Managing Screen Time Use: Helping Children Form a Healthy Relationship with Technology

As parents in 2023, one of the biggest (and most frequent) things we grapple with is determining how much screen time is okay. We may hear that all screens are bad, but eliminating technology use entirely may not seem feasible. On the other hand, we might wonder about the benefits of screen use, particularly as an educational tool. Keep reading to gain a deeper understanding and strategies for how to best parent in this digital age.

Why Does My Child Seem Addicted to Technology?

Part of what makes navigating screen usage so hard is that many of us, parents and children alike, are addicted to technology. In many ways, our battle against technology is not a fair fight– phones, tablets, computers, social media and video games all tap into neural pathways designed to make us want more.

Consider what happens when you get a notification on Instagram. The “ping” causes a surge of dopamine (a chemical associated with reward and pleasure) to be released. This feels good, so we check again (and again and again…) Over time, we need more frequent and more intense “doses” of technology to achieve the same effect. This is the very process that underlies addiction.

Can Screen Time Affect My Child’s Development?

The problem, then, is what happens when we consume too much technology. We can look to studies on the relationship between screen use and social-emotional functioning. For example, social media use has been found to be associated with depression, anxiety, and overall distress in adolescents. Technology use in general is related to depression and anxiety in young adults. These effects extend to our little ones: television viewing is negatively associated with the development of physical and cognitive abilities  and increased behavioral problems. 

Many of these effects can be understood in the context of what children (and parents) miss out on when using screens. When a preschooler is watching television for several hours, for example, he is missing out on opportunities for creative and pretend play. When adolescents spend the afternoon scrolling on TikTok, they are missing out on live, reciprocal social interactions and opportunities to practice social skills.  

Excessive technology use can also interfere with the development of executive functioning skills, the set of skills responsible for organization and execution (think: attention, memory, planning, and impulse control). The problem is that sometimes technology takes over, preventing our children (and often ourselves) from learning and maintaining these critical abilities. For example, consider a child who relies on Google Maps to get from home to school. While GPS is certainly helpful in the short-term, exclusively using technology in this way prevents her from learning and using skills like spatial awareness and planning, problem solving, and cognitive flexibility. 

How Can I Help My Child Develop a Healthy Relationship with Technology?

You may feel panicked or guilty about your child’s screen usage. In truth, it is incredibly difficult to grapple with these issues as a parent, especially when technology use is so ubiquitous. The good news: it is not too late to start making some changes, no matter how small.

The first step is acknowledging your own relationship with technology. If you are like most people in the 21st century, you may be addicted to your devices. And, this isn’t your fault– tech use is an integral part of work, school, and socialization. We don’t suggest eliminating technology use (this wouldn’t be possible!) but rather modeling a healthy relationship with technology. This means showing our children that we can put our phones away and connect in the moment, or turning off the television during family dinners to talk about our days. Our children learn by watching us– and they are probably picking up on a lot more of our technology use than we think (your move to sneak in some late night emails under the covers during bedtime is probably not unnoticed!) 

Next, try changing your own habits. Approach your technology not with judgment, but rather curiosity. One way to do this is by”living your life out loud”–that is, narrate the ways in which you interact with technology. This might sound something like, “my phone is beeping, I am going to check and see if dad has a question for me” or “I’m going to turn on the television to check the news.” These descriptive comments facilitate a more mindful use of technology. Further, they help teach children how technology can be used as a tool and not just as a toy. 

In the same token, try teaching your child how she can use technology in a productive way. Explore times when technology can be helpful, and times when it may get in the way of other, more meaningful activities. Try explaining (in a developmentally appropriate way, of course) the ways in which technology and screen use activate reward centers in our brain that can make us feel addicted. 

To further support a healthy relationship with technology, try to avoid using screens as a reward or punishment. Doing so only increases the power of these devices, and it is best for children to have a range of items and activities that motivate them. Try collaborating with your child to identify alternative opportunities and privileges.

Finally, know that this process won’t happen overnight. Children may melt down when you begin to set limits around technology–anticipate and validate these big feelings. You can empathize with your children while still holding the limit (I understand it is hard for you to turn the television off, but it is time for a family walk). The more you hold space for your child’s feelings, the sooner they will come to accept the new structure. 

Should Children Use Technology in School? 

In the past, most children’s screen use occurred at home. Today, technology is often embedded into the school day and homework process. What can caregivers do when school policies and procedures conflict with their own goals around screen time?

First, it can be helpful to speak to educators about how they use screens. From there, explore if there might be alternatives to your child– is it possible, for example, that he or she can turn in a worksheet for homework instead of filling out an online template? Try gently encouraging your child’s teacher to recognize the role of relationships in learning, and work together collaboratively to come up with a plan that works best.

Managing screen time and technology use is hard. It is even harder when doing so with our children. When you can approach the issue as you and your child working together to figure this out, you are more likely to be successful. 

Where Can You Find Support For Navigating Your Child’s Relationship With Technology?

Parenting in the digital age is a journey that you don’t have to navigate alone.

If you are finding it difficult to cut the cord with your screen, or want support helping your child establish a healthier relationship to technology, don’t hesitate to reach out to our dedicated team of clinicians at Upshur Bren Psychology Group

Click here to schedule a complimentary consultation call to learn more about how we can help you.

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