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Parents: Time to Rethink Your Child’s Relationship with Screen Time

Tips for relaunching media limits after a pandemic free-for-all
Illustration of plugs

Screen time is a popular, challenging, and often divisive topic among parents and caregivers who struggle to determine how to best regulate children’s technology use in a media-saturated world. Amid the COVID-19 lockdown, many caregivers adjusted their screen time rules, which often resulted in guilt-ridden parents anxiously questioning the many hours their children spent watching Peppa Pig or scrolling Instagram, in addition to remote schooling, virtual ballet class, and Zoom birthday parties. For many, screen-time regulations dissipated when technology served as the main connection to the outside world.

Now, caregivers may be wondering, where do we go from here? Do we continue with a relaxed approach to screen time, considering the role it played over the past year and a half, or do we implement revised media restrictions with children? What is the “new normal'' when it comes to screen time? 

For more mindful media engagement, consider this moment as an opportunity to pause, reflect, and reimagine your relationship with screens. Here are four recommendations to move from restriction-focused to a more integrated approach: 

Shift the frame away from “screen time” and toward “screen use.”

Focus on how and why your children are engaging with screens and stress less about the amount of time they are using media. What is the context for their screen use? For example, when spending time staring at their phone, might your child be in the midst of an emotional discussion with a friend, which is less about technology and more about the bond built through text-based conversation? When they are binge-watching streamed television, are they considering the connections between the narrative and their social and civic realities? What does the story make them feel, think, and imagine?

Consider the what in addition to the how.

What content is your child consuming, creating, or sharing? Is this content empowering and engaging? Or perhaps problematic or inappropriate? For example, is it violent, misogynist, exploitative, biased, or otherwise potentially harmful for your child’s development? More importantly, how is your child interpreting and making meaning from the content they see? Create space for open conversation with your children regarding the media they consume. Engage with curiosity to avoid judgments, and instead, try to understand why they are drawn to this particular program. Begin by asking questions that encourage emotional responses, such as, “What did you like about this program? What didn’t you like? Why?” Ensure that your child feels that their opinions about media matter. From there, try to dig into more analytical, age-appropriate conversations, exploring complex topics, such as character motivations or storytelling decisions. 

Empower your child to critically analyze the messages shared.

Sit with your child and explore issues together regarding power, economics, and ownership. Ask questions like, who created these technologies, and for what purpose? Whose voices are represented, and whose are not? In many ways, young people are, indeed, savvy digital natives who seamlessly navigate new technologies. But in order to fully, effectively, and safely participate in the media landscape, children and young people need guidance (from you!), resources, opportunities for practice, and ongoing dialogue with the caring adults in their lives.

Look at how you’re using screens.

Consider your own screen time, screen use, and general technology engagement, as your behavior serves as a model for your children.

Consider your own media education.

Think about strengthening your media literacy skills. To explore screen time issues more deeply — and learn about the impact of media on young people more generally — consider taking a workshop or training, like the four-week online workshop taught at the Harvard Graduate School of Education called Screen-Time Savvy: Skills and Strategies to Deepen Digital and Media Literacy, chaired by Joe Blatt, senior lecturer on education and faculty co-chair of the Learning Design, Innovation, and Technology Program

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