Six months into the pandemic, 70% of parents estimated that their children were spending at least four hours a day in front of screens. Now, as gathering restrictions ease and we enter the summer months, some parents are looking to cut down on screen time.
University of Minnesota Professor Jodi Dworkin speaks to how screen time usage has changed, provides advice for parents, and the importance of screen-free time for families.
Q: How has screen time usage changed during the pandemic?
Prof. Dworkin: In many families, screen time has naturally increased. Young people were online for school, their after school activities also went online, and online spaces were perhaps the only source of social interaction due to limited in-person engagements. Parents were forced to make decisions they weren’t planning to make, such as should my teen get a cell phone now (e.g., I was planning on waiting another year) and should my teen be allowed to sign up for social media or play online games with friends. It’s not surprising that during the pandemic parents made different decisions than they would have otherwise.
It’s important to recognize that different decisions are not bad decisions and don’t mean a previous decision was wrong. Context changes and parenting requires responding to that changing context. When young people had limited time with friends, parents may have become more flexible with rules around screen time by allowing more screen time or allowing their teen to join TikTok when they had previously said no. As in-person spaces reopen, it makes sense to revisit those guidelines. More in-person time with friends should mean less online time with friends.
Q: What are the pros and cons to screen time, and is all screen time created equal?
Prof. Dworkin: All screen time is certainly not the same; being online for school is not the same as playing Minecraft or Among Us. Internet use can provide young people with opportunities to express themselves, try out different identities, and connect with others who are like them or with family and friends who are not geographically close. It can also be a good source of information when they have questions they are not comfortable asking someone they know.
When parents and children watch TV or movies, or search the internet together, it is an opportunity to talk about responsible gaming and how to sort through all the information young people find online. Screen time can also put teens at risk for cyberbullying, as well as interactions with people who are pretending to be someone else. Sharing personal information can put people at risk, whether it’s an address or phone number, or a picture that is only intended for one person. It’s important for parents and their children to remember that once information is online, you can’t control how other people will use or share it.
Q: What’s your advice for parents and caring adults who are navigating conversations with children and teenagers about limiting screen time usage?
Prof. Dworkin: As schools and out-of-school programs reopen and young people have more physical spaces to be in, screen time will naturally decrease. Some young people will be thrilled to be able to interact with friends in person and others will have established new patterns of online social behavior. What’s important to remember is that family rules are generally never set in stone. Rules (and parents) should be flexible to meet their children where they’re at, recognizing everything else that’s going on in their life.
Parents should have open conversations with their teens about why their screen time likely increased over the past year and why there is an expectation that screen time will change when kids are no longer in distance learning for school and have more chances to interact with friends in-person. Engage your teen in that discussion, ask them to share what they think are the pros and cons of screen time, and how they think their screen time should change.
Q: How can parents and caring adults build in screen-free time each day?
Prof. Dworkin: Setting family rules about screen time is really important. This means rules that apply to everyone and are not just for young people. For example, a family rule that builds in screen-free time each day could be no phones or technology at meals or during certain family activities, or no technology before school or after 9 p.m. Perhaps a few screen-free hours each day are reserved for reading and/or outdoor play. When parents can model screen-free time and make it part of the family routine, that helps their children understand that screen-free time is important and helps them learn what it means and what that time can look like. Kids may complain at first when a new rule is implemented, but they will soon adjust and find other ways to spend their time.
Q: What does your research show in this area?
Prof. Dworkin: I have been studying families and technology use for more than a decade. It’s not surprising that we consistently find both parents and young people are frequently online and using different online tools to stay connected. Technology can be a source of support in families, and it allows parents to check in on their children and lets children check in with their families. Technology can be a quick and easy way to show support and make plans when you’re not together. Just like when you’re in person, however, parents need to respect their children’s virtual space and spaces where children are spending time with peers.
An important finding from my research is that, when we survey adolescents, young adults and parents — despite high rates of technology use — young people still want to communicate and connect in person with family and friends. They are not relying only on technology for communication, support and social interaction. Technology is just another tool for maintaining relationships. Parents should not assume children prefer screen time to in-person interactions and should work to maintain those in-person interactions and seek to balance that with technology use.
Jodi Dworkin is the College of Education and Human Development’s Family Social Science department head. Dworkin is also a University of Minnesota Extension Specialist. Her expertise includes: technology and family development; the role of technology in familial communications; promoting positive family development; and parenting adolescents and college students.
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