Do parents need rules for screen time too?

Sara is a Norweigan mum of two who posted this picture which went viral. Picture: @saraaemiliee, Instagram

By Danielle Galvin

When Norwegian “mum influencer” Sara Emilie Tandberg shared an image on her Instagram account to her 250,000 followers around the globe engrossed in her phone next to her young son, she struck a painful chord.

The mum of two captioned the powerful image “Are you present or are you a ghost in your own life? Wherever you go, you see it. How addicted everyone is, how much time the phone takes from us.”

In the digital age, adults, teens and children alike are increasingly addicted to tablets and phones and screens.

Most toddlers know how to open up an app on their parents phones, or flick through pictures.

In her post, Tandberg admits her New Year’s resolution was to use her phone less.

“It’s not just me. Big family dinners, friends hanging out. Parents at the playground,” she wrote.

“I see it everyday. We are not present anymore.”

It is a sad indictment on 21st century life when you witness a curious child attempting to engage their parent, wrapped up in their phone inadvertently ignoring their child.

Educational and developmental psychologist Kelly-Ann Allen explains most of us have no idea how many hours we spend glued to our devices.

“Studies have shown that we drastically underestimate how much time we spend on our own devices,” she said.

“On average, parents reportedly spend anywhere from 9-11 hours of screen time a day, and at least 80% of that time is outside of work hours.”

Parents are bombarded with stories in the media about how much time their child spends watching TV or playing on a tablet.

But when it comes to our own screen addictions – do parents need guidelines too?

“Let’s answer this question by asking another question. How much quality time do you spend with your family a day? Or, how much time to you spend outside or exercising or enjoying a hobby?

“Do you find that some things are slipping as a result of your screen time? If the answer is no, then perhaps you don’t need any guidelines for your personal screen time,” Dr Allen said.

“However, if you’re not confident in your answers to these questions, then it might be a good idea to manage your screen time better so you can find a healthy balance in your life.”

But it’s equally important not to view screens as the devil – there are benefits.

“On that point, Jocelyn Brewer, cyberpsychologist, provides the perspective that digital technology should be viewed no differently from eating chocolate,” Dr Allen explains.

“Consuming too much can be unhealthy. Jocelyn uses a digital nutrition analogy to discuss and explore how digital technologies can be used effectively and productively.

“Platforms that rely on digital technology should not be demonised simply because they use a screen.

“There is much to benefit from technology and we shouldn’t ignore that fact.”

The difficulty for parents the world over is the fact that many are expected to be reachable all the time.

Most parents would have said to their child at one point “hang on, I’m responding to this text/email”.

But Dr Allen said children may hear when their parents choose to “finish” something on their phone or laptop that their seemingly important need is less worthy of their parents’ time.

“Children don’t have a concept of the importance of paying a bill, replying to an email, or texting another mum back. They just see that their needs are coming second to their parents’ phone,” she said.

“If a parent is receiving a constant stream of interruptions it may be wise to schedule blocks of time for responding to emails or texts and paying bills, et cetera. then the child may be able to differentiate between “work” time and “play” time.

“Having said that, parents should use their personal discretion over what suits their own individual needs and contexts. There are a lot of factors to consider.

“One thing that parents can think about is the role they play in being a role model for digital etiquette and social engagement, with others.

“And for this reason, it’s never a bad idea for parents to regulate their screen time.”

More so, the research is beginning to show some of the impacts, despite the array of benefits digital technology brings.

“Research tells us that some children feel they are competing with smartphones for their parents’ attention, because even if a parent is sharing a moment with their children, all it takes is the sound of a phone notification to interrupt their quality time,” she said.

“This is especially true for parents who are juggling multiple roles and always feel like they must be “on” and “available” at any given moment.

“In these cases, children tend to take the back seat to the other, more immediate demands.”

At the end of Sanderberg’s post which went viral around the world was a rather apt warning: “Don’t let it replace your friends and family.”

Tips from an expert – how to regulate your own screen time

Of course, not all screen time is bad. Like anything else, a healthy dose of screen time in moderation can prove to be quite beneficial.

For instance, children use iPads and tablets regularly during their school time for key learning opportunities. Parents can nurture that learning at home as an extension of their school time.

Not to mention, there are excellent interactive learning television programs that have shown to be beneficial especially when parents are viewing with their children and discussing what they are watching.

In terms of parents and their own screen time use, it can be useful for parents to have conversations with their children about what they are doing – read message out loud or try to involve their children in the response (if age appropriate).

Parents can use their phone for positive moments of connection- reading an ebook, reminiscing over old photos.

But most importantly parents need to keep reaslistic expectations around phone use.

It’s okay to engage in digital technology including their mobile phones – in fact, by doing so it may actually model good habits and behaviours for their children who will grow up in a world immersed in such technologies.

– Dr Kelly-Ann Allen