more time in front of a television or using a smartphone, computer or tablet invariably had a child who did the same.

Here’s the data when it comes to screen time:

- According to Flurry, a mobile analytics company, the average American adult spent five hours a day on their smartphone in 2017.

- The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time for children under 2 years old, one hour of screen time for children ages 2 – 5, and for older children screen time should not interfere with sleep or physical activity.

- Despite this recommendation, Dr. Victoria Dunckley, a child psychologist and author of the book "Reset your Child's Brain," wrote that it’s common for children ages 6 –10 to spend five to seven hours a day looking at a screen. Regardless of age, she noted that both children and adults should only spend one to two hours a day in front of a screen.

While Dr. Dunckley’s conclusions may sound surprising, take another look at the statistic for adults. The average amount of time an adult spends on a smartphone alone is more than twice as much as recommended. Those five hours do not take into account time spent on a computer, a tablet or watching television. In short, an abundance of screen time is not just a factor in your child’s life, but in your own as well.

If you are looking for ways to reduce your child’s screen time, here’s the first step: Examine your own habits, beginning with your smartphone.

Track your screen time

Apple recently announced that iOS 12, a software update planned for this fall, will include “Screen Time” technology, allowing users to track their daily iPhone usage and set limits to the amount of time a user can spend on an app.

However, you can begin monitoring your own screen time now by downloading an app like “Moment” (Apple) or “Quality Time” (Android/Google). Then, use your smartphone normally while it tracks usage, such as hours spent on screen, number of phone pick-ups and even minute-to-minute breakdowns of specific app usage.

Assess your numbers

After one week, you’ll have enough data to assess your own consumption and determine where to cut out unnecessary screen time.

Review your daily screen-time average, especially your apps. Is there one you spend an extraordinary amount of time using? You might be surprised at the results.

Author’s note:

When I began monitoring my own screen time, I found out that I spent two hours and 26 minutes just on Instagram in a single day – and I didn’t even post a picture. What a waste of time.

Start downsizing

Here comes the tricky part: break your own habits.

Start with small steps like leaving your phone in the car or in your bag when you go grocery shopping. Do you really need to spend your time in the check-out line scrolling? Instead, use the time to chat with your kids or strike up a conversation with the person next to you.

If you think you are spending too much time on an app, try turning off its notifications. If your phone stops lighting up, you’ll stop picking it up.

Are you spending too much time texting? Try trading your emojis for a phone call instead.

If this experience was eye-opening for you, encourage your kids to take a look at their own screen-time habits. Start a conversation by going over their results together, and set boundaries that include suggestions from your child.

And if you break your own rules, keep this in mind: It was hard for you to limit your own screen time, and it will be a big adjustment for your child as well. But by working together you can cultivate strong media manners for the future.