Screen-Time Well Spent
by Stefani McBratney, M.S. CCC-SLP
Often times when I get together with girlfriends or colleagues with children the topic turns to screen time. In a generation where everyone seems to be born with a touchscreen, it’s important to reflect on the differences between healthy and unhealthy screen time, acknowledging technology’s role in education, but also the addictive quality of the screen.
This is my journey in defining unhealthy versus healthy screen time and determining when enough is enough.
I’m from the generation where we left the house on our bikes as soon as homework was done and played until the street lights came on. We came home exhausted and dirty from playing freeze tag, building forts, digging holes (you know, old-school Minecraft).
The world is a different place now, but we still want what our parents did: well-rounded children.
One of the many amazing benefits of technology is the amount of information available to us and our children. I love accessing journal articles on the negative impacts of too much screen time from my own screen. I can read opinions of other wise parents, a few years ahead of me on the parenting journey.
I often find (like other areas of parenting) there is a disagreement among great parents as to when enough is enough in regards to screen time. But, the biggest obstacle in my quest to establish a truly appropriate amount of screen time is my own teenager (yes, he is full of opinions on the subject).
AND THIS IS WHERE MY STORY BEGINS.
I am the single mother of a 15-year-old boy and a speech language pathologist. I have an active, intelligent son who also happens to love his Xbox. He finishes his homework and chores and therefore should be able to play as long as he wants, right?
As his mother, this doesn’t seem right.
Due to all the articles and mom-groups that inform me of the negative impacts to your eyes, mind, and social pragmatics, I want to limit his screen time.
But, here's the catch… I’m a teletherapist. I spend my entire day on a screen, and my (excessive) amount of screen time doesn’t escape my young debater.
HEALTHY VS. UNHEALTHY SCREEN TIME
Instead of, "do what I say not what I do," I've searched for a better way to reconcile unhealthy screen time versus healthy screen time, and I continue to discuss (debate) the differences with my son, getting his input as well.
My argument // I’m providing therapeutic intervention and paying the mortgage.
My son’s argument // I’m developing fine motor and social skills and hand eye coordination.
Of course, there is a great deal of data supporting my argument, but data will put my son to sleep. It's important to me for him to buy into my argument so he can monitor himself. I won’t always be there to tell him to hit the switch, and I want him to learn how to log-off when he needs to.
Data aside, it boils down to this question: Is the screen time meaningful and productive?
“Meaningful and productive” may not be the same for all of us, and it's important to define those terms for yourself, so you can further communicate in this debate.
Meaningful // How do I feel when I move away from the screen? Do I feel uplifted, mentally challenged? Do I feel drained and need to go for a run or soak myself in natural vitamin D?
Productive // Is my time well spent? Did I make a difference in my life or the life of another?
I want both my son and myself to use technology for all its fantastic advantages. However, if we walk away without anything to show for it, it doesn't feel like screen time well spent, and therefore would be classified as unhealthy screen time.
In our family, we make decisions about our screen time prior to logging on. If my son has all responsibilities in this world completed then he can jump into his virtual world to interact with his friends and build things.
LIMITING SCREEN TIME + LOGGING OFF
We decided together what an appropriate amount of screen time was for the week. We talked about what we needed the screen time to do, what we wanted the screen time to do and what was a realistic amount of time for each.
This ended up giving him ownership in the decision and also helped him problem solve through the process. After our discussion, my son decided NOT to use his xbox time at all during the week and save it for the weekend when most of his friends would be on and he could focus on school during the week. This was his choice, not a forced choice which has enabled him to follow through with the decision.
We also agreed on some boundaries to help build trust as I did not grow up with the internet (the good and bad). When using the internet, he leaves his door open, and I can pop in whenever I want. As with texting, his friends know I may hear or read what’s being said. It keeps us all honest.
Plus, all this talk about the internet has opened the door for me to share some history with my son and his friends. A favorite topic - the ancient arcades where people had to put coins in a machine to make it work.
To ensure the screen time my son does engage is meaningful, we vote on what games he can purchase. Even if it’s with his own money, he must present his argument for the game and we vote. He has learned what is beneficial to put in his mind and what is unnecessary.
Finally, he can earn cyber sensitivity points with me if he voluntarily cuts his time to read a book or assist me with a house project. He really gets a bonus if he invites his younger sister to play with his friends and him or allows one of his friends’ siblings to join in.
This made him uncomfortable in the beginning as it wasn’t cool but it’s worn off on the group and now a lot of younger siblings are joining with the older guys and feeling cool themselves.
Because my son is an active participant in his screen time, he helps me regulate and problem solve my time as well. It’s amazing what we can learn from our children. If I’ve had a long day on screen with work, he steps in and calls for a walking break. We grab the dogs and get some fresh air. As the parent I make most of the rules, so this gives him the ability to make a ruling and I love being forced to get fresh air and walk with my favorite two and four legged friends. He also recommends I bring my free weights to my office and do some squats in between clients. Genius!
For me, screen time is necessary because it is my career, and for my son, screen time is a way for him to interact with his friends in a creative space. Because of the importance of technology in our lives, we cannot simply stop using it, but we are making actionable changes to make it work for us. And, like any other recreational activity, we use technology in moderation to add to our lives, not so it will become our life.
Stefani is a DotCom Therapy teletherapist who lives in Springfield, MO with her two fantastic children, Hudson and Lila. As a single mother, she is navigating the teen years and loving [almost] every moment of it. Stefani has been a speech pathologist for 17 years and feels privileged to have such a wonderful, challenging career. She is passionate about good coffee and learning new things.