“Hooked on screens” – the phrase might be an apt description of the silent “epidemic” that has crept surreptitiously through our busy lives, straight into our homes, and smack into the faces of our children.
Getting our teens off their screens is somewhat of a modern-day conundrum. After all, they are Gen Z, the generation hailed as true digital natives and born in an age where devices fit almost like appendages to our bodies.
“Put down your phone.”
“No electronic devices at dinner please.”
“Wait, can we have a conversation face to face rather than via text?”
Don’t these statements make us sound like a broken recorder?
Our teenagers are lapping up today’s media offerings voraciously. A recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation reveals that kids aged 8 to 18 spend about 7 hours and 38 minutes online. That’s equivalent to a 9-5 job, 7 times a week.
TikTok, Discord, Instagram, Valorant, Stream and the like are cosy bedfellows which offer our teenagers a plethora of virtual escapes and online social communities. They toggle effortlessly between their real life and virtual platforms effortlessly where they spend a bulk of their time “media multitasking,” using more than one medium at a time—watching YouTube and scrolling through social media simultaneously.
When the study considered the children’s multi-tasking efforts, teens were found to be exposed to about 10 hours and 45 minutes of media content each day. It is an ostensibly distracted life.
Parents are concerned, and rightly so. What with the increasingly sedentary lifestyles of our youth, reduced interaction time with family and friends, obesity, attention disorders, learning issues, and sleep problems.
How can we draw our kids out from their digital shells and engage and connect with them meaningfully in the real world?
1. Practice what we preach
That’s right. We need to watch OUR own screen habits. Like it or not, we are our teen’s most significant role model when it comes to screen time.
Our teens can sniff out hypocrisy and they are watching how we use our screens. We can’t tell our teenage daughter to cut back on screentime if we are watching endless hours of K-dramas online and scrolling Facebook, or answering “work” emails during dinner because they are “important”.
The truth is parents who have healthy screen habits tend to raise kids with healthy screen habits. In short, if you set household screen-time rules, you also need to follow them.
Parents who have healthy screen habits tend to raise kids with healthy screen habits.
2. Set tech-free times and zones
It’s probably unrealistic to expect our children NOT to use their screens. Rather than solely restricting media use, we can schedule blocks of screen-free time comprising meaningful face-to-face activities.
We may need to explore outdoor or class-based interests and hobbies such as cooking, dance, or martial arts classes.
Playing team sports can also help foster camaraderie and teamwork, while channeling their energies towards a shared goal.
It is also useful to build technology-free zones into our daily lives. While technology is certainly important, teach that there is an appropriate time and place for it.
Set reasonable limits: no phones at the dinner table or in the bedroom when one is winding down to sleep or when someone is talking to them. Have regular family nights every weekend to bond over communal activities that does not involve sitting in front of the television. Board games, hiking, night cycling and a beach outing may seem old school but provide that essential and life-giving balance.
Instilling healthy habits surrounding tech use in our teens cannot simply rely on rules and restrictions.
3. Teach values for productive screen use
Finally and most importantly, we need to help our kids understand the difference between passive consumption and productive use of screentime, so that they can be in control of the time they spend online rather than to be enslaved by it.
“Remember that [teens] have been lured to their screens by masters of their craft, highly paid communication experts whose sole responsibility is to secure kids’ eyeballs and keep them watching day and night,” writes Bill Ratner, author of Parenting for the Digital Age.
When we educate our children to think critically about the media they consume, more than half the battle is won. Train them to ask pertinent questions about the content, advertisements, or sponsored posts they see: What are they selling? How is it done? Who does the advertiser want to attract?
By installing in them such a critical lens, they can grow to wield technology skilfully and meaningfully. Who knows – A technologically savvy teen today may develop a productive passion tomorrow, such as coding or animation skills.
As you can see, instilling healthy habits surrounding tech use in our teens cannot simply rely on rules and restrictions. But with intentional modelling, open conversations and an understanding of what makes our teens tick, parents can certainly play a part in this journey towards safe, critical, and productive media use.
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