How can I reduce my family's screen time?

| 19 minutes | Media Contact: University Communications


How does excessive screen time impact our health? And what are some ways to regain control and reduce screen time altogether? 

Get answers to some of the most asked questions surrounding screen time.

Guest: Sarah Domoff, former associate professor of psychology at Central Michigan University.




Adam: How does excessive screen time impact our health? And what are some ways to regain control and reduce screen time altogether? Welcome to The Search Bar. You've got questions. Let's find some answers. Bypass Google and sidle up to the search bar instead, as Central Michigan University's amazing team of experts answers some of the Internet's most asked questions. I'm your host Adam Sparkes, and on today's episode, we're searching for answers on screen time. Sarah Domoff, associate professor of psychology at Central Michigan University is here to help us do just that.

Hey, Sarah. Thanks so much for being here again. I'm really excited to talk about screen time because I know that I get way too much screen time and I thought about when we were setting this up that I would just hand you my phone and let you look at my screen time report. And then I looked at it this morning and I was like, no, this is embarrassing. It really creeps up on you, is the thing that I realized is like on Sunday when my iPhone lets me know how much screen time I've had and it's down, I'm always like, yeah. Like I kind of feel like I've accomplished something. I'm not even sure why. It's not like a goal I'm setting, but then I'll look at it. I'm like, that's still like a lot, you know, it gets us now. Right. It's so ingrained in us. We don't even, I don't think we even realize passively how much time we're like on a phone.

Sarah: Exactly. And I study this stuff and I couldn't even tell you how much I'm on my phone, how much I checked it today. And, actually, adults have more screen time than teens, though we hear more about the issue with teens on the news. But I think that's important when we think about screen time for our children, we also have to think about screen time for ourselves and for our family because it's such a part of everyone's daily experience.

What are some guidelines for managing a child's screen time?

Adam: There's this kind of cultural phenomenon where it's like we, as a convenience and as a means to kind of expedite, we're always trying to expedite everything now, which is nuts. We expedite our way through life. There are more screens everywhere, but there's also more shame for letting your kids be on screens as well. Like if you're a parent, how do you navigate that expectation? As soon as your kid can reach out and grab something, they're grabbing your phone out of your hand.

Sarah: Right. So, in terms of guidelines for very young children like underage, well definitely under age two, one and a half highly advise against any screen time with the exception of maybe video chatting with family members that your young one can't see in face-to-face situations. With the two to five-year-olds, recommending no more than one hour of high-quality educational pro-social media a day. And then with ages five and up, it really kind of depends. It depends on whether they are getting everything else done that they need to get done, that leftover time. They could have some hours of screen time, but there's no hard and fast rule. And I think what's really challenging is that the content really varies when it comes to the types of things that we're watching, whether it's, or playing in terms of video games.

And so for parents, it's really important to think about what content is your child seeing. Is it age-appropriate? If they're really young, let's make sure that it's something that's developmentally appropriate, and well-informed. So Sesame Street, Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood and so forth. With older children, you wanna make sure that what they're seeing is age-appropriate, but then also be present as well. So even though they're older, you still wanna have conversations about what they're seeing. And there's this term called active mediation which it means parents being present and talking about what they're seeing on TV with their child or, or what they see online. So that they can have these conversations and, and learn about what they're seeing and know about their content.

How can I set healthy screen time limits?

Adam: Are there times and places to go, I need, we need to put this down and be present? Or, or there's kind of that double shame. Like, let's say you've got kids that are kind of in that, that preschool to first grade age where there's like a whole lot of like, kind of the iPad time And it's like, I want my kid to be quiet 'cause we're trying to sit down at a diner and have dinner and they're antsy. It's been a long day. We're out shopping, we're running errands. Do I make them be present? You know, or do I say no, we're not even gonna do that now. Like, is my kid gonna be screaming or are they gonna be glued to the iPhone? Like, I feel guilty either way. Right?

Sarah: Right. So, I think having flexibility and not thinking in black and white about these things is gonna be really important. Typically, what I recommend is the thing about your 24-hour day, a typical 24-hour cycle, what is it that you or your child need? What do you need to have? So you need to have those good seven to eight hours of sleep if you're an adult, more if you're a child or a teen, you need to make sure that you're getting some physical activity. What I would do is I recommend taking out all the hours that you need to do other things that are good for your well-being. And if you have time left over, you know, it's okay if it's on screens, if the content is appropriate. I think the bigger piece that can be hard for parents is setting limits around certain times.

And so obviously if we hear that nighttime is such a struggle, getting your child to go to bed, stay in bed, go to sleep. Sometimes screens are used to keep them in the room and that can backfire because that can mean that the child's up later. It could be that it's really hard to get your child to behave when you're out in public or when you're having a meal. And so screens may be used by some parents just to kind of keep the peace. Now, I think what's important is to think about if is there something related to strategies and getting your child to comply or behave that may be missing. Or maybe your child's really having trouble with sleep and they can get help from a, a doctor about that. So I think where the line is kind of crossed is this sometimes used as a tool to help in certain situations.

Okay. But if it seems like the screens are the only thing that gets your child to comply, that there are increased meltdowns related to it, they're not going to school, they're refusing to do things in order to use screens. That's when we would call it more problematic media use. We would wanna make sure that parents or caregivers are equipped with parenting strategies at work to get the child to behave and that there are non-screen-based positive play interactions. And then really help kind of navigate away from too much screen time during those pivotal periods where some of the meltdowns can happen.

How do I transition away from screen time? 

Adam: If I get up in the morning, I know I do this on a Sunday, so I'll use myself as an example. If I get up in the morning and I have things to do on Sunday, I get up before everyone in my family. So, it's like, it's quiet and it's really easy for me to be like, I can watch whatever I want right now, like I can put on a show that no one else likes, I'm gonna listen to David Attenborough for three hours before anyone gets up 'cause If I get up at 6:30 on Sunday, I can do that in my house. But I also know that like, that definitely stymies my productivity 'cause I get into like this different mode. Like, are we like mod like am I modularizing something? Like, what am I doing up here that makes it like, so much easier to do laundry or go out and hit the use the weed wacker if I never start with David Attenborough?

Sarah: I mean, I think, you know, what we know, especially like with transitioning children, for example, away from something they really wanna do is something that may be more punishing. I mean, it's just, you know, we recommend against having them move from watching TV or playing a video game to doing something like punishing like something that's not enjoyable because it's like you're going for something you really enjoy that's keeping you engaged, that's really reinforcing to something that's like, like you dread doing. And so I think that's part of it. It's just that it's more reinforcing to stay on your screen than to disconnect and step away. I mean, there are things that, so basically what we recommend for, for younger children is if you have to move away from a screen to another activity, move from a screen to a reinforcing activity that doesn't involve a screen. Like maybe playing with your parent or doing something that's more tangible and then transitioning to something that is more of a shift in your in, in your routine. You know, like having a meal, doing some, some chores and that kind of thing.

Adam: I remember a couple of years ago there was this, I thought this was horrifying and then I felt really justified 'cause I found an article that gave me some confirmation bias. I'm gonna run with it and I'm gonna run past you. There was this trend where parents would turn a video game off on the parent, they'd record it and the kid would freak out. And this would be like kids anywhere from like five or six, like up to like kind of early teens. But like the kid would be playing Fortnite and the parent would be like, bonk and turn it off and the kid would flip. And I was like, man, that just seems like that's not really a fair illustration of it being a problem. Right. And then I read an article and it was basically a child psychologist saying that's pulling food out of a kid's mouth - that's the same thing psychologically. Like, you have these endorphins, and you're getting positive reinforcement. So, imagine your kid is eating just anything. Like it's an ice cream cone, it's a piece of candy, it's corn on the cob whatever, something like, and you walk up and you go, ha and then you throw it on the ground, they cannot eat it anymore. You've ruined it. Like why would you expect them to not have a poor reaction.

Sarah: Yeah. And I think for eating, it's easier for some people to see that distinction when it comes to playing video games. For some folks, especially parents who don't game, they may not realize like, if you're in the middle of something and you are achieving mastery in a certain area, or you're feeling really competent, like pulling that away also has another negative experience too. And I think for parents who have gamed or they can see, you know, the progression of one's gaming session, you wouldn't wanna end it when you're in the middle of something. Like you wanna find those transition periods. And what's so challenging now, especially with streaming services is that like, when we were growing up, we'd have a TV show that would end and we'd have to wait a week for the next one. We see the same thing with like binging TV series. Like it doesn't, you keep seeing the next one come up. So it's really hard to, to transition away from that when, when you see like, oh, here's another one. So it's reinforcing. So you're kind of fighting against the technology itself and having parents be mindful of that can help with strategies they use to reduce the excessive screen time. The time limit may not be exactly precise, so you may say 30 minutes of gaming, but like when 29 minutes, 30 seconds comes and it's like you have another minute or two and you will wrap up. Having some flexibility around that is important when it comes to certain things that may not be timed out exactly as you'd like it.

To be able to connect with somebody on an emotional level to cause them to change their behavior to vote a certain way, join an organization, or somehow help my movement. I can't do that. I'll never be able to do that unless I know what matters to you. And so that level of empathy, of listening and listening to understand is at the heart of leadership one of the things I advocate with students or with professional clients is always to enter every space as both a teacher and a learner and to think about how can we create spaces where everybody brings value? When you've got folks that are excelling in leadership roles, what they're doing is they're looking around, they're making asset maps, whether it's a physical document or if that's something they're doing in their head of talent to know who excels at what, where can people thrive? The best leaders are the ones who are concerned with the folks under them, not above them, right? They're taking a look at how can I make the people around me better.

What negative effects can screen time have on our health?

Adam: You hear so much about the negative of screen time and then video games for a long time. I feel like screen time in general is kind of like bumping it out, but it was always like, video games will rot your kids' brains. It just feels a little bit like probably the late eighties when everyone was like cable television is coming around and it's gonna rot your kid's brain because the TV never turns off now, doesn't turn off at midnight, and goes to a signal test. I mean, are we sort of just reacting to something we don't fully understand yet to a certain degree when we talk about like the panic sometimes that is surrounding screen time or surrounding video game playing?

Sarah: I think where there's a distinction, I mean, yes, there's always like concerns about changes in advances in technology. I think one of the distinctions that should be made is really how quickly things are changing more rapidly than they've had before. With that, the social piece too. So it's not just static looking at, you know, content and being concerned about the con. You can engage with it more with virtual reality or augmented reality. Ai, like, there's just so much of an immersion that we wanna consider what this means for development. So I mean, I think there is a distinction there. If the content isn't harmful, right? You know, if the child is getting enough sleep and getting exercise, it's not replacing social interactions with others, we're not as concerned.

And so, it seems if we can take a more balanced approach and less extreme, not only is that more in line with what the science says, but also empowers people more. Because for some folks it's like, well, it's just so overwhelming. It's all bad. I just give up or I'm gonna restrict entirely and it's gonna fail. And it doesn't have to be that way. You can find the middle ground. There are some things for sure that I'm like, definitely know, like, making sure your child is not exposed to online pornography. Make sure you have conversations about what they see online so that they can come to you if they do come across confusing or upsetting content. But, you know, in the grand scheme of things, it's about balance. It's about having these conversations and being in an open door so that you can have these discussions.

I think the strongest evidence we have related to you know, causality relates to the disrupted sleep, so melatonin issues, the light from your phones, that kind of thing. So there's that in terms of physical health, we know that having a screen in the bedroom is linked to poor sleep and risk for cardiovascular concerns in terms of obesity risks and so forth, sedentary behavior. But again, when it comes to the newer research, newer technology, social media, phones, that sort of thing it's more nuanced. And what we're seeing in some of the more recent research is that some mental health concerns may put you at risk for excessive use or you may get turned to content on social media, for example, that, you know, exacerbates risk. And so that's one of the, a big concern is, you know, how do these algorithms work and potentially target those youth who are most vulnerable.

And so, you know, if you have a teen who is struggling with mental health concerns, depressed, you know, they may be online more, they may watch TV more try to escape negative affect. And so it's important to be super sensitive to that link. But again, we can't say cause and effect and we may see that some of these mental health concerns precede excessive screen time as well as, you know, exacerbate symptoms. If the excessive screen time is passively looking at content that makes you feel worse about yourself, you know, that's, that's not a good thing. But if the, you're using a, a lot of your time to connect with others online that build your confidence, that that, you know, that makes you feel part of a community that gives you resources to help cope with whatever you're going through. I mean, that, that's, that's completely different. And so that's why, you know, we really try to steer away from, and I said this a couple of times, excessive screen time too, like more of a problematic use. So use that is interfering with functioning and not so much just based solely on the number of hours 'cause it's too complex. Back in the eighties and nineties, we could say screen time and it usually meant TV viewing and video game playing, but now it's too it's too nuanced.

How can families work together to regain control of their screen time? 

Adam: So, as a family unit, what are some things that we can do together to have a healthier relationship with our screen time and identify good screen time versus bad screen time.

Sarah: So I think one great resource online is a family media plan put out by the American Academy of Pediatrics. And basically, it's a menu of options. There are so many things that families can choose together to, that they may wanna address. And so it could be something specific to the timing of use. So maybe you try for most meals of the week to not have screens at the table. For some families it may be, let's really try to limit our screen time around bedtime and make sure that we're not on screens a half hour before we go to sleep. And so coming together as a family to talk about different strategies that they may wanna take could be, could be important. Also because there are so many different choices you can make related to screen time, I feel like it can be empowering because maybe we can't reduce the number of hours right now that we let our child be on screens just for numerous reasons. But maybe we choose to make sure that the content is appropriate. We choose the content and we agree upon the types of shows that they watch, or we try to be present to talk to 'em about what they're seeing on screens. And so I think the first aspect that families can approach when it comes to screen time strategies is looking at the family media plan and coming up with goals that they have that are realistic, that can be achievable, and don't create too much of a ripple in the typical family routine or what's feasible to prevent problematic media use. It's important to make sure that screens are not used as the only reinforcement or reward for your child. So incorporating parent-child play where the child's leading the play where there's conversations about how the child's day went, you know, if there's an older child.

So, having some positive interactions in addition to engagement with screens is important 'cause you really wanna have that strong parent-child relationship in place before you set a lot of limits that may not be enjoyable. And this is after, you know, your child may already have a lot of screen time. You know what I mean? So, the other thing I would recommend is having a cell phone agreement plan or goals for use each week. Like maybe you let your child have a smartphone, but then these are the limits, these are the restrictions, these are the expectations and this is what can happen if, you know, it doesn't go the way that we've planned. These are some limits that we've set. You know, that sort of thing.

Adam: Yeah. So, the cell phone blackout bag or smash it with a hammer and post it on TikTok. Yeah. Yeah.

Sarah: Yeah. I mean, I think for children and teens, a great way to navigate the topic of limit setting is to be forthcoming about your own experience. Adults have similar concerns too, so, if we can say like, "Hey, at nighttime it's hard for me to not look at my phone when it's in my room. I'm gonna keep it further away from my bed so I I'm not prone to check it." That kind of thing. So I think normalizing that these are designed to keep us engaged and that we need to put these limits on ourselves too, so that we have a better relationship with technology is a great start. You know, the other thing I was thinking about is, is related to a variety of activities throughout your day. So, sometimes the analogy related to food intake can be helpful for parents and children to have these conversations.

So, although we'd love to have sweets all day and they're delicious, you know, we can't, 'cause they actually don't give us all the nutrients we need. Like we need to have a balance. And that's kind of like a way you can think about screen time. So we need to get physical activity, we need to have time together. There are all these things that we need to feel good for our wellbeing and screens can be part of that, but it can't be the only thing. And so sometimes putting in that framework can be helpful too.

Adam: Awesome. Sounds great. Well, thank you so much for talking with me today about screen time. I'm going to go not look at my phone when this is over. Thank you. I appreciate you.

Sarah: Thank you so much.

Adam: Thanks for stopping by The Search Bar. Be sure to subscribe or follow so that you don't have to search for the next episode.


The views and opinions expressed in these episodes are strictly those of the host and guest speaker.