When is screen-time looking like scream-time in your home…?

And is it worth the conflict? Some common sense perspectives on how to evaluate the quality and quantity of screen time at home…

Being a parent in this digital age we are in, post-pandemic, is not fun. It’s one of the most popular topics I get to talk about in my webinars for parents with sign-ups getting close to maxing out my capacity for attendance! 

And it feels like it’s a massive source of tension and parental guilt. We are constantly told that screens are bad – that our kids and teens are on screens too much. That excessive gaming and scrolling is bad for focus, self esteem, bad for boundaries etc. 

When I talk about the influence of smartphones, tablets, screens in the lives of our kids, it is true, I am often taking a safeguarding approach. Because that’s our primary job, as parents – to keep our children safe and well…and ensure they have a rich and balanced upbringing.

Doing this well in the fast-moving, ever-changing digital space can feel overwhelming…as well as being laden with unforeseen consequences and conflicts…And the irony is, we are the economic gatekeepers of it all! It’s our hard earned cash, our choices that initiate, fuel, and facilitate this new source of worry and threat. It’s exhausting! Monitoring, limiting, supervising…

Photo of Doug Aitken sculpture – exhausted woman with phone.

But the situation is often much more nuanced. No doubt, screen use, screen-time, has proliferated – and we need to be mindful of how habits take hold at home. How, thanks to persuasive design, family life can become a more bunkered affair than we ever would have chosen – with potentially family members young and old deeply embedded in their own digital silos. 

As a coach, I have worked with numerous parents who have wanted to re-set the way things operate around screen-time in their home – feeling, for instance, that the separation from their tweens and teens has gone too far, that the conflict loops they repeatedly have around getting off screens fuel dissatisfaction and further disconnection. 

And it’s true, context is all. Reading articles, parenting manuals, and attending talks are all well and good- but the advice is general, and not specific to the needs, values, circumstances of each uniquely different home. What works for one set of parents and one family, will be entirely different for another.

This article aims to triage things for you, dear readers. So you can separate out some good working principles with respect to what to watch for, and how to frame what’s good, bad, or ugly in the way screen interactions at home impact on quality real life interactions and relationships. 

Health checking what’s going on with screens at home…

Questions to ask yourself…Curiosity investigations…

1. Beyond the time issue, what’s the quality of your children’s screen interaction – as opposed to the quantity. Pay attention to what the impact of their screen use tends to be – on their mood, on their behaviour, of their physiology. Does it make them crabby, irritable, snappish, headachey. Does it mean they routinely tip over the edges of basic physical self-regulation…eg getting hangry, thirsty, bursting for the loo? Or do they gain fulfilment and satisfaction from their screen use to the extent that they are able to express and appreciate it?

2. Are they a creator or a consumer? Do their screen activities support and nurture creativity? Are they using their screen to gain mastery of drawing, graphics, music skills? Are they creating and sharing their own original material (if you consider them old enough to do so)? It is fascinating to see how kids and teens spend a great deal of time watching YouTubers at play creating content…essentially outsourcing their play rather than inspiring activity…The research shows that active use of social media by creating content can be a great vehicle for nurturing self esteem. Of course self-management around managing impulsivity before posting and handling responses to their content needs support! We / our kids get into trouble, where they are a scrolling, passive consumer of the bottomless pit of other people’s material which is problematic in terms of fuelling social comparison, lowering self-conception. 

3. Are they engaging in junk-food online relationships or a balanced diet of quality interactions. Again, this links to the active vs passive use – particularly of social media. Communications that are mass-market have less nutritional value in terms of relational health and connectedness. So scrolling and not interacting at all is lowest ranking in connection. One step up from that would be marking a like or a basic emoji response. Higher amounts of vitamin c (connection) are found in comments. Far greater in a personal message or email direct to the other person and even more than that in a phone call or a face-time. The more 1:1 and bespoke the communication, the better the quality of the interaction, and the more nourishing to wellbeing and self-hood. So again, looking at the quality of how they are using their devices to communicate is a better question to ask, than leaping into judgment or conflict loops of criticism because they are ‘Always on Tiktok / Snapchat/ WhatsApp’. Curiosity is your friend…what are they doing? What is the impact on how they feel? How can they be nudged into ways of being online that can have a better impact on how they feel…The mobile phone is also…erm…a phone! Who knew!!

4. What is the texture and quality of the apps they use and the online games they play? Their devices can deliver sensory overload, massive jolts of immersive stimulation, amazing graphics, music, stimulating ultra fast reactions…No doubt there are games that will get them revved up…activated, energised, absorbed. And yes, there’s almost an ‘addicted’ hanging in the air there…But actually, it’s a great thing to be able to experience what it’s like from the inside-out. Once you understand how all consuming games like Call of Duty can be, you can probably handle ways of interrupting your teen more elegantly and empathically and help them manage transition back into life and doing things like eat, sleep, wash. As Machiavelli said, keep your enemies closer…Befriend your teen, befriend the games they find so desirable, then you’ve got a richer base of information to connect, and redirect. 

5. Do they also have an online life that helps them access calm, revving them down? There are some beautiful games that have a meditative quality, relaxing, repetitive, left brain focus…like Prune. Or beautiful puzzle games involving close observation skills…like Gorogoa or Monument Valley. Apps like Calm, mindfulness meditation apps, apps that support that mind-body connection and help learn soothing self-regulation skills, like using soundscapes. 

6. What’s the purpose of their screen use, and how focused is it? Because laptops and devices are used for work, rest, and play. Schools are increasingly using online resources for homework, revision tools, and this muddies the water and makes it harder for parents to distinguish between good, bad, ugly quality and quantity time online…Checking in with how your teen is handling notifications – so that distractions can be minimised within tasks is important – because every time they switch task, their cognition is slowed. Our brains don’t like interruption – and contrary to widely held beliefs, they are not designed for multi-tasking…Homework can be a bottomless pit of time, if your teen is constantly pinging between the task, the notification, and the message or update… Walk the walk on time – don’t be permissive of using a blank check of time for work but restrictive of fun or creativity online. Kids don’t become effective in time management until their very late teens or early twenties…and some never do! It’s an executive functioning skill that they acquire over time and experience. 

7. What’s the tone of their interactions and body language when they are on their devices…Employing passive surveillance – encouraging working and using devices in public places is a very effective tool for noticing. You can’t change what you can’t see – so being able to be around them to see the quality and intensity of their focus, signs of distraction, frustration…helping them notice for themselves and develop the tools to ‘reset’ themselves in body as well as mindset…A vision funnelling to the laptop or tablet screen is incredibly short range…and helping them notice in their bodies how that ‘crampening’ looks and feels is very helpful for them to be able to use their agency, change vista, take in more of a gestalt…What’s the tone when they are doing remote multiplayer sessions? Is the dialogue a bit edgy and aggressive? Having the door open, being around them and listening to the music – rather than the lyrics of that dialogue (I am not proposing full-on surveillance!) is helpful for you to be able to ask reflective questions about their experiences…check in about appropriateness…What’s the tone of their messages in the different groups they are in? How are they handling that online? Being present to that intermittently with them – managing openness and some transparency as part of your ‘contract’ or way of being with them – can be hugely helpful in enabling them to avoid digital conflict…

8. All healthy relationships should have a quality that the clinical psychologists and relationships researchers, the Gottmans (The Gottman Institute) call ‘pendulation’. This is the capacity for intimacy – coming together and being together. And autonomy – being apart, having one’s own space, a locus of control where you can make your own decisions…(very limited in modern times for young people!)…It is the quality of the apartness and togetherness that matters, the quality of the ability to come together. And that people in the family do regularly come together in quality ways, playfully, and connectedly…not just over functional stuff. Think about what is rewarding – truly rewarding – about your defaults when you connect as a family. What is in it for your teen to put down their screen and emerge from teenage pupation if it’s simply going to be a barrage of questions about homework and revision?

How does this help you look at your family life where screens and connection are concerned? Here is just a starter discussion that seeks to open up reflections on what you’re seeing and feeling about this aspect of family life in a way that’s a bit less scary, and more open and creative…

Maybe you and your partner (whether parenting in the home together or apart) have different views, and different boundaries, different pressures. AS much as I hear parents complain about their kids always being on screens, our kids complain about us being distracted and distant. The desire to check in on work emails…the challenges of hybrid working have disrupted the old clarity of work/life balance and boundaries I know our teenager will call me out tonight as I no doubt will be checking in to see how many looks and likes this post has!!!

Contact me if you have questions, comments, reactions you’d like to share…If you’d like a consultation on ways in which you might approach a screen – reset at home, let me know via my email address below.

Please share this link, and the sign up to my newsletter with friends and family – those you think would be interested and benefit…it really helps.http://eepurl.com/gORacn

Details of speaking events and workshops I run for parent groups at schools and in corporate settings are here: https://emmagleadhill.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/Parent-talks-for-schools-and-corporate-wellbeing-and-parenting-groups-Emma-Gleadhill-2022-23.pdf

More to explore