How to protect sleep, attention, and family relationships from overabundant screen time

  • TECH
  • Sunday, 09 Jun 2019

Too much screen time isn’t just a concern for kids. (Dreamstime/TNS)

What do you do when your kids mess up? Do you tell them to give up and forget about accomplishing anything? Of course not. Failure breeds success; every parent knows that. 

When it comes to managing devices and limiting screen time, parents need to take their own advice. According to Common Sense Media's latest research, "The New Normal: Parent, Teens, Screens, and Sleep in the United States", parents are slipping. 

The study polled 1,000 US parents and teens to determine the impact of devices on family time, relationships, and sleep. Compared with a similar study conducted in 2016, parents say they spend too much time on their devices, are more distracted, and don't always model healthy digital habits. But if we embrace the kind of learn-from-your-mistakes attitude we try to instil in our kids, we can do a lot better. 

If we were only hurting ourselves, it wouldn't matter so much. But the new normal shows that our kids may be following our example, especially in key areas that affect health and relationships, such as using devices before (and during) bedtime and allowing them to distract us from really connecting. And we know it's bad for us: The number of parents who say they spend too much time on their mobile devices has increased by 23 points since 2016. Even worse, our kids think we're addicted – 38% of teens feel their parent is addicted to their mobile device, a 10-point increase since 2016. 

Now for some good news. A lot of this device use happened during a time of unchecked technology expansion, where almost every kid under eight in the United States has access to a mobile device and 89% of teens have their own smartphone. But we're entering a new era of pushback against companies whose business models are built on what industry critics call "the attention economy". 

Here are a few examples that indicate a tipping point may be just around the corner: 

– There's a growing awareness even among teens that apps manipulate them into spending more time online.
– Watchdogs are calling out developers for their persuasive design techniques that keep us hooked on games, social media, and apps far longer than we know is good for us.
– "Digital wellness" features such as usage reports, notifications that remind us to take a break, and activity timers are being baked into apps such as Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok.
– Apple and Google are adding settings to their operating systems that give us more control over our device use.
– Research into how technology affects health and behaviour – for example, addiction and mental well-being – is inconclusive and contradictory, meaning it's far from settled. 

With this shift, it should be a little easier to redouble your efforts to rein things in. Focus your efforts on the most critical issues highlighted in the report to improve in the three areas that affect families the most: sleep, distraction, and relationships. 

If it helps, think of the advice you'd give your kids if they goofed up: Don't dwell on past mistakes, make slight adjustments to get better little by little, and celebrate your wins. 

Guard bedtime like a mama bear. Do whatever it takes to make sure your kids are getting a good night's sleep. Try tips like using settings to turn off kids' phones at night.
Make screen-time rules. Figure out how much screen time is right for your family – and stick to your rules.
Enable screen-limiting settings. iPhone users can set the features in Screen Time; Google users can download the Family Link app to control kids' phones.
Resist distractions. Learn a few easy hacks to make your phone less appealing.
Understand the tricks of the trade. Knowing how companies manipulate you and your kids into spending more time online can help you recognise when you're falling into their trap.
Train yourself to focus. Kids and parents can use apps to practice concentrating, prepare for bed, and calm the mind. – Common Sense Media/Tribune News Service

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