#parent | #kids | Screen Time Limits Don’t Teach Our Kids Anything | by Jennifer Haubrich | The Startup


There’s something else we should focus on for better technology habits

Photo by Justin Heap on Unsplash

hy is it so hard to figure out screen time rules for our kids? I don’t think it’s just because we didn’t have smartphones when we were their age (or even 10 years ago).

Our kids are 12 and 14, and though my 12-year old just got her first real smartphone upon graduating elementary school, they’ve both had handheld devices that connect to the internet for several years. During this time, we’ve had many family meetings about screen time rules.

While they’ve always had to hand in their phones before bedtime (and that’s non-negotiable), the rules during the day have varied. We’ve given them more time at certain points and then cut it back at others. Sometimes we’ve gotten frustrated and taken the phones away completely. Apps have been added and taken away. When I’ve been unsure, I’ve asked friends what they do with their kids’ phones and searched for advice online.

Apparently, we aren’t alone. It seems like in the absence of a manual, we’re all adjusting as we go.

This summer, our girls have set hours they can use their phones. Though they wish they had more time, it’s been working well for us as parents. When they don’t have their phones, they go for bikes rides, swim, do art, exercise, read or practice the piano.

They are, as we like to say, “productive”.

And that’s exactly what made me realize that just limiting access isn’t enough.

We have inadvertently set up a situation where screen time is categorized as a time for fun or relaxation and non-phone time is viewed as the time to be productive, to learn, and to create.

That’s a big mistake.

We have to remind ourselves that phone use, or any screen time at all, is neither inherently good nor bad.

We don’t want our kids to have their eyes on screens all-day

Of course, we don’t. So, it’s understandable that many parents’ first impulse is to limit the total number of hours they spend on the devices. That way we can see their eyes once in a while and even engage in conversations with them in the real world.

Hi, remember me? I’m your mom.

Whether we set hour limits for how much time they can spend each day, establish specific screen time hours, or both, what does this teach our kids?

I don’t think we know yet. For now, they help control their behavior by preventing them from being on their phones all day. And this has value. Hopefully, it enables them to have some educational, meaningful, and memorable experiences in real life.

Purely focusing on screen time as a metric to measure our kids’ successful use of their devices misses the point — and a huge opportunity. We need to help them see what is possible with these devices in their pockets, so they can get excited about what they can help them do.

We can hope that keeping limits on the phone to a certain age will create habits of phone use that stick with them. But that’s no guarantee.

And eventually, we’ll have to let those screen time limits go. We’ll lose our ability to set them — or even see how much time they’re on their phones at all. If we can send them off to college one day, we’ll only hope they won’t spend four years looking at their phone.

But the truth is that whenever they have that device in hand, they have access to so much incredible content and the ability to learn or do an endless number of things. We should encourage and teach them how to access and take advantage of that.

We can guide them on how screen time can be valuable and productive too.

It’s really about teaching them the proper ratio of how they spend their screen time: consuming, communicating, learning, and creating.

We don’t want it to be primarily about consumption.

I’m a trained plant-based chef who teaches cooking classes. My family has not one, but two subscriptions to weekly deliveries of produce, which gives us about 30 pounds of fruit and vegetables per week. In the summer we also pick fruit at the local orchard and grow some herbs and vegetables in containers on our deck. As you might guess, we like plant-based foods.

But sometimes we eat Swedish Fish (red 40 included), which are neither Swedish, fish nor healthy. We have other less than healthy snacks or desserts around the house too. My girls love potato chips. We also like to bake cookies.

I’m okay with all this (and even enjoy these foods myself) because I’m comfortable with the ratio of healthy to unhealthy foods we eat. I hope our family’s eating habits instill in my girls the concept of eating healthy most of the time and enjoying treats occasionally.

If the ratio were reversed, it would be another story.

But more importantly, this situation has helped give them the opportunity to develop their own taste for healthy foods. Even though they love treats, they also request things like artichokes, black bean soup, kale with noodles, and fruits of all kinds.

And this is the part of their diet habit that’s most important. It’s not just about limiting the number of treats we eat.

We should be helping them do the same with screen usage.

Let’s help them to understand and appreciate what they can do with these devices.

We need to give them ways to use their phones that are also productive, which offer them great experiences and help them learn and develop their abilities. It would be a waste for them to think of their smartphones as a means to only talk to friends or consume silly content.

I have some great apps on my phone. I have one that helps me improve my French, another that offers access to classes that teach all kinds of things I’m interested in, another for yoga routines, and another one that helps me meditate.

I know I’m happiest when I spend my “free” screen time, engaged in these types of things. When I scroll social media for an hour, I’m left with regret, anxiety, envy, and the knowledge that I’ve wasted my precious time.

Purely focusing on screen time as a metric to measure our kids’ successful use of their devices misses the point — and a huge opportunity. We need to help them see what is possible with these devices in their pockets, so they can get excited about what they can help them do.

A new metric for successful phone usage

Now we aren’t just focusing on screen time limits. We’ll keep the limits on the “junk food” type apps, but give them more time with the apps that help them explore their interests. This is the time that will help them appreciate what they can do with the technology, not just consume what others have made.

While each parent needs to set different limits and hours that suit their children and family life, we can all help teach our kids how to enjoy a “digital diet” focused on healthy screen time interactions that can make their lives even better.

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