If you’re a parent with young children, it’s easy to get overwhelmed with all the conflicting advice, instructions, and warnings about screen time you find online. There’s a lot of information out there, but who can you trust, especially when it comes to raising your child? To clear things up and set the record straight, we consulted an expert. Dr. Meghan Owenz is a psychologist and professor, a mother of two, and runs the Screen Free Parenting website with her husband. We asked her about her website, her own experience with screen-free parenting, and what she recommends to other parents out there who are wondering if—or how—their family should go screen-free.
Tell us a little bit about Screen Free Parenting and your mission.
I run the Screen Free Parenting website with my husband. We have two young children who are 6- and 3-years-old. We started the site to give parents, grandparents and educators a place to connect with others who believe children do best with limited screen-time. We do two main things on our site on a weekly basis: an article about some recent research related to parenting—especially around screens—and an article with five screen-free things our kids did in the last week. We hope this serves to inspire other parents. I have developed a system of prioritizing children’s activities that encourages parents and caregivers to put more weight on activities tied to positive child development. The SPOIL system highlights social activities, free play, outdoor time, independent work (like chores), and literacy-based activities. We hope families can focus on these fun activities as a way of limiting screen-time battles.
What are some of the negative effects of screens on children that you aim to reverse through Screen Free Parenting?
For young children, there are five main negative associations with excessive recreational screen-time that we highlight. We call them the reasons to SWAAT screen-time:
- Sleep: excessive screen time is associated with later bedtimes and less overall sleep
- Weight: because of the relationship between excessive screen time and excess weight
- Attention: entertainment-based screen-time has been associated with decreased attentional abilities
- Aggression: research shows watching aggressive programming (as many children’s shows feature) is associated with real-world aggression
- Talking: for young toddlers and infants, excessive screen-time is associated with smaller vocabularies and a slower expansion of vocabulary.
For the research and more information on those reasons, see this article, which is one of the first we ever wrote for our site: Find it here.
If a parent is trying to reduce or eliminate screens in their kids’ lives, where should they start?
We work with a lot of parents who don’t start out screen-free or screen-lite. Rather, they found screen-time spiraled out of control and now they are trying to reel it back in after noticing some negative consequences in their own children. That is not the parent’s fault. That’s the way the technology is made now: it is designed to reel and keep kids in. It’s no wonder they have trouble shifting away from it. There are two approaches that seem to work well:
- Going cold turkey for a period of time to see how your child’s behavior changes
- Cutting negative content and bad habits, like screen-time before bed, in the morning and in the car.
How do you recommend responding to the protests of “my friend has/watches XYZ” when parenting screen-free?
If parents believe going screen-lite or screen-free is best for their child, I think it is much easier to deal with those type of complaints. In our house, we really don’t get those complaints yet as our children are quite young. However, I know they are coming as there are certain types of screen-time I will never tolerate (i.e., violence). I would simply explain that our family values certain things more than screen-time or that type of screen-time, therefore we don’t see that. Every family has different values and rules. If the parent is confident in their limit setting, the child will follow. I also recommend parents seek support from one another on these issues. We have created two forums for parents to do just that: A Facebook Closed Community Group and a Forum on our website.
What do kids typically see as the biggest “miss” by not having or using screens regularly?
I don’t see one! If I felt my kids were missing something positive, I would give it to them. As my children get a little older, I’m sure I’ll feel they are missing things (perhaps social interaction) and I’ll give them appropriate screen-time for that purpose. I feel my kids are getting so much more by being screen-free at these ages. They get long interrupted blocks of imaginative play, creativity, good sleep, and the ability to entertain themselves for a start.
What are some of the positive changes you’ve observed in families after seeing screen-time eliminated or reduced?
Families typically report that they see very positive changes in their own children when they reduce or eliminate screen-time. There is usually a period of adjustment where their young child’s behavior is worse (more tantrums, etc.) while they adjust. After that period, parents have reported a calmer, more content child who sleeps easier and becomes incredibly involved in their own play. Watching a child play in their own imaginative way (not by replicating or reprocessing a film) is a beautiful thing that all parents enjoy.
How does a parent’s use of screens and technology affect his or her children?
Greatly! Parents are the model. I follow a lot of rules in my own life around screens that I might not be so particular about if I didn’t have children. I don’t allow phones at the table, don’t use them in my car, and always put my phone down when someone comes to talk to me. These rules are for me, not my children, since they don’t have phones. However, they are the ways I would want my children to treat me, so I provide that same courtesy to them. There is a research study conducted by Dr. Jenny Radesky which observed parents in fast-food restaurants—it found that children really had to amp up their misbehavior to get their parents’ attention when the parents were using digital devices. Another study of infant-parent dads found that infant attention span was affected by their parents looking down at their phone during play time.
What element of screens do you think is the biggest culprit of negative behavior in kids? (TV shows, texting, social media, etc.)
I don’t have a great answer to this question. I take a developmental approach to tech and kids. I think different types of tech affect them differently at different ages. For young children, I am concerned about TV shows and interactive games. For adolescents, I would be most concerned about social media, as research suggests the more time teens spend with screens, the less happy they are. I also think it depends greatly on the kid. As a parent, you need to be a little bit of a scientist with a sample size of one. Watch your child and his or her habits and modify things regularly as you note positive or negative effects.
Is there a recommended or realistic age that screens start becoming a part of a child’s life?
Absolutely! I think it is different for each particular kid and family. I don’t recommend being screen-free with a teenager and the research doesn’t support it either. For us, we have stayed screen-free for the first 5 years. Our daughter, who is six, now uses screens at museums, a little bit at school and with us at home to look up the weather, take pictures or search for music to dance to. We are always modifying our rules based on what we believe is best for our children. To see the general layout of how we plan to allow screen-time as our children age, see this article.
Any other words of wisdom or recommendations for families who want to have a better offline relationship but don’t know how to do it?
I recommend parents do a little experiment and cut screen-time for a weekend. See how the family connects differently and make adjustments from there. This article describes a research study where parents did just that. Here is a success story from a reader who cut back screen-time and saw some great results.
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