LIM­IT­ING SCREEN TIME FOR YOUR KID? IT’S HARDER THAN IT LOOKS

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It is Satur­day morn­ing, and 10-year-old Henry Hai­ley is up at the crack of dawn. Still in PJs, his mi­cro­phone-equipped head­phones glow­ing blue in the dim base­ment, he fix­ates on the pop­u­lar on­line game “Fort­nite” on a large screen.

“What?! Right as I was about to fin­ish it, I died,” he calls out dis­ap­point­edly to his friend Gus, a fel­low fifth-grader play­ing the game from his home just a few blocks away. “Dude, I should NOT have died.”

The dig­i­tal bat­tles re­sume, and Henry’s en­thu­si­asm never wanes. Would he play all day if his par­ents let him? “Prob­a­bly,” he con­cedes with a slight grin.

But they do not. Like many other par­ents, the Hai­leys are on a rein­vig­o­rated mis­sion to limit screen time for Henry and his 15-yearold brother, Everett. For some par­ents, it feels like an ex­er­cise in fu­til­ity. They are busy, over­whelmed and tired of the fight against in­creas­ingly om­nipresent screens.

Get­ting Henry off screens has been a con­stant bat­tle, his par­ents say. “Then once he’s off, there’s a lot of com­plain­ing and grumpi­ness for a while as we try to coax him to do some­thing else,” says his mom, Barb Hai­ley. “He’s upset. Mom is a crank. What is it all for?”

The goal, ex­perts say, should be to help kids learn to man­age their own time as they get older and to stay phys­i­cally ac­tive and so­cially con­nected as much off­line as on. But par­ents in many Amer­i­can house­holds are find­ing the power strug­gles — tantrums, with­drawal and, in some cases, even school and dis­ci­pline prob­lems — dif­fi­cult, es­pe­cially as more kids get ac­cess to screens at younger and younger ages.

A sur­vey of 13- to 17-year-olds re­leased this fall by the non­profit Com­mon Sense Me­dia found that 95 per­cent of U.S. teens have their own mo­bile de­vice. Seventy per­cent of them check so­cial me­dia sev­eral times a day, up from 34 per­cent in 2012. More than half say that their de­vices dis­tract them from home­work or the peo­ple they’re with.

Some tech com­pa­nies now at least ac­knowl­edge con­cerns about over-use and out­right abuse of dig­i­tal me­dia. Ap­ple in­sti­tuted a “Screen Time” func­tion in its lat­est iPhone soft­ware. It mon­i­tors app use and al­lows users — or their par­ents — to es­tab­lish lim­its. Google For Fam­i­lies and Google Play, found on An­droid phones, and var­i­ous in­de­pen­dent apps also al­low par­ents to mon­i­tor and set some re­stric­tions.

But those fea­tures aren’t en­abled by de­fault, so new lim­its can come as a shock to those on the re­ceiv­ing end.

That hap­pened late this sum­mer in the Hai­ley house­hold on Chicago’s North Side af­ter dad, Allen Hai­ley, be­gan watch­ing the amount of time el­der son Everett was spend­ing on Wi-Fi. The teen was clock­ing more than four hours a day on sports videos, games and chats with friends on so­cial me­dia.

“I don’t think he had any idea how much time he was spend­ing on­line,” says the fa­ther, who de­cided to block both boys from Wi-Fi dur­ing cer­tain hours. He tested it out one night with­out warn­ing.

One minute, Everett was talk­ing to a friend on so­cial me­dia. “Then it went out,” says the teen, who im­me­di­ately com­plained aloud about the in­jus­tice of it all. Dad held firm and told him he needed to read a book or go out­side to shoot hoops.

“I didn’t do any­thing wrong to de­serve that,” Everett still in­sists. “If I get my work done, I think I should have my own time.”

Re­searchers who study these trends gen­er­ally re­frain from us­ing the word “ad­dic­tion” when it comes to screens, as it’s not an of­fi­cial di­ag­no­sis in the men­tal health world. But this sum­mer, the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion added “gam­ing dis­or­der” to its list of af­flic­tions. That is gam­ing that se­verely in­ter­feres with re­la­tion­ships, school and work. The di­ag­no­sis is still un­der re­view by U.S. health au­thor­i­ties.

Some­times, ex­perts say, dig­i­tal im­mer­sion ex­ac­er­bates an ex­ist­ing con­di­tion, such as de­pres­sion, anx­i­ety or is­sues with body im­age. That’s why teens who at­tend treat­ment at New­port Academy, a res­i­den­tial re­hab and men­tal health pro­gram with sites across the coun­try, must check their dig­i­tal de­vices at the door when they ar­rive.

“Al­most al­ways, one of the symp­toms is an ex­ces­sive amount of time on smart­phones,” says Heather Se­nior Mon­roe, a New­port Academy ad­min­is­tra­tor and li­censed clin­i­cal so­cial worker. “And it’s usu­ally a large symp­tom.”

A small num­ber of fa­cil­i­ties have sprung up or added pro­grams to specif­i­cally ad­dress the abuse of dig­i­tal me­dia. And in Wash­ing­ton state, a hub of high tech, there’s a 12-step group called In­ter­net & Tech Ad­dic­tion Anony­mous .

From Henry and Everett’s per­spec­tive, the real prob­lem is that their par­ents seem stricter than most.

Like a lot of teens, Everett of­ten uses mul­ti­ple screens in the evening. He saved his own money to buy him­self an older-model iPhone — “to fit in,” he says — and also uses a Chrome­book lap­top for home­work. At his age, his mom says, his screen habits may be “a lost cause.”

But she keeps work­ing on lim­its for Henry. Games are not al­lowed on week­days. And he gets screen time only if all his home­work is done.

Ex­perts say time lim­its can help but are some­times a moot point given how deeply tech­nol­ogy is “em­bed­ded in our daily life,” says Sarah Do­moff, a psy­chol­o­gist at Cen­tral Michi­gan Uni­ver­sity.

In­stead she asks par­ents: How are your chil­dren do­ing in school? Are they ac­tive and phys­i­cally healthy? Are they con­nect­ing with oth­ers in pos­i­tive ways?

She does have a few ba­sic rules, in­clud­ing lim­it­ing screen time for younger kids to the ed­u­ca­tional stuff. She also sug­gests mak­ing be­d­rooms “screen-free zones,” even for teens. (Other ex­perts, at the very least, ad­vise keep­ing de­vices out of rooms overnight to avoid latenight shenani­gans or other sleep in­ter­rup­tions.)

The Hai­leys sheep­ishly note that Everett rou­tinely mul­ti­tasks in his room with one eye on the Chrome­book and of­ten the other on his phone. “I think we’re kind of wimps,” Barb Hai­ley says. Henry doesn’t have a phone — yet.

But phones and other screens are not al­lowed dur­ing meals — a limit both boys seem to ap­pre­ci­ate. Everett says when they go out to eat, he hap­pily leaves his phone in the car and mar­vels at the num­ber of other fam­i­lies who are

at the ta­ble with screens. “That just looks bad,” he says.

Man­ag­ing all this is no easy task, even for ex­perts such as Sierra Filucci, ex­ec­u­tive ed­i­tor of par­ent­ing con­tent at Com­mon Sense Me­dia, an or­ga­ni­za­tion that helps fam­i­lies nav­i­gate the dig­i­tal world.

Her own 12-year-old son, like Henry, is a fan of “Fort­nite.” She’s wit­nessed the “bad at­ti­tude” when he’s asked to get off the game and take out the garbage or find some­thing to do that doesn’t in­volve a screen. But she also sees the pos­i­tives — con­nec­tions he’s made with new friends at school, for in­stance. For her, the ques­tion is: “How do we help him self-reg­u­late?”

Some par­ents sim­ply put off get­ting their kid a phone. Jac­qui Koch, a col­lege pro­fes­sor and mother in Wil­mette, Illi­nois, had her sixth-grade daugh­ter sign a pledge to wait un­til eighth grade for a smart­phone — part of the na­tional ”Wait Un­til 8th ” move­ment. Her daugh­ter didn’t put up much fuss, in part be­cause mom has lim­ited tech use for years.

“We are def­i­nitely not the norm of what we’re sur­rounded by,” Koch says, not­ing that she saw a “huge uptick” of kids with phones in fifth grade. Now some par­ents she knows are try­ing to backpedal, “and that’s hard,” she says.

The idea is that Wait Un­til 8th and events such as the Na­tional Day of Un­plug­ging, an an­nual event in March, will make screen lim­its more so­cially ac­cept­able and less like an adult-world im­po­si­tion on kids.

An­other key: Par­ents set­ting lim­its with their own de­vices.

When Allen Hai­ley is on his phone while watch­ing a foot­ball game, Everett is quick to tell him that he’s on his phone too much. “He gets re­ally mad,” Everett says.

When mom comes home, she says she tries to put down her phone, though it’s hard not to check emails for work. “Let me just check in,” she’ll say — and be­fore long finds her­self on In­sta­gram and Face­book.

“You can go down the rab­bit hole so eas­ily,” Barb Hai­ley says. “Then you get it thrown back in your face.”

It’s not an easy bal­ance to strike, but all the Hai­leys are try­ing. “We may not like it,” Everett says, as his lit­tle brother nods. “But we know it’s for the best.”

Their dad still wants his boys to read 30 min­utes a day. Af­ter he put the lim­its on the Wi-Fi, Everett went out and bought two books, then texted Dad pho­tos of them to prove he’d done it.

The boys do reg­u­larly hang out with friends in per­son, and both play soc­cer. Everett plays the sax­o­phone. Henry plays trum­pet and re­cently took up the drums.

Mom laughs: “So when we say, ‘Get off the screen’ and he goes and plays the snare drum, we have to live with that de­ci­sion.”

On­line: Com­mon Sense Me­dia re­port WHO gam­ing dis­or­der In­ter­net & Tech Ad­dic­tion Anony­mous Wait Un­til 8th Na­tional Day of Un­plug­ging

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