I still recall when I was a child and a new movie would come out. My sisters and I would wait for it to arrive at the local movie theater, then wait again — for months — for the video to appear at our local rental shop.
Nowadays, in contrast, we live in a tech-saturated world where movies, games, TV shows, and other media are available immediately and simultaneously, and right at our fingertips. We, along with our children, have all of the movies, information, and apps we could possibly imagine — and all of the choices that come with it.
As a mother to two young children and working from home, I often find myself doing 10+ things at once. As a parent, I’ve had to remind myself recently to slow down and be in the moment. Mindfulness, or the concept of bringing an accepting, gentle attitude to the present moment, has been something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. A regular mindfulness practice for both parents and children can also offer useful tools to help us notice our habits and our ways of being in the world.
So how can we be mindful about the way we interact with technology? There are so many different sources about the impact, benefit, and recommendations of how much technology (and screen time) children should be getting on a daily basis, the advice can be just as overwhelming as the choices themselves!
- The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents of children under 18 months limit screen time to some video calls. Children 18-24 months can watch some high-quality content in moderation, while for ages 2-5, the APA recommends limiting screen time to 1 hour or less a day. For ages 6+, the APA suggests creating “consistent limits” and noting if and how technology is impacting other areas of health.
- The World Health Organization provides some helpful guidelines in relation to physical activity and screen time, advising parents that less is more — at any age!
While these guidelines are helpful, there isn’t a simple, universal answer to how much screen time is the right amount, regardless of age. One thing that I have found helpful is thinking about the purpose of technology and how I imagine my children using it. In an ideal world, I’d love for my kids to understand the functional aspects of living in a tech-heavy world and to be able to take advantage of those benefits without becoming glued to a device 24/7.
I’m the first to admit that sitting down and watching a movie can be blissful, and as a parent having 10 to 50 minutes to accomplish anything without interruption is both amazing and necessary. Early on, my wife and I realized that with our older child, the impact of watching one hour of television can equal two to three days of tantrums. He has always been a very receptive child, and the things he sees on a movie, app, or game impact the ways that he interacts with others, uses his imagination, and generally exists in the world for months post-viewing.
In our family, we do our best to limit screen time to travel days (airplanes and trains are the perfect place to watch a movie or play a game), sick days, and the occasional weekend “family movie.” While this is a great plan in theory, it doesn’t always work out this way, and as such, I have found myself needing an hour of quiet time to attend a meeting or get something done and turn to technology to help me out. When I do let my kids watch or play something, I like to use sites such as Common Sense Media or PBS to help me select the types of shows or games they view. Here’s the thing, though: Even with an excellent guideline for age-appropriate media consumption, I still have needed to turn off a show, comfort a scared child, or explain a new or confusing concept on the spot. Just like I tell my four-year-old, “We’re still learning.”
As my children get older, I have been thinking more and more about how to introduce and use technology in a way that will support them in becoming mindful digital citizens. What are some ways we can model mindfulness for our children in a tech-heavy world?
Be present when children are using a device or watching a show.
While a phone, tablet, computer, or television might seem like a great babysitter, the truth is — they aren’t. Even if you aren’t actively engaging with the media, try to be in the same room with your child when they are using or watching a screen.
Find sources that you trust.
While I have a few go-to sites that I trust, these aren’t the only sites out there providing great information about media consumption for parents. Do some research and find the sources that really speak to you. As your children get older, you might be more focused on things like digital citizenship or screen dependency.
Preview shows, games, or apps for content.
All of the sources recommend a certain game for 4-year-olds, but then you open up the app and something just feels off. That’s okay! Spending a few minutes previewing content can save you a lot of time later on. As your children get older, you might do this less and less, although even some kid-friendly sites can end up with less than desirable things on them. You know your family best, so make sure you are aware of the things your children are viewing or interacting with.
Be willing to make adjustments.
Did you find the perfect show you thought your child would love and then you turn it on and your child is scared? Be willing to adjust course and simply turn it off. Be transparent with your children about how a program feels to you, and why or why not you are choosing to let them see it. This provides authentic opportunities to connect with your kids around real-world issues, explain new concepts, and get a window into how your children are processing ideas.
Create a Structure
Sit down as a family and define your own rules about technology use. For younger children, this might be a conversation driven by the parents, while older kids can chime in and provide valuable contributions. Designate certain parts of your home as “screen-free” zones. We do this at the kitchen table, and sometimes even I get reminded by my toddler, “Mama no phones at the table.” Be consistent with your expectations around screens. This might take some adjusting, but can provide so many benefits down the road. Being mindful about when and how screens are used also gives your children a chance to develop their own skills around self control.
Practice what you preach! Model how you want your kids to interact with screens. After I got really interested in talking about my latest podcast obsession, my older child wanted in on the action. We started listening to science podcasts for kids in the car, and now he loves sharing all of the information he learns! Think about the times when you really do need to use a screen around your kids, and practice telling them what you are doing. For example, “I’m texting mommy that we’re on our way home,” or “I’m turning on my map to get directions to the zoo,” so that your children begin to understand the functional aspect of technology. Be mindful of your own technology use as well. Are you spending hours surfing the net in a distracted fashion? Consider setting a timer to find out how much time you are using on screens each day. You might be surprised by the results!
Striving for balance in a busy world is hard! I hope that these ideas have given you some things to think about the next time you pull out a device or your child asks to borrow your phone. Remember: “We’re all still learning!”
By Jasmine Gibson, an educational consultant with expertise in early elementary education, supporting teachers, and designing curriculum.