Parenting requires setting firm rules for your children. However, a major shift is underway when it comes to screen time. Backed by more flexible guidelines recently recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), parents are now encouraged to set boundaries instead of enforcing all-out restrictions on screen time.
In other words, instead of forcing hard-and-fast screen time rules that kids will probably break anyway, the data show that parents are better off establishing reasonable boundaries and giving their children some freedom within those lines to make their own choices. Make your children a part of the solution by discussing their online habits, and talking about why and how they might curb their own screen time. This approach can even strengthen your relationship with your kids: The resulting conversations will be rich and lifelong, and can lead to more transparency later on.
Boundaries vs. Rules: Beyond the AAP Shift
The revised AAP guidelines come after a number of parents found the previous recommendations to be unrealistic in today’s world, especially as children are now using interactive technology in early elementary school. Providing structured supervision and guidance around appropriate use of screens will help your children flourish when they need to navigate the digital world independently. By learning moderation under the guidance of a trusted adult, kids will begin to understand sensible ways to use their gadgets and know when to leave the screen aside in favor of some good old-fashioned fun and adventure — or even (gasp) allow boredom to creep in.
That’s right, as reported widely and backed by academic research, allowing kids to simply be bored can have a number of positive benefits. Referred to as ” stand-and-stare time” by a recent article from BBC News, periods of screen-free unstructured time may be just as important to fold in to your family’s daily life as trips to the park and museum.
Have conversations with your kids about what they can do when they having “nothing” to do, and you’ll build up their independence, as well as their creative and critical thinking skills. The idea is to stop thinking of the screen as a kind of go-to pacifier, and instead have conversations about the many tools we can use for fun, learning and productivity — screens being just one of them.
Context Matters: Passive vs. Active Screen Time
As Erin Strum at the blog Freelancing Mama points out, context is everything, especially when it comes to whether your child is engaging in “passive” or “active” screen time.
“Passive screen time has been shown to provide almost no benefit to children,” she writes. “Active screen time promotes brain activity and critical thinking.”
So, what’s the difference between the two? If your child is simply staring at a TV show or movie in which nothing is required of them, then they’re in the passive zone. If they’re interacting with an app, FaceTiming with a relative, or watching a show and clapping and dancing along to prompts, these all qualify as “active” screen time that can potentially offer educational benefits and important connections to the real world.
Once again, it’s important to talk with your kids about these differences instead of simply “banning” passive screen time. That approach can lead to power struggles and sneaky TV and smartphone sessions. Instead, encourage your kids to reflect on how they feel when they engage with screens, and encourage them to choose screen time that makes them feel more active, alert, and engaged, instead of turning them into a virtual zombie.
Real World Conversations about Digital Dangers
While being choosy about screen time can lead to a more engaged, satisfied life, it’s also important to talk with your kids about screens because of the real dangers that lie just on the other side of the keyboard. Conversations about screen time allow for honest communication around these dangers, such as sexting and cyberbullying, which affects up to 15% of all children. Discuss what information is OK and not OK to give out when using a screen, and make a plan around what they will do if they are hurt, threatened, or otherwise made to feel uncomfortable by a stranger in the digital world. Just like the “real” world, your kids will be safer when they have a trusted adult to confide in when something scares them.
Screens are part of daily life. We use them to work, shop, and communicate with the people we love. Start the conversation about screen time boundaries with your children instead of chiseling your family’s screen rules into stone. The flexibility of this approach not only can strengthen the foundation of communication in your family, but it also cuts parents a little slack as we all navigate this brand new digital world together.