What to do if you’re worried about ‘screentime’

Fears about ‘screentime’ and how it might be affecting our children now and in the long term, are everywhere.

From concerns about whether they’re getting enough fresh air, exercise and physical contact with others, to the damage it might be doing to their posture – yep, as someone who’s had recurring back pain over many years this is a big one for me 🙁

And of course in the media – poor mental health, anti-social behaviour, lower concentration and attention levels, you name it, it’s been linked to an excess of screentime.

And with four lovelies ranging from 21 down to 7 years of age. You bet we’ve thought about this issue plenty over the years.

The common response to all this worrying is to tighten up and strengthen limits on our children’s use of electronic devices. 

But monitoring and enforcing limits can be exhausting. And many parents who take this option feel driven to despair, deeply uncomfortable and sick of fighting with their kids.

Enforcing limits on our children isn’t so great for them either. Limiting anything tends to make it more valuable so we’re artificially ramping up the appeal of whatever we’re trying to dissuade.

And not only that, but as humans, we don’t like feeling controlled. If we get so much as a whiff that others are trying to box us in, we’re naturally drawn to resist and defend ourselves. 

So it’s no wonder that enforcing limits can leave our children resentful, less willing to listen, co-operate and work with us, and be on the continual hunt for ways to increase their allotted time, whether they really want it or not.

In a nutshell, limits that are forced upon us, mess with our minds, our relationships, our learning and our sense of responsibility to ourselves and to others. Not good for our children, or for any of us.

But there are alternatives to imposing limits. And these have served our family of 6 well. Not just when doubts and worries about technology have raised their ugly heads, but generally making our lives sweeter and more peaceful every day.

‘I think the problem is the idea of “screen time.”

Have you considered putting limits on paper time?
           Cloth time?
                     Other-human time?’

—Sandra Dodd

As usual, Sandra has a point. Attempting to lump together all the amazing and hugely diverse activities that might involve a screen is surely unrealistic and misleading. And really when worries are expressed about ‘screentime’ and children, they’re often about video gaming.  

So in this post, I’ve put together a list of helpful suggestions on what we can do when we’re worried about the time our children spend on video games. But they’ll work just as well whatever the nature of our screen related worries.

If I’m not a fan of enforcing limits on children, you might wonder, does that mean I’m all for unlimited ‘screentime’. Crack open the games and play all day? Way hey party time 🙂 Well, yes and no. We’re certainly all for following the joy round here. But really I don’t think this is an either/or situation. Enforcing limits or unlimited ‘screens’? That’s not how life works.

For us and I’m sure for you too, our time on any screen is regularly interrupted by conversations, socialising with friends and family, other forms of play and work, the sharing of devices and televisions and internet bandwidth. Not forgetting those pesky bodily functions that will eventually make themselves felt. So many ways life robs me of time with the lovely Link 🙂

But, I know, some days just feel dominated by video games, our children can’t seem to get enough. And we start to get jittery, is this really okay? Read on my lovelies, read on….

1. First, let’s get curious

When our children spend a lot of time doing anything, there’s a reason. Our behaviour is always about meeting a need, somewhere, somehow. And spending time with them will help us learn more about what that is for our child.

But for this to be of any value whatsoever, we’ve got to get a hold of ourselves, no running off to assumption-ville, making our minds up before we’ve given this a chance. 

If we really want to find out more about what our children are doing, learning and enjoying we need to suspend our judgement, keep an open mind and stay curious.

Noticing their delight and observing their actions we might be surprised. Fortnite might seem a simple shoot-em-up. While there’s always been more to it than that, now there’s a separate creative mode where players can design maps and challenges for others, exercising their creativity and building skills.

Maybe our children are completionists and they want to collect the entire set of achievements, similar to our own childhood collections of Star Wars stickers – I know that wasn’t just me 🙂 

Or they enjoy the community aspects. Or the history, the music, the similarities and the contrasts between the physical and virtual world. All fascinating stuff.

2. Putting our relationships first

If you’ve spent any time reading my work you’ll know this is dear to my heart. Any time we start worrying about what our children are doing, that’s a great reminder to pay more attention to our relationships and how we can make them better and stronger. 

We want our children to feel loved, secure in their connection to us and confident that they matter. Spending time together is always a great idea. But think how much more appreciated and connected we feel when others take the time to join us in what we love.

Maybe that’s playing the games together, helping them research areas they want to learn more about or listening as they tell us all about their latest achievement. 

Simply being generous and encouraging with our attention, not only will we deepen our connections, but we might just gain a greater appreciation for what our children are doing. 

3. Stop spoiling their fun

When our children are playing video games then it’s natural any worries about gaming flood to the front of our minds. We might be tempted to share these, over and over again. Or find ourselves speaking on impulse, quick to belittle or criticise what our children are doing.

It can be helpful if we can take a step back and consider if what we’re about to say or do would be acceptable to another adult, or how we might feel if someone treated us this way.

Or if we’ve already wrecked the vibe and blurted out unhelpful thoughts, rather than wallowing in guilt and regret, we can remember…

It only takes a second to do better

– Sandra Dodd

We can pause and reflect, apologise when we’re out of line, maybe offer an olive branch a tasty monkey platter, or muffin-platter as they’re known in our house 🙂 Repair the damage as best we can, and move on. But, even better, if we can keep our concerns to ourselves, for now at least. Then we can help our children get the best out of the time they have, to fill up on whatever they’re gaining from the experience. To feel supported and comfortable with a sense of peace, abundance and hope, rather than feeling restricted, desperate and at odds with those they love the most.

4. Work on our own stuff

I know, keeping our thoughts to ourselves is tough, especially when it comes to our children. But if discussions about technology haven’t ended well before, it can be useful to allow some space and some time.

Ask ourselves some searching questions – What are we really worried about? What is the worst that could happen? And how likely is that, really?

Our children will soon be adults, soooo quickly. Whatever age they are now, believe me, the time will pass before we know it. And when they are, how much better for them to have gained experience and skills in making their own decisions. 

Experimenting with the consequences of their choices now, at home, in a safe space, with us to support them. Rather than leaving them to figure this stuff out later, alone when the stakes may be much higher.

Remembering we’re all unique and experience the world in our own special ways, we can watch out for the times we’re projecting our own issues on our children.

Just because we feel a certain way after a session on our computer, playing a game or whatever else the screen related activity might be, doesn’t mean our children will too.

And while we’re taking an honest look at ourselves, it’s worth considering how we respond when limits are placed on us. How do they make us feel, and do they work? 

Being honest with ourselves about how we might feel in our children’s position can help us reconsider how we relate to them.

Taking some time to research and explore alternative views on the value of gaming and the benefits it can bring can feel challenging but may offer some reassurance and relieve some of our stress and fear. 

Peter Gray has a couple of interesting articles to get us started, one exploring the idea of video game addiction here and the benefits of gaming here. Enjoy x

5. Invite conversation with our children

So now we’ve racked up some quality time with our children and ourselves 🙂 We’ve learnt more about the games they’re playing and given a lot of thought to the real nature of our concerns. 

Now we can get back to actually discussing this with our children, sharing our perspectives and hearing more about theirs. But hopefully by now, we’ve got a slightly different head on. 

We want our children to feel part of a team, to truly believe we’re on their side and have their best interests at heart. And if we’re still feeling pretty anxious and antsy about this, we’re going to need a whole bunch of patience, calm and sensitivity. 

Sure, if we notice, for instance, that our children’s moods appear to alter around the playing of video games, then, of course, we want to discuss that with them. 

But in order to be genuinely helpful and move into a productive problem-solving space, we can’t just jump in, minds already made up, spouting evidence that shows we were right to be worried all along. 

Even with our best efforts to approach the issue with an open mind and manner, it may take some time for our children to stop seeing our efforts to talk about gaming as an attack, especially if we’ve been arguing about this forever. 

‘The level of cooperation parents get from their children is usually equal to the level of connection children feel with their parents.’

Pam Leo

In order for our children to hear what we have to say, they have to feel heard.

6. Be aware of our own behaviour

Modelling is without doubt one of the most powerful influences any of us have on the behaviour of others. And this is especially true for parents. 

‘Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.

James Baldwin

Considering what our behaviour says to our children can be a sobering exercise. But when we’re mindful of our actions and considerate of the impact they might have, we do ourselves a favour too. 

If we struggle to put down our mobile phones when our children speak to us, or forget to eat lunch while working hard on our next blog post, or whatever it is that’s taking up our focus and attention (the struggle is real my friends). Then we shouldn’t be surprised to see these behaviours reflected in our children. 

Being honest about our own challenges and the efforts we’re making to manage these can lead to some wonderful discussions with our children. 

And may just inspire them to consider their own relationships with technology. Or at least this is far more likely than us requiring them to behave in ways more aligned to our idealised selves than our actual reality. 

7. Focus on what we want

So we know that the pull to limit our children’s ‘screentime’ comes mainly from our own fears. So many fears. And as parents the fear that we don’t have enough time with our children to build strong and connected relationships, that’s huge. 

And if video games seem to be getting in the way of this, then of course we’re driven to try and do something, anything, to change that.

Believe me, if I felt that setting and enforcing limits on children’s ‘screentime’ would benefit our relationships with them, then sure, I’d be all up for it. 

But sadly, enforcing limits on others, even, or perhaps especially our own children, damages our relationships.  

Related – What worries me about Fortnite (And 9 reasons not to limit our children’s ‘screentime) and Who left the dog poo? Who, who, who..?

Focussing our energy on what we want – more fun, quality time and connection with our children – rather than what we don’t want, opens up our options. 

Maybe all we need is a change of perspective, our fear may have been skewing our judgment and we might begin to view the time our children spend playing video games differently. Or maybe we’ve found new and exciting ways to spend more time together sharing the fun.

Perhaps we’ve got so bogged down in our frustrations that we’ve forgotten about activities we used to enjoy together. We can revisit these and offer more. More options, more support and more comfort. 

More ways to make all our lives more fun and more enjoyable. Not with an ‘I’ll get you off that screen if it’s the last thing I do’ vibe going on, that’s unlikely to have the desired effect. But by inviting them without pressure and being open to them declining our offers, then we’re giving them real options. And when they do choose to take us up on it, that feels pretty special.  

8. Slow down and take it steady. 

The more desperate and fearful we are and the bigger deal we make of our worries, the worse we feel.

If there’s something in our lives we’re not completely happy with then the less attention and energy we can give it the better. Unless of course it’s of our own making and we can genuinely change the situation, then of course, put some welly in my friend 🙂 

But when it comes to the choices our children are making, outside of those genuine life or death scenarios, then it can really help to take the spotlight off the situation.

If we stop inflating the importance of video games in their lives and ours, relax and take the pressure off then life will become happier and easier all round. 

But a word, or two, of caution here. If you’re feeling all fired up and ready to ease up on limits, whether that’s around gaming or any aspect of family life that’s been tightly controlled. Resist the temptation to make any grand declarations of revolution. 

Announcing that we’ve ditched all limits is likely to leave our children feeling pretty confused, and even scared. It’s also a pretty surefire way of setting them up for some extreme binge behaviour, worried we’re going to change our mind again at a moments notice. So they better get whatever they can, while they can.

Better for everyone when we gently and peacefully start to say yes more, rather than yes whatever.

We can’t really control anyone else, at least not unless we’re willing to sacrifice our relationship with them. Really, it’s a struggle for most of us to control ourselves 🙂 

And when it comes to our children, our relationships are what really matters. And when we’re worried about anything, it’s those relationships that are going to allow us to share our concerns, offer our advice and support, and have any real influence on our children. None of that is possible without strong connections and these are where we need to focus our energy.

If you’d like to explore more about how we can build strong and connected relationships with our children please check out the rest of my site and subscribe to the blog so you get all new posts straight to your inbox. 

Wishing you all a wonderful worry-free week x

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