Finding the Sweet Spot — Kids and Screen Time

Finding the Sweet Spot — Kids and Screen Time

Middler schooler Mati O. uses a school Chromebook.

By Dr. Dan Ahlstrom

Just like too many sweets, too much screen time can wreak havoc with kids. How do we maintain a healthy balance when digital media is increasingly embedded in our children’s lives? I have to be honest — I’m not a big fan of social media for kids. But I’m also realistic and recognize it is part of the world our kids inhabit. So, at Heilicher, we believe helping parents establish guidelines and boundaries for digital media use is an important resource we can offer. Digital media isn’t all bad. These technologies can provide cognitive, social, and emotional benefits, including expanded learning opportunities, global connections, and outlets for self-expression. Research indicates that screen media that is intentionally designed to support kids’ development can help them do better in school, learn new skills, and become better readers. And it’s not just about learning — playing video games and other online activities can also help kids build friendships and meaningful connections with others.

However, potential risks and negative impacts, such as social isolation, overuse, and mental health issues, must also be considered and addressed. When is online media having a negative impact? Watch for unhealthy behaviors that worry you, like not getting enough sleep (Does your child sleep with their phone, waking any time there is an alert?) or unexplained falling grades. If your child exhibits troubling behavior, get involved! Ask questions! It is your responsibility to regulate their online behavior. Establishing good screen habits when children are younger and then enforcing your rules makes it much easier to rein in damaging behavior as they get older. At Heilicher, we have a new offering to help prepare students to navigate the digital world: the Digital Citizenship Program. The class features a curriculum targeted toward different age groups, and it is complemented by school policies on appropriate use of devices like phones and smart watches on campus.

Our library specialist Britton Cook plays a leading role in the launch of this program. Britton shared that students are responding well to the course and are becoming more savvy with their internet usage. The lessons focus on everything from kindness online to learning to identify fake news and avoid clickbait. One video in the program is a particular hit: The Killer Underwear Invasion, a humorous look at spotting disinformation.

To help set digital media boundaries and establish guidelines for your kids, here are four simple strategies:

1. Get Involved

If parents want a real view of how their children spend time online, they need to participate actively in their kids’ digital experiences. By engaging in digital media activities alongside children, parents can help them make better choices about the content they consume and encourage meaningful discussions about themes, messages, and values. And remember, a guardian’s number one job is to protect their kids. Understanding where they spend time online is as important as keeping tabs on them when they leave the house.

2. Model Good Digital Habits

It’s never too early to model healthy, balanced media and technology habits for children. A recent survey showed just 37% of adolescents reported their parents follow their own technology rules. Consider establishing “screen-free zones” in your home that apply to both children and adults, and set regular screen-free times to promote balance. Doomscrolling is bad for young and old alike, so curtail that when it starts.

3. Create Opportunities for More Mindful Screen Engagement

Children develop at different rates, and all families have different values and routines. This can make one-size-fits-all rules about screen time and content difficult to determine. Ask your child what they’re learning about in our Digital Citizenship Program. Conversations around those lessons are a way for families to encourage critical thinking about the types of media they want to consume and the devices they want to use.

4. Make Time for Breaks and Offline Fun

Encourage regular breaks from screens, and get kids involved in offline activities like reading, playing instruments, or playing outdoors — all great for their physical and mental health. Also give kids plenty of opportunities to socialize face to face, building essential social skills and strong friendships.

As technology becomes more integrated into our daily lives, setting digital boundaries and guidelines is critical. As parents and educators, we are responsible for guiding children’s digital media use and creating a supportive environment that balances digital and real-life experiences. With intentional and focused effort, we can help our students have balanced and enriching experiences with digital media.

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