Determined not to be a “do as I say, not as I do” parent and wanting to honor my commitment to be connected and present with my children, I have recently had the surprisingly unpleasant opportunity to find out just how addicted to screens I really am. I must admit that, for many years now, I have hidden behind the fact that my family does not have “television,” meaning we do not subscribe to cable and the only TV in our house is unplugged and in the basement. True confession: we do have a laptop with Netflix and DVD player, smart phones and tablets. And while the kids have had limited access to carefully selected movies, they have almost no access to other screens. So when, one day as we were leaving the house, my son yelled out, “Did you remember your phone? You don’t want to leave home without it,” something inside me cringed a little. I wasn’t sure in the moment why it bothered me so much, but I knew I needed to do something about it.
There is ample information available to suggest that screen time negatively impacts children. For example:
- A University of Bristol research study found a correlation between increased screen time and psychological difficulties pertaining to behavioral issues, emotional difficulties, social interaction, inattentiveness and hyperactivity in pre-teens.
- Screen time in children under three is linked to irregular sleep patterns, delayed language acquisition, later childhood problems (such as lower math achievement, reduced physical activity, victimization by classmates) and leads to habit formation (more screen now means more screens later).
- Screen time is associated with increased aggression. (And this is not limited to viewing aggressive media!)
While it used to be that the focus was just on television, we are slowly becoming aware that any screen time results in the same kinds of results. TV, smart phones, tablets, movies, computer, video games. Even when we try to make ourselves feel a little better by choosing “educational” options, the negatives may outweigh the positives. And here is the kicker, research shows that these negatives not only apply to screen time that kids are actively engaged in, but “incidental screen time as well.” Researcher Daniel Anderson of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst found that background TV (regardless of what was on) decreased the overall amount of time children spent in play, increased the number of times children moved from toy to toy and decreased the amount of time children spent in focused-attention activities. Why does this matter? Because play is where it is at. Play is how children learn. It’s crucial. Play is their life-work. If we interrupt their play, we interrupt their life.
Amazingly, I saw this firsthand at the park recently. I watched five children playing quietly in a sand pit. The children ranged in age from two to six. A man (notably not connected to any of the children in the sand pit) sat on a bench playing a game on his phone. The volume was high and the game alternated between annoyingly high-pitched music and something that sounded like a missile being launched. Occasionally, his actual phone ringer (playing some type of classical music) would interrupt the game and he would answer, chat and then return to the game. I watched as the children, all intently trying to dig up a dinosaur bone buried in the sand, repeatedly turned their attention to the man and his smart phone. On separate intervals, about every two or three minutes, each kid would stop what they were doing, consider the man and then turn back to their digging. None of them interacted with each other. I could see that they were pulled to the sound and were deciding whether to approach the man to see the game or continue their own work. It was obvious for some of the children that it was a hard choice, while for others it appeared to simply be annoying. What amazed me was how noticeable it was that regardless of how they felt about the noise, they each had to put effort into returning to their play. They would stop, assess the man for a moment, look around, find a new shovel, remember what they were doing, start a new task, focus for a few minutes and then get pulled toward the sound again. After some time, I asked the man if he would mind either silencing his phone or moving to another area. He grumbled but complied and I immediately noticed a difference. I could almost see the children relaxing into their play and the digging continued uninterrupted. Then a magical thing happened. The children began to interact with one another and a cooperative story emerged, four of the five children developed a plan of action to work together. I doubt this would have happened if the background screen time continued.
So could it be that my own screen time was impacting my children’s life-work in a similar way? Over the past few months I have been experimenting with my own screen-free time. I have tried eliminating my use of anything with a screen in different ways: for hour-blocks, after certain times in the evenings and for entire weekends. What I realized through this process is that I am (and, yes, I hate to admit this) intimately connected to my media. Not television or games per se, but email, chat, text message and Facebook. Social media. I realized that it is my primary source of connecting with the world. So while on one hand I tell my children, “No media for you,” I am connecting through a screen on much too regular intervals. Turning the screens off made me realize that I check in with a screen (or at least think about it) every few minutes. Oh, my!
So how does this impact my children? What does it mean to have a phone ring or beep or ding or sing every few minutes as background noise? While the background screens in my children’s lives may not be as loud or pervasive as a TV or video game, it is certainly creating a regular interruption that must be notable to them. After all, my son reminded me to get the phone when I forgot it.
But I also had another realization. And this one connected the dots for me. It made me realize why my own screen time really does matter to my children’s development. When the kids in the sand pit were struggling to work (play) and attend to the media that was around them, the relationship potential between them got put on the back burner. The true interaction occurred when the media was eliminated. It was as if tending to the logistics of managing the media and their work was all they had space for. Once the media was gone, they could go deeper into the moment and recognize what was around them, and relationships and more meaningful interactions occurred.
It reminded me of trying to work while being disrupted by phone calls. I have a flow, get on a roll, then the phone rings. I stop what I am doing, tend to the phone and then return to my work. I have to think about where I was, maybe reread what I already did and adjust my mental state to return to the work flow. If this happens repeatedly, I get less done, feel less connected with my work product, make more mistakes and generally feel less positive about my task.
So what if my “work product” at the moment is parenting? How does my media (answering a text, posting something super cute to Facebook, checking email) or even thinking about my media (wondering if anyone has commented on my super cute post or replied to my email) take me away from my kids? Maybe my son’s concern that I left my phone at home disturbed me so much because I realized he has accepted as truth that he has to share me with my media. And that realization cut me to the core. This is not something he should even consider, much less accept.
So I put away the phone and the tablet and the computer. I’m not going to lie. It hurts. It is an adjustment. I am still working out what specific boundaries work best for me since I can’t give up all forms of media professionally. It is a process. But what I have already realized is that, like the kids in the sand box, when the media is gone, I am less scattered, more aware, feel more centered, have more fun and feel more connected to the people in front of me. I also realized that, when the media is gone, my children don’t have to compete as much for my attention, which leads to less acting out. When the media is gone, we all connect with the moment in a truer sense of the world. When the media is gone, I can do my job in supporting my children in their job. Life-work. In short, we all live better.
So while media is certainly not the only thing that keeps me from being present and aware and centered as a parent, it is impossible to ignore the moment by moment disruption that it has on me, my kids and our relationship. I’m not yet sure what the balance is, and it may look different for every parent, but balance we must find. And not just so our kids can do their life-work, but so we can really be there when they do!