Setting healthy boundaries around screen use | Lifestyle.INQ

OCTOBER 27, 2022


Since we can’t measure screen time, it’s pointless to discuss it,” said Dr. Michael Rich, director of the Center on Media and Child Health, at the Screen Time and Mental Health Summit 2023. The event produced by Bright & Quirky delved into how to set healthy limits around screens.

A curious conundrum; we act like we know there’s such a thing as excessive screen time, yet here’s an expert saying it’s moot to talk about it, especially for digital natives who have always lived among screens.

The filmmaker-turned-“mediatrician” described “the next normal” not as pathology but as three moving targets. First, the human develops from infancy, adolescence to adulthood. Second, the change in our behavior, because of the smartphones in our pockets and smartwatches on our wrists. Third, the constantly evolving digital ecosystem that children move in and out of seamlessly, without thinking whether they’re online or offline, virtual or real.

“That digital ecosystem reflects their development because they’re constantly creating for it. These are the reflections of their lives,” Rich explained.

So how do we determine what is problematic from just regular life? Rich said we measure that by how well the child functions at home and in school. What are their pain points?

Screen-time cycle

Kids hate being in the middle of something and then told to stop. So, Rich suggested finding out what the cycle of whatever your child’s playing is, whether it’s 15 or 20 minutes, and have him remind you when the cycle has begun so you can prompt him to wrap up before he starts the next cool thing.

He reasoned that nobody likes to be told they’re doing something wrong or blocked from doing what they like. So, he works with the whole family and tells the parents to stop being the police and start supporting their kids’ success instead.

Rich said that another typical pain point is, kids have given up things they enjoy, like playing a sport or painting. So, we have to help them find something they love and give them back the steering wheel but with guardrails in place.

He shared a tip from his consults: “When kids realize I’m not there to take their computer away but to help them get themselves better, not force them to do something they don’t wanna do, then they engage.”



How do we build on what they’re good at? And, how do we make doing homework or going to bed feel good and realize that they don’t have to hide from you as a parent? Rich relies on a strengths-based model. He recommended building that fun into the day by considering alternative fun, like being outdoors, shooting hoops and hanging out with friends. Rich advised to schedule these when your child plays games and stack them onto something else he likes to do after that because games are all designed to make one lose track of time.

Say something like, “So let’s do homework first, and oh, by the way, we’re going to play basketball or parkour after this,” an activity they enjoy doing.

No excuse

It sounds like a lot of work to be this intentional. It’s easier to park kids in front of a screen so we can zone out on our own devices. But being very busy and exhausted is no excuse. Rich asked parent viewers to remember why they had kids: to bring human beings into the world to enjoy, raise and help be successful and happy.

He invited parents to step back and look at their device use. Many busy families dine with their smartphones and answer emails. “Kids hear about 1 percent of what you say but see 100 percent of what you do. To kids, that’s the height of hypocrisy. Model the behavior you want to see in your child,” he said.

Another thing he suggested that, oddly enough, people in the tech and entertainment industry are likely to try is taking a digital Sabbath weekly. Turn everything off. Participants usually say it was painful the first day they did it, but by the second day, it was liberating. They realized how much time they had in a day. They went for a walk, went to the playground or played catch.

“I think we forget how easily we give away our attention, our time. And there are companies out there who spend billions to capture our attention and time, and they’re very, very good at it,” said Rich. He noted how, in some countries, it’s taboo to send emails after office hours. It’s reclaiming our time and our family.

Rich said something sobering, “Your kids are only going to be 6 or 12 once. Soon, they’ll be off to college, and you’re gonna pine away for the times you had with them. These are the times you’re building that bank account of experience with them and their experience with you.” —CONTRIBUTED INQ

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