I read an article in the Economic Times* which said - ‘The screen time for children in the age group of 5 to 15 years has shot up by 100% since the first lockdown. 84% of parents are worried about the increase in screen time for children due to the pandemic and social distancing norms, according to a survey by OLX India.’
Reading this statistic was worrying but also a relief to know that there was nothing wrong with my 16 year old. Surveys conducted show a sharp rise in time spent by children on screens during the pandemic. After all, with restrictions on going to school, out to play and socialise, the screen is their only window to the world. Yet, it has not been easy for me to see my son glued to screens.
It’s been nightmarish to monitor and remind him countless times about engaging in activities off the screen. What if he gets addicted to gaming? Is being on screens making him lethargic or compromising on sleep and exercise? Is he choosing screens over engaging in real time experiences? I was hating the nag I was becoming. I discovered that guiding my son to manage screen time required continuous effort and was exhausting. I needed a plan to help my son strike a balance between time spent on screen and off screen.
Firstly, I had to tackle myself - my frustrations and expectations. The days I had rested well and got some me-time, I found, I was regulated and in a calm state of mind, leading to lesser conflicts with my son. Brainstorming with my husband made us realise that our son’s mental and physical well-being was the priority. We had to realign our expectations and factor in the unprecedented situation of being in a pandemic. And, we needed to keep in mind our child’s personality and our unique home environment to set guidelines around screen time. So, I started observing and here’s what I discovered…
- Positives of screens: Not all time spent on screens is bad. My son used screens for online school, attending extra-curricular classes, music, researching for project work and homework, interacting with friends, news and entertainment. Doing these important tasks gave him a sense of control and predictability, contributing to his mental well-being.
- Quantity Vs. Quality: I, initially found my son’s screen time irksome as my focus was on ‘quantity of time’ spent on screens. Experts recommend we focus on the ‘quality of content’ instead. Conversations with my son about what he was watching, what he liked or disliked, was helpful in guiding the quality of content. My colleague went a step further by working on diversifying the things her 11 year old daughter does online by exposing her to - audio books, podcasts, videos for learning things etc.
What does science say?
We all know that screens are here to stay. Our approach and intervention determines if our children will develop a healthy relationship with screens or not. The good news for parents of tweens and teens is that with advancements in neuroscience, we now have available information on how an adolescent's brain develops. We can bank on these findings to understand our role.
Studies show that brain rewiring takes place in adolescence. This process starts from the onset of puberty and lasts up until 24 years of age which is when the prefrontal cortex (thinking part of the brain) is fully developed. In this phase, teenagers exhibit a deep desire for autonomy and privacy, in the quest of discovering their unique identity. The brain pushes them to seek out peers and move away from their parents in pursuit of preparing them for adult life. Teens experience mood swings as their emotional brain easily gets hijacked making them feel vulnerable and unsure of themselves. Often, teenagers act on impulses as they are not able to gauge the long term repercussions of their decisions. So, the bottom line is, our teens need our support and guidance in managing an addictive habit like screen time. Our role as parents is that of a screen auditor.
- Work collaboratively; to come up with mutually decided norms around screen time. This ensures more ownership and cooperation from our children E.g. one hour of play/exercise a day, switching of devices by 9 p.m.
- Non-negotiable rules; can be established which apply to the whole family, even adults at home. The intention is to create a supportive environment and not to control children. E.g. device free meal times, gadget free hour where everyone in the family plays board games/chats.
- Hold boundaries with empathy: Given the addictive nature of screens, our teens may need reminders from us. They may get upset, angry, disappointed and give us a mouthful, when we hold boundaries firmly. As hard it may seem, not taking their comments personally and responding with empathy helps. Children find it easier to limit screen time when the transition from screen is gradual or an alternate off-screen activity is available E.g. “We had decided to switch off the computer at 5pm… 20 mins to go ...10 mins to go.” / “I see how much you are enjoying playing Clash of Clans, and once you switch off in 5 mins, I’d love to hear all about it.”
Through this process, I am learning to shift my perspective. If we view the screen as a problem, our approach will come from a place of control and lead to conflict. However, if we were to focus on building life skills in our children to be healthy managers of device usage even as adults, our communication and ways of guiding children will be collaborative and constructive.
Resources and extra reading:
- A widely acclaimed movie https://www.screenagersmovie.com/
- A podcast that explores what science says about harmful effects of screens on our children’s eyesight, attention span and brain development https://open.spotify.com/episode/1z5qLMOMTDvdDEICAVAaTS?si=VB1jforgRIaCBMDX4NfSGQ&utm_source=whatsapp
- WHO has put together a pdf on ‘Excessive screen usage and gaming considerations during Covid19’ https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/333467/Screen-use%20-COVID19-eng.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y
- *Economic Times article quoted at the start of this article
Prerna Kalra is a certified parent educator with Parenting Matters, an organization which empowers parents to build deeper connections in families.