Modern Parents: Getting a handle on screen time

As I headed out the door for a showing of the documentary “Screenagers” at her high school, my daughter Maddie looked at me warily and said, “Fine, but please don’t make us do Tech Talk Tuesdays.”

Tech Talk Tuesdays, a weekly family gathering to discuss all things screens (social media, video games and internet addiction), was a “Screenagers” suggestion for being smarter about phones, games and computers — those maddening, hopelessly alluring presences in all our lives. Filmmaker Delaney Ruston’s family looked happy enough about these required talks in the film, but judging by my teen’s reaction, I suspect it may have taken more than one take to get that “Yay! Family talk!” reaction from anyone in
the family but mom.

Still. The talks probably are a good idea, especially compared with the more widespread coping mechanism of doing nothing and just seeing what happens as we let screens invade our lives and brains.

The film brings up a number of points ranging in alarmingness. At the latter end of the scale is the tale of a college boy who succumbs to the enchantments of a video game and ends up gaunt and failing out of school after a weekslong binge. But there are all kinds of other insidious effects — some we can see, some we don’t yet understand.

I mean, have you noticed your attention span, or lack thereof, lately? Is that just going to be our new normal, and, if so, are we OK with that? Does it seem good that we are often more engaged with our screens than the world around us, even when real, live people are right there next to us? Is it OK that so many boys spend hours every day immersed in often ultra-violent video games while girls desperately count likes on their perfect sexy/cute, “casual” selfies? (Of course, these are tendencies by gender
— your results may vary.)

Maybe it is just harmless teen stuff, maybe it’s not. The truth is, we don’t fully know yet. Kids spend an average of six and a half hours a day on screens, not including homework or school. It seems wise to be conscious of this stuff.

So besides Tech Talk Tuesdays (hard pass from the kid), how can we get a handle on this? Or at least a semitenuous grip.

Here are some tips from the “Screenagers” experts.

1 Create a screen time contract

Don’t be like the earnest Ruston in Act 1 of the film, when she just presents a contract to her daughter. Write a contract with your child and you’ll come up with workable limits and way more buy-in.

2 Don’t allow screens in bedrooms when kids are going to sleep

Not only do they disrupt sleep cycles, it’s rare that any good comes when a kid’s online after hours.

3 No devices at family meals

4 Set time frames for kids to study with devices off

Multitasking is linked with lower retention and poor academic performance. Some kids like to have music playing as they study, and that can be fine. But check in every once in awhile to make sure that it doesn’t create constant pinging distractions or  mutate into watching YouTube videos.

5 Put devices away

The very presence of a visible phone, even if it’s just sitting there, is itself a distraction and affects working memory and test performance.

6 Introduce some pro-social video games to your kids

“Screenagers” recommendations include “Fez,” “Minecraft” and “Portal.”

7 Get an app to help out

Even though it sounds oxymoronic, apps can do things like ration internet time, turn off phones in the car, generate reports on phone use, block content and help your kids (or you) set use limits. Pocket Points, a free app, gives high school and college students points redeemable at local businesses when they keep their phones locked on campus.

8 Get your own screen use in check

Give yourself some limits, pay attention to life, don’t text in the car even if the light is red.

9 Find some other fun stuff for kids

It’s disorienting to emerge bleary-eyed from the hyper-stimulating world of social media, fast-paced games and the constant stream of new information that feeds our brains with sweet shots of dopamine, the reward chemical. Make sure there’s plenty of excitement IRL (in real life).

10 Tech talk

And if you do want to have Tech Talk Tuesday — which, now that I think about it, is definitely gonna be happening at our house — the “Screenagers” website offers a list of weekly topics including sexting, cyberbullying, online shopping and how to unplug from games like Fortnite. This doesn’t have to be some dreary do’s and don’ts lecture but a discussion about stuff that everyone is actually interested in. Who knows, it could be fun — though if you see Maddie, maybe don’t mention this to her.

More tips at screenagersmovie.com.

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