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Don't force screen-time rules on your kids; decide on the rules with them

POSTED March 1, 2018 9:49 a.m.
In our previous column, we shared eight tips to manage kids' screen time and technology, and now we want to talk about the reasons why it is so important for parents to discipline their children’s use of social media and smartphones.

It's generally known that excessive technology can be a problem, but, frankly, the dangers are more extensive and deeper than most of us understand. In an article in the Atlantic magazine, ominously titled “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” Jean M. Twenge aligns the parallels between the increase in smartphones and social media and the increases in juvenile depression, anxiety and suicide. She calls those born between 1995 and 2012 the iGen and says, “The arrival of the smartphone has radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives, from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health."

Twenge allows that not all the results are bad. “More comfortable in their bedrooms than in a car or at a party, today’s teens are physically safer than teens have ever been,” she writes.

But the greater physical safety is far off balanced by the mental dangers. “Psychologically, however, they are more vulnerable …. It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.”

And the damage extends to the very core of kids’ well-being. The article concludes, “Teens who spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy, and those who spend more time than average on nonscreen activities are more likely to be happy.”

So what is a parent to do?

As we watch each of our own grown children’s approach to governing and limiting the screen time and social media of our grandchildren, we are impressed with how aware the kids are of using and enjoying their gadgets but not letting them take over their lives.

Our 13-year-old granddaughter Hazel puts it this way: “It can kind of dull you and make you not aware of the real things going on around you.”

And she has come to an interesting conclusion: “A smartphone can keep you from being bored, but I’ve decided that boredom can be a good thing because it makes you think, and sometimes you become creative when you are bored.”

Parents face an interesting choice. They can view the smartphone/screen time conundrum as a big oppressive, unsolvable problem and wring their hands about it, or they can see it as an opportunity to teach their children a wonderful form of discernment.

Here are some suggestions if you choose the latter.

Think about that word discernment for a moment. Is there any skill or aptitude you would rather give to your children than discernment? Discernment is the attribute that will help them choose good friends, make good decisions, avoid toxic and dangerous persons or situations, and sort out what is good in life and what is not good.

And discernment is the skill that can help kids see both the pros and cons of technology. Your arbitrary and authoritarian rules and time limits will not be nearly as effective as some technology guidelines and limitations that you arrive at together with your children via extended discussions about the subject.

Ask kids what the pros and cons of technology are. You will be surprised at how much they know about the dangers of using it excessively. Ask them what they think the pros and cons of social media are. Make a two-column chart and list the positives and negatives.

Don’t rush it. Start the discussion and set it aside when attention wains. Pick up the discussion again when the time is right. Let kids know you respect their thoughts and input. Share with them the facts and figures from the Atlantic article mentioned above. Ask how they feel about the conclusions the article draws.

Once you get a flourishing list of pros and cons, ask kids what they think the rules or the standards ought to be. How much screen time? How to handle smartphones? How to handle social media? Read them the eight guidelines from the previous article and ask what they think about them. Tell them that those guidelines are general and that one size doesn’t fit all. Decide together on your own rules and limits.

Take this proactive, discussion-based approach, and we promise you that the results will be worth the time and effort and will make a difference in your kids' life (and in your life, too!).

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