Establishing Healthy Screen-Time Habits For Children

Parenting in an era where digital devices permeate the culture can feel like drowning in screens! Walking through a restaurant recently, I was astonished to see families sitting together and eating while staring down at their mobile devices rather than looking at one another. Devices are everywhere, and many of us struggle to disengage from them—even when we are with our families.

Nearly half of children under eight have their own tablet and spend over two hours daily interacting with digital screens. While this may seem innocent on the surface, a study by the National Institute of Health revealed that children who spend more than two hours daily utilizing digital screens scored lower on language and thinking tests. This same study discovered excessive screen usage produces changes in the structures of children’s brains.

Paul reminds us, “All things are permitted, but not all things are of benefit. All things are permitted, but not all things build people up” (1 Corinthians 10:23 NASB). While screen devices are not inherently good or bad, teaching children healthy ways of engaging with them is essential to building them up. However, to teach our children, we must be willing to master our own compulsive device tendencies. The average American checks their phone 58 times daily and engages with the devices for over a minute each time. Assuming you are average and awake 16 hours daily, you probably check your phone approximately every 16 minutes. So, to effectively assist our children, we must be willing to master our own technology engagement! Try these tips to help both you and your children utilize devices in healthy ways.

Children Under Two

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends children under the age of two engage with screen devices only to video chat with other family members. Children at this age learn rapidly and studies show they do not learn as much from interacting with screens as they do from interacting with individuals and their surroundings.

Children Two to Five

The American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendation for pre-school children is no more than one hour of high-quality screen interaction daily. Pick an educational program or game your child enjoys and watch with them. As you watch, engage with your child by commenting on things you notice and asking questions about what is happening. By engaging with them during the activity and touching on those concepts again at other points in the day, you help your child synthesize what they learned and apply it to the world around them.

Older Children: Be a Good Model!

God designed our brains with mirror neurons, so we learn by mimicking the behaviors of those around us. Since most children see their parents as competent and capable adults—something they aspire to become—children are watching and modeling us parents 24/7. This provides a wonderful opportunity for you to model healthy screen behavior. However, if you are like me, you have no problem constructing a list of reasons why you need to do the things you don’t want your children to imitate--someone from work might need me, or I need to stay on top of this project I’m working on, or I don’t have much time to engage with my friends, etc. Truth is, those are usually excuses to justify continuing to engage in unhealthy behavior and model it for our children. Work to set aside the excuses and apply the same rules you set for your children to your screen use.

Create Screen-Free Zones

Bedrooms should remain free of media devices. Besides the temptations of too much access to media, screens aren't that healthy in the night. The blue light emitted by screens has been shown to interfere with circadian rhythms, disrupt melatonin production, and create sleep issues. Create a charging area for mobile devices (like the kitchen counter) and store all devices there each evening.

Set a “devices off” bedtime. The blue light emitted by screens makes it important to create screen-free space before bedtime. Experts recommend turning off devices two hours before bedtime. If you or your children enjoy reading before bedtime, studies show reading physical books instead of utilizing e-readers will decrease the amount of time it will takes you to fall asleep.

Set a "No screens at meals" family rule (including the TV). This creates an environment for children and adults to focus on one another, interacting and building relationships. Set phones on silent and return calls when meals are over. Come to meals with questions to help you engage with your children, learn about their day, and explore how they are thinking about the events happening in the world.

Encourage Healthy Decision Making

Video games and social media both reward the viewer intermittently for continuing to engage with them. This is an extremely addictive reward system that makes it difficult for individuals—especially children whose brains are still developing—to disengage. One way to help your child learn to make decisions about when and how to engage with screen devices is to create a media “bank account.” If you and your 10-year-old agree to 1 ½ hours of daily digital engagement outside of school, give them nine tokens worth 10 minutes of digital time each. They must “cash in” their tokens to utilize a device. When their tokens are gone, they are done with devices for the day. This type of system takes time to implement but can be extremely effective in allowing your child choices while still setting limits.

By creating healthy screen boundaries for you and your children, you are assisting your child to utilize mobile devices in ways that build them up and teach them self-control.

About the author — Jean Holthaus, LMSW, LISW

Jean Holthaus, LMSW, LISW obtained her Masters of Social Work degree from the University of Iowa in 1995 and has worked at Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services since 1997. She is currently the Southwest Regional Director in addition to managing the Telehealth Clinic. Jean started her career as a teacher after earning her BA in Education from the University of Northern Iowa in 1985. She was a teacher for 10 years prior to beginning her career as a therapist. She is the author of two books, Managing Worry and Anxiety, and When Anxiety Roars. She is deeply invested in walking with individuals struggling to find meaning and purpose in the midst of the struggles of their lives. She enjoys speaking at events and is passionate about providing educational services which equip individuals, leaders and organizations to proactively address mental health issues. Jean is also the mother of two adult children.

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