How to avoid the summer screen-time trap

A parent recently asked me, “Does screen time make parenting easier or harder?” The short answer is, “It depends.”

As a parent of two teenagers born before the smartphone existed, and an eight-year-old, born after the smartphone boom, I have experienced both the positives and negatives of screen-based, mobile technology infiltrating daily life. Lately, with my teenage daughter, I’d say her phone is a menace and a trouble-maker sneaking its way into our lives. It can take over routine family interactions, and lower self-esteem. It is a huge distraction from problem-solving and engaging in other routine activities like homework, going out with friends or physical activity. It definitely brings out her “creative” side when coming up with a long list of passionate reasons why she “needs” her phone. At the same time, I love being able to stay connected with my teens and being able to tap into the internet’s wealth of information. As for my eight-year son, he has heard me say many times, “You are not getting a phone—ever!” Typically this pronouncement comes right after one of those creative conversations with the aforementioned teen.

When I’m counselling parents, my best advice about screen time is to plan screen use like you plan healthy, balanced meals. Starting with a plan makes it easier for everyone to follow the rules, adults included. Parents (including me!) should be their child’s best role model, especially when it comes to screen use.

Is it ever ok to use the screen as an electronic babysitter? Well, sometimes, if you’ve planned for your child to watch a certain, good quality program while you get dinner ready or take a shower. For older kids and teens, it can be used a homework resource and to stay connected with friends.

Summer can be tricky because rules tend to bend, and it becomes too easy to sit in front of a screen or play video games for hours on end. The screen then becomes a trap as kids are occupied and quiet, and parents develop a false sense of security that their children are indoors and “safe”. However, the potential harm to their social-emotional development, self-esteem and easy access to problematic content is a negative side effect of this technology.

Parents also need to learn a variety of strategies to redirect or distract their child when necessary, as well as being mindful of other environmental triggers that might be going on with the child. Parents need to help children learn self-regulation skills without relying on a device. Check out this resource for ideas on how: https://www.caringforkids.cps.ca/handouts/screen-time-and-young-children. I also direct parents to the Canadian Paediatric Society’s recently published guidelines on screen time: https://www.cps.ca/en/documents/position/screen-time-and-young-children.

I cannot emphasize enough: Create a good screen-use plan with your child’s or teen’s input and stick to it. When the plan gets sidetracked (and it will now and then!), try to stay positive and remind each other what you all agreed upon.