Setting Screen Time Limits - Beginning with Parents

By: Neil Mufson
As our faculty 1:1 Laptop Planning Committee continues planning for our Fall rollout of laptops in grades 6-8, I’ve still been thinking about how we reconcile the data that is out there about how much time we all — adults, kids, and adolescents — spend attached to our screens vs. the simple intention of our laptop program. The reality, though, is that there is a healthy tension there. On the one hand, we want to make the most powerful and up-to-date technological tools readily available for our children’s learning. On the other, we don’t want to increase pointless screen time. How will we do this? By being mindful about how we’re asking our students to use their devices and by exercising discretion. That will be our mantra.

As I was contemplating the announcement of our laptop initiative last summer, I came across a New York Times report by health expert Jane Brody on screen addiction in childhood. In “How to Cut Children’s Screen Time? Say No to Yourself First,” Brody begins in a direct way: “Parents are often at fault, directly or indirectly, when children and teenagers become hooked on electronic media… instead of interacting with the real world and the people in it.”

The good news is that child development experts widely agree that the situation is totally fixable, that parents don’t have to be complicit in the kind of digital screen dominance that can lead to numerous social, cognitive, relational, and emotional impairments in their children. Part of the challenge is that parents are new to managing the seductive nature of today’s ubiquitous devices in their own lives, let alone in their children’s.

Psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair (The Big Disconnect) notes that two problems are prevalent: poor adult limit setting for children and parents being too attached to their own devices, and utilizing them constantly and immediately when notifications arrive. Brody cites one study that showed that more than 80% of parents immediately take out their mobile devices when they go out to eat with their children and use the devices throughout the meal, paying more attention to the iThing than the child. Another found “that when parents are absorbed in their own devices, the children were more likely to act out.” Despite the best intentions, parents can inadvertently be telling their children that they are less important than the matters streaming onto the device.

Experts suggest that parents limit their email, texting, social media time, and the like to before the children are up, after they go to bed, or when they are in school or at an activity. They counsel that key times during the day like meals, drop off and pick up from school, and bedtime should be “device-free zones,” as should be the first hour a parent has come home after work. This allows the family to reconnect and “download” their day. Brody also suggests that parents put firm limits in place on their children’s device usage. Finally, she points out, “real-life activities… and undivided attention” are crucial for a child’s healthy development. As we adjust to the progression of powerful devices being available on our desks, then our laps, then our pockets, and now our wrists, we need to be mindful of how our own use impacts our children’s use patterns and development — even if the only devices in the house are dedicated to the adults.
Clearly, we will need Country School parents to be our partners in modeling responsible use of devices so that our children remain mostly engaged in a human, rather than virtual, world. Together, we can ensure that our students’ laptops are used wisely, responsibly, and as the profound tool that they are rather than as a mindless trap that minimizes the encroachment of the real world.

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