Why We’ve Got Recommended Screen Time All Wrong
There seems to be an increasing number of memes, Facebook posts and articles going around at the moment about recommended screen time, often demonising digital devices. These snippets usually include a picture of a group of people using their phones, not interacting with those around them.
Maybe they’re standing on a train platform or on the bus during their commute; they might be in the park playing with their kids or perhaps on the sofa at home. The kind of caption that accompanies these posts is scathing, scared and cynical.
The captions talk of missed opportunities, lack of connection and “presence”, and fear monger about the harm that phones and digital tech can do to us both physically and emotionally.
This bothers me a lot. People are being bullied and pressured by the media- ironically, often online media- into justifying the way that they spend their time, and being made to feel guilty when they are not meeting someone else’s arbitrary standards for digital usage.
Recommended screen time: The risks
There are, certainly, risks involved in heavy use of phones, tablets and the like. Blue light from the screens can affect our melatonin and subsequently our sleep quality; we may be falling into the habit of having bad posture when slouching over a screen (guilty) or our families may be feeling neglected due to excessive use of it. Because of the portable nature of phones and tablets, they can become a crutch that we go to to avoid processing emotions properly, and this can end up becoming a bad habit.
There are of course risks from strangers online too, although we are far more likely to be harmed by someone we know that someone we come into contact with online.
The risks of digital usage are all things that can be taken care of without demonising tech, and without throwing the robotic baby out with the bath water. Remembering to sit up straight or get a stand for our devices can help posture; using a widely available blue-light filter app solves the light issue.
Creating new habits such as putting your phone upstairs when you get in so that you spend quality time talking to your family (or putting it in your bag, not on the table, when out with friends) are all easy and instant improvements that help us use tech in a better way.
We need to coach our kids about people who aren’t honest about who they are online, about the risks of meeting people we think we know from online, and about identity fraud. Having open and honest conversations is a better long-term strategy for helping our children deal with the potential risks of screens, than simply banning them or putting arbitrary limits on them.
Something that seems obvious to me is that improving relationships is probably more of a priority than controlling phone usage; if you have a great friendship or partnership with someone then you will of course be more likely to want to spend time talking with them instead of other people through a screen. Rather than seek out a recommended screen time with a view to limiting it, why don’t we focus on building good, solid relationships? It’s not rocket science.
Unfortunately in our era of hyper-convenience we have been taught to slap on a load of plasters instead of treating the wound, in the same way that thousands of kids are unnecessarily being medicated for being unwilling or unable to sit through a day of sedentary schooling, with little access to physical activity. If you have a very open relationship with your child, the chance of them sneaking off to meet someone they met online is decreased. If we focus on building relationships with partners and friends, the temptation to be on our phones while with them is decreased.
The Moral Panic About Screen Time
One of the things that bothers me about the general tech-centric hysteria is that it is both grossly exaggerated and taken out of context. I’m currently on a train from Surrey to London; it takes around one hour.
I’ve been taking notice of each platform I pass to see how many people are on their phones and if these little gadget-boxes really are as irresistible as the media seems to make out. Of all the platforms I’ve passed, not one has had more than a third of the people on phones, and many of them had headphones in and were listening to music.
Most people are looking down the track for their train, or staring at the sky with their hands in their pockets, or chatting. And the ones who are tapping and scrolling? Good! Maybe they are texting a loved one a sweet message, or sorting out some life admin so they can concentrate on their kids when they get home, or playing a fun game before they get to work. Good, good, good!
The same scene fifty years ago would have been interesting to compare. The majority of people would have had their heads buried in newspapers, absorbing the single, mainstream, censored channel of “newsworthy” information available to them.
Was that healthy? Think of the stereotype of the 1940s-1950s dad who came home from work, sat in his comfy chair and became just a hairline over the top of the paper, ignoring his kids as we are accused of doing today.
The Benefits Of Screen Time
We are very fortunate in this day and age to have at our fingertips most of the world’s knowledge; a life-long education is accessible to anyone who can read and access the Internet. We are also able to discern more clearly the events and news of our day; we have so many platforms and ways of spreading information that it is increasingly difficult to have the wool pulled over our eyes by biased media or unscrupulous politicians or single media outlets.
Here’s another thought that people seem to forget: life, particularly that of a stay at home parent, is often boring and lonely. I am privileged beyond measure to have been with my kids every day of their lives, but I don’t need to spend every second watching them. Often when they are happily playing in the park I’ll message friends or scroll through Instagram. Because I want to.
Because I need adult connection and conversation and novelty, and it’s not always possible to meet up with friends. (Also, how else would I see baby pandas playing in a basket of leaves?) What kind of example of autonomy and confidence would I be setting my kids if I sacrificed all outside contact with the world, in favour of hovering over them every second of the day?
I have used this train journey to do a load of work, text my husband and write this post. I’ve sent my mum, who is looking after my kids for the day, messages to read to each of the kids when they wake up. Tonight when I get in from meetings I will be freed up to spend time with my kids and husband, chat, play and cook them food.
We’ll eat together, (hopefully), play Dobble and then I might sit with my eldest as she learns some phonics on Teach My Monster to Read before we build a city in Minecraft together. She loves it, and I love watching her love something, and she has made fantastic creations that allow us as parents to see just what she’s capable of given freedom and unlimited creative resources.
Screen Time Is Not, In Itself, Addictive
Yes, digital tech can have a negative influence on us. Yes, we can use it poorly. Like any sport, hobby or career, it should be seen as a valuable resource to play a part in making our lives richer.
The issue, when it comes down to it, is not digital technology. It is a lack of connection between people, a distancing that creates a void that requires filling, and which people will fill with habits, drugs, social media, eating disorders, screen time and other compulsions and addictions in an attempt to fulfil themselves.
The opposite of addiction is not sobriety; it is connection. When we know that we are truly loved and accepted for who we are, the need to externally control or medicate ourselves and the things around us, diminishes.
We are not doing our kids any favours by shaming or scorning them or their digital pastimes; we are driving them further away and potentially closer to addiction.
My final thought, although this is simply my personal experience and not one that can be applied to everyone: I wouldn’t be able to travel full time or homeschool my kids without having an online and social media based job (see how we afford to travel with world full time here).
Because of it I’ve been able to stay at home with them and take in every precious moment of their childhood (and a load of stressful, boring ones). If that’s not valuable and worth a bit of time spent on my phone, I don’t know what is.
To see more posts about how we approach our relationship with our kids, click here for gentle parenting blog posts.