I can’t tell you how many homeschool moms I’ve talked to who are genuinely worried about the ill effects of ‘screen time’ in their homes. I’m not talking about the dangers of internet use, like child predators, identity theft, etc. Those are real dangers, to be sure, and a topic for another post (or several).
I’m talking about moms who are nervous about what it will do to their children if they spend too much time in front of a screen. I’ve written some here about the “dangers” of digital. But this is such a common conversation, it seemed to warrant more attention.
Here are ten reasons I’ve found that homeschool parents are worried about screen time, and how to think through those issues.
1. There are dangers.
I can’t write an honest post that claims there’s no trouble, nothing to worry about and no reason to use caution. Some of us personally know people who are addicted to screen time, video games, social media. We’ve watched people (ourselves, perhaps?) become absorbed in a phone when we should be engaged with those present around us.
I’m not trying to convince anyone there’s nothing to consider here. What I would like us to do instead is to pull apart some of the factors that cause us these fears. Nothing productive can come from sitting under a nebulous, gray cloud of fear. But looking at the individual parts can help us make positive choices and decisions.
2. The age of the expert
We live in an era of division of labor and field specialization. Often, a degree or title carries more weight and authority than experience. Don’t get me wrong – I’m happy to have the resources of pediatricians, researchers, educational specialists and others at my disposal.
The danger is, however, that the homage we pay to experts undermines our own willingness to value the experience and first-hand knowledge we have of our own children, their individual needs and gifts and what is helpful or unhelpful to them.
My midwife once told me of a study that was conducted with new mothers. Women were asked who they felt would be most qualified to care for their child. Mothers who had just had a baby in a hospital most frequently responded that a nurse or trained childcare professional would know best. Mothers who had just had a homebirth most frequently responded, “I would!”
This isn’t meant to be anti-hospital propaganda. I’m not a homebirth evangelist. But it does illustrate how the presence and status of experts in our culture can undermine a mother’s confidence in her own ability to think through a matter and make good choices. We used to call that “mother’s intuition”.
3. Click-bait headlines and alarmist articles
Do you remember seeing these headlines in your Facebook feed?
“10 Reasons Why Handheld Devices Should Be Banned for Children Under the Age of 12“
“It’s ‘Digital Heroin’: How Screens Turn Kids into Psychotic Junkies“
Editors know that this is a sensitive topic for families. And they know that headlines that suggest insidious dangers for our children are especially irresistible.
An article that basically says “You can do this. Use your best judgement and learn as you go along” isn’t going to go viral. Instead of reading the spin, here’s a quote right from the American Academy of Pediatrics literature:
All children and teens need adequate sleep (8-12 hours, depending on age), physical activity (1 hour), and time away from media. Designate media-free times together (e.g., family dinner) and media-free zones (e.g., bedrooms) … Parents are encouraged to develop personalized media use plans for their children. Media plans should take into account each child’s age, health, personality, and developmental stage. [emphasis mine]
Summary version? Use common sense.
4. They haven’t seen the real problems
Probably about a third of the parents who come to me with concerns about screen time have young children. I mean really young children. And hey, this is great! It’s never too early to start thinking about big issues and asking relevant questions.
The dilemma is, however, that you are kind of dealing with a theoretical problem instead of a real one. For example, everyone wants to be healthy and take care of their bodies. But imagine putting all your focus on eating in such a way so as to prevent heart disease or cancer in later life. An excellent goal, to be sure! But how do you know if you’re doing it right? Are you headed in the right direction? Or making things worse?
Compare that with someone who has a current, recognizable problem – joint pain, diabetes, fatigue. Now imagine this person working on dietary choices that make a difference and solve problems they are facing right now. It’s still not always easy. Sometimes the connections between food and symptoms are hazy. But it’s something you can observe, assess and modify right now.
It’s like this with older children in the home. We’re not talking about theoretical someday-maybe quandaries over screen time. We’re working through how to manage the real-time issues that are arising. That doesn’t always make everything clear-cut, but at least we are working with a real, seen issue, not a theoretical future one.
5. “Screen Time” isn’t one thing
Have you ever noticed how we use the word “screen time”? Usually, people are talking about a massive category of many diverse activities all under one general and rather unhelpful heading.
Talking about “screen time” as a blanket category is like talking about a “drinking problem” when you’re actually referring to all consumption of liquid. Just as there’s a whole lot of difference between a glass of ice water and a shot of vodka on the rocks, all screen time is not created equal.
For example, my husband has about eight hours a day of “screen time” because he works on spreadsheets and databases. My daughter has a few websites she frequents for knitting and crocheting patterns and tutorial videos. In the evening, hubby and I like to watch and episode or two of whatever Netflix program we’re in the middle of. The kids enjoy playing Minecraft.
These are all valid uses of screens, but all quite different. When articles are written about “screen time” but fail to distinguish between different modes, the result is often more confusing and fear-instilling than instructive and useful.
6. Homeschoolers have a unique perspective
We often hear about how technology can separate people and diminish healthy real-life relationships in favor of screen addiction. This is true. But sometimes I think we forget to think proportionally with relation to the different daily schedule of a homeschooler.
For example, in the average household, families are separated all day. Then there’s homework, sports, and other activities. If you are spending two hours in the evening watching television or on social media, that really might put a crimp in your ability to engage well with your family.
But take a step back and think about your day, homeschool mom. If your children watch an hour of PBS kids while you make dinner, you’re not giving up the one hour you could be interacting. You’re giving yourself (and your kids) a break from the constant interacting that is happening all day long! We’re talking one hour out of 12 to 16, not one hour out of three.
Also, don’t forget that kids in a traditional school setting are using screens during the day at school. They are working in computer labs, watching videos, and typing papers. Parents who make screen time decisions in the evenings aren’t doing so with regard to how much screen time has already happened during the day at school. How could they?
Homeschoolers have many opportunities to use screens as a part of their education as well. If you place a general limit on “screen time” to two hours a day, a preteen or high schooler could use up all that time doing research or working through an online math class. Should he then be barred from recreational screen time because he’s reach the limit that the experts recommend?
7. We didn’t grow up with it
Every generation faces the introduction of something new. And, inevitably, the younger generation take to the new medium like a fish to water while the older generation harbors suspicion and hesitation. In some ways, this is helpful. With age comes experience and wisdom. Caution in new things is warranted.
But a glance back at history is also warranted. Did you know that Socrates was concerned that written language would hamper our ability to think and memorize? And perhaps he was right – perhaps it has. Does this mean that the written word is dangerous or evil? Or does it mean that every good thing has its potential pitfalls and abuses?
8. We use it as a reward
Sometimes parents are nervous because they see their children racing through school work or chores in order to reach the golden moment of the day: screen time. Yes, this is something to observe and consider as you guide your children in wise use of technology. It’s a great subject for dinnertime discussion.
But consider this as well: weren’t you the one who set it up that way? Don’t we, as parents, promote that idea, even if inadvertently? “Please get your work done! If you don’t you won’t have any time on the computer!” We use a proverbial carrot to coax diligence and then get upset because the kids are actually excited about the carrot. (Wasn’t that kind of the point?)
Perhaps we need to reconsider the way we motivate and reward responsibility in our household (or for certain children at certain ages). Or, perhaps we just need to chillax when we discover that our system of rewarding work is actually, well, working!
9. They get angry when they have to quit
This is a big one. I have heard from so many parents (and experienced in my own household) bitter fallout after the announcement that screen time has ended. It’s completely natural that the anger should raise questions and call for a reevaluation of household practices. But are “the screens” to blame? Let’s look a little deeper at the root causes of anger.
Anger occurs when there is a disconnect between expectation and reality – a difference between what one believes he deserves and what he actually receives. Perhaps the problem isn’t so much the screens, but the expectations that surround them.
Why do your kids feel their expectations are unmet when screen time ends? Why do they believe they deserve more screen time? First, re-read #8 above. If this is the reward you’ve waited for all day, it’s not so unreasonable to be peeved if you feel it’s being curtailed.
Turn the tables for a moment – if you reach the end of a long day and finally collapse in bed with a good book only for kid misbehavior to interrupt or eliminate your oasis of relaxation, you might feel a little irritation, too, right? Kids who have looked forward to something all day may struggle with frustration when their long-sought reward is halted. And they don’t have the grown-up capabilities to manage those emotions.
Also, ask yourself if you’ve clearly communicated the plan for screen time use. Are there hours of the day during which they can expect screens to be available and other hours when they aren’t? Do they know at the beginning of screen free-time how long it will last or when it is scheduled to end? Would it help to have a kind reminder five or ten minutes before transitioning to the next activity?
Finally, please remember that all children are wired differently. Sometimes those who have the hardest time transitioning from one activity to the next are the ones who are the most passionate about their own plans and dreams. Passion and drive are not bad qualities to be snuffed out, but these kiddos may need extra guidance in recognizing and appropriately channeling these gifts!
10. Screen time seems to lead to quarreling
Similar to the concern above, I’ve also heard lots of moms talk about how much their kids fight after they’ve had too much screen time. Yep, I’ve definitely observed that here, too. Again, this isn’t a mysterious hypnosis that comes over kids who have been looking at a screen. It’s a simple facet of human nature.
Relationships are hard. The closer the relationship (spouses and siblings top the list!) the more effort and energy they require. Sometimes, we get out of practice investing that energy and it’s tricky to get back into the habit.
This increased relationship tension can occur after all kinds of scenarios where relationship effort has not been as necessary, or when lots of pleasure and gratification have been easily available, such as vacation time, visits to grandparents, quiet alone time (moms, too!) or, yes, screen time. Again, this tension is a facet of transition, not a proof of evil lurking in the screen.
Parenting is Hard
I truly believe that the biggest reason we are scared of “screen time” is because, well, parenting in general is not for wimps. There are no blueprints or flowcharts. It requires daily wisdom, discernment, and learn-as-you-go patience and humility. Frankly, that’s scary!
“Screen time” is just one of many areas in we believe we’re perpetually on the verge of ruining our kids and somehow we find that easy to believe. The answer is not to do away with screens, or even to put our hope in rules or limits (though those can be useful). The answer is to return to what we truly believe about why we are doing this parenting thing and what our ultimate goals really are.
Even though we might be led to believe that this generation is facing unique problems unlike any generation before, I think the truth is really that “there is nothing new under the sun”. The forms and details may be different. But we’re facing the same general struggles that every generation of parents has faced helping children to grow into responsible adults with healthy habit and priorities.
Know your kids.
Have regular, open conversations.