How can we as parents keep our children safe in a world of screens? If we give them free reign on electronics, we expose them to a host of dangers. Yet if we withhold screens, we cut our children off from socialization opportunities, and leave them unprepared for a world filled with technological devices. This is the dilemma.
Of course, it is not really a choice between overindulgence and deprivation. There is always a middle ground. Yet we don’t necessarily know where the middle ground is. Even when we think we do, navigating the dangers and benefits while trying to straddle that middle ground is still tricky.
The dangers are plenty. There are potential bullies, predators, and thieves on the other side of a screen. There is malware lurking beyond a devices’ defense network. There is graphic content to be stumbled upon, including violence, pornography, and worse. There are questions about how screen use will affect a child’s attention span. How will their eyesight be affected? What are children missing out on by forgoing more outdoor play? The long-term effects of excessive screen time are unknown, and that makes screens even scarier.
When faced with the unknown, we tend to assume the worst, using whatever horrors our imaginations can conjure. The natural impulse when faced with the unknown is to wrest back a sense of certainty by any means necessary.
And so the technology corporations have provided us with controls. They have given us software that monitors and reports our children’s computer usage habits. They have developed program setting options that can automatically block our children’s access when time limits are exceeded. They have made apps available that track our children’s whereabouts using GPS.
Using these control measures can make us feel safe. They make us feel like we are doing something when we know that doing nothing isn’t good enough. Yet controlling our children is doing the wrong thing, and it brings a false sense of security. Yes, surveillance and airtight enforcement measures can effectively bring the desired behaviors in the short term—but they have ways of backfiring in the long term.
Children who are subjected to parental controls pay the price in many ways. Overall, they have lesser abilities for emotional regulation, delayed gratification, and impulse control. They are more likely to have lower executive function and to suffer from lower self-esteem. They are also more likely to experience anxiety and depression.
This is understandable. Control measures can make a child feel untrusted, and perhaps—far worse—untrustworthy. In short, control measures crush the souls of the controlled.
Control measures have never been beneficial, and they will not start to produce positive outcomes now that screens are the concern. This time is not different.
Let’s be the generation to finally to say no to control measures. The screen time dilemma is the perfect place to take the stand. Let’s refuse to let autocratic software do the work of parenting.
But that easier said than done, because we are scared. When things are scary, we are more likely to follow our impulses than our intellect. So let’s reframe the screen time boogeyman so that is not so mysterious and unknown.
Let’s define the issue as it should be. It is not about screens. Again, it is not about screens. It is about people. It is people—our children—who operate the screens, and they are where we need to focus our attention.
Okay, so you don’t feel any better yet. Please keep reading.
Why does it matter that people are the issue? Because while we don’t know much about the long-term effects of screens, we do know a great deal about people how people behave and develop over the long term.
What we know (from self-determination theory) is that humans develop optimally in nourishing environments. And we know that parents have a significant role to play in the creation of those environments. Specifically, parents can facilitate optimal child development by creating conditions of involvement, structure, and autonomy support.
There are some descriptions below of how parents can create these types of environments, with specific examples as applied to screens. You will note that parental control measures are conspicuously absent. In fact, they are explicitly prohibited. Yet the measures that are included are not easy to implement. So, the notion that if parents aren’t controlling then they aren’t doing anything is easily dispelled.
At last, we are no longer dealing with the unknown. We are only dealing with people. We can now move forward rationally, without control measures that are destined to backfire. In fact, we don’t need to labor over everything we don’t know at all. We can simply fall back on what we do know: involvement, structure, and autonomy support.
Involvement. Involvement means being a vital and benevolent figure in your child’s life. It involves investing your time, effort, and resources in your children’s activities, offering emotional support, and providing a general atmosphere of love and warmth.
To be involved in your child’s screen activities, you can do screen time together with your child. If they love Harry Potter, for example, you can watch the films together. Or if your child likes animating, you can get animation software and learn just enough to help your child get started using it. Is your child a gamer? You can get to know the ins and outs of their game of choice so you can talk about it together, or maybe even learn to play yourself. If your child loves drawing and designing, you can take them to tech centers in local libraries, where designs created on a computer can be turned into real-world 3D prints, laser etchings, or T-shirts. Doing any of these things may create some confusion, disappointment, or frustration for your child, for which you can be there to provide emotional support.
Structure. Providing structure means presenting a path for the growth, including boundaries as well as stepping stones, and then enabling the child to make their way along the path. It involves communicating expectations, explaining natural consequences, providing real-time feedback of the child’s impact on his environment, and emphasizing self-improvement.
To structure your child’s screen activities, you can set the times at which a computer is available for family use, and explain why. Perhaps it can be shut down at a later time on the weekends than on school nights. You can communicate what kind of online content is off limits, such as graphic violence and pornography, and explain why it is off limits. You can also define what kind of information okay to share online, and what kind is not. For example, first names may be okay to share on online forums, but you may decide to restrict personal information like last names and cities of residence. You may decide to make pictures and videos of the child’s face off limits, as well.
Now that you’ve set the ground rules, you can help your child make good use of your household devices. Does your child like to find new games and software on the computer? You can provide structure by showing your child how to research whether a desired editing program is safe to download. You can then help troubleshoot when that editing software doesn’t do what your child expected, or isn’t as easy to use as they expected. As you first coach your child, the child may not know what a URL is, may make clicks in some of the wrong spots, and may not know how to find their file folders. With your patient instruction, they will eventually adopt the lingo, learn how to undo their mistakes, and become proficient at navigating a computer’s desktop. They will probably also be delighted to hear you compliment them on their progress.
At some point, you may need to show your child how to clean the computer after they hit that download button for a program from a non-reputable source. This will also involve plenty of you’re-getting-this-because-you-did-that coaching. It will also entail no small doses of if-you-do-this-you-will-get-that instruction.
You can explain the effects of screen use. The research conclusions are in flux here, so it would be a good idea to review the literature for the most up to date information. Be sure to review not only those studies that confirm your assumptions, but also the ones that challenge them. For example, when I was researching the negative effects of screen time, I was surprised to learn that too little access to screens can make a child feel disconnected from peers. I also learned that too much screen time is linked with anxiety, irritability, poor behavior, lesser learning, and loss of interest in doing other things. You may, as I did, conclude that there is a sweet spot for a child’s screen time. The best estimate today is that the average is 1-2 hours per day, but it may be a different range for your child.
Sharing the results of your research with your child is one way to provide structure. And it sets the stage for autonomy support.
Autonomy Support. Being autonomy supportive is the direct opposite of being controlling. It involves giving reasons and choices, encouraging self-advocacy, respecting the child’s interests, empowering children to direct their actions and to live the outcomes, and taking the child’s viewpoint.
Hopefully you have given good reasons for the expectations and limitations described in the structure section above. Hopefully you have provided satisfactory responses for all your child’s good questions, including the ones that challenge those expectations and limitations. If so, then you are already being autonomy supportive.
You can be even more autonomy supportive by finding out what drives your child’s interests. What do they like about the video game they are playing? What is special about their favorite you-tuber? How do they feel when they’ve successfully edited a video? When you ask about a child’s interests, they will often gladly take you on a tour through their world. You may be delighted by how much you learn about your child, and how much closer the two of you become because of it.
Perhaps the hardest part about being autonomy supportive is empowering your child to manage their own screen time. This means forgoing control measures. It means actually letting your child decide on their screen time allotment, without injecting any coercion, manipulation, criticism, or shaming.
The conclusions you’ve made from your research on the subject can help the child. You can reduce what you’ve learned to a handy graphic that the child can refer to.
You can suggest that your child periodically evaluate where they think they are on the graph. You can periodically remind them to do this. You can explain that this is complicated stuff, because screen time may not produce immediate outcomes. It may take several days of or even weeks of screen overuse before a child becomes noticeably irritable. You can offer where you think the child is on the screen time continuum, but more importantly, ask the child where they feel they are. And now you are having more conversations about the child’s viewpoint.
You might find they will know when they are overdoing it. Yet they may need to experience overdoing before they decide to keep it under control. Watching your child make mistakes may be the hardest part of autonomy support. But you can help them learn from their mistakes by providing structure along the way. And you can stay involved, by being there for your child through their struggles.
Screens won’t be the last boogeyman. When your children become parents, there will be something else that will be the new danger. But they don’t have to let the novelty and mystery of the next new thing flummox them. Because whatever that new thing is, it will ultimately be about people. There is a lot that is known about people. And we can apply that knowledge to anything we do.
How to Cite this Article: Brian Vondruska, “The Screen Time Dilemma: It’s Not Really About Screens”, The Kind of Parent You Are, accessed [date], https://www.thekindofparentyouare.com/articles/screens.