Screen Savers

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Like many well-meaning parents-to-be, before my children were born I compiled a long list of parenting no-nos. Using the TV as a babysitter topped the list. Then reality set in. By the time my oldest child was a year old, I was doing what I had to do to survive. I did not have “easy” babies. They watched a lot of TV.

In the 15 years since my daughter first OD’d on “Barney,” the questions have changed. It’s now not enough to manage your children’s TV viewing—you have to manage their “screen time” and their “media diet.” There are screens everywhere—on smartphones, on iPods, on hand-held game consoles and iPads, not to mention computers and TVs—and your children are looking at them for an average of 7½ hours a day.

Yes, you heard right. A 2010 study from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 8- to 18-year-olds use entertainment media for an average of seven hours and 38 minutes each day—more than 53 hours a week. And because so much of the time they are “media multitasking” (using more than one medium at a time), they actually pack in 10 hours and 45 minutes worth of media content on a daily basis on average. According to the study, there’s been a huge increase in children’s and teens’ media use in the past five years, largely driven by mobile devices. Two-thirds of 8- to 18-year-olds have cellphones, and three-quarters have iPods or MP3 players.

You may be surprised—as I was—that only about three in 10 children and teens have any rules regulating their use of media devices, according to the Kaiser study. But when they do, their media use goes down by about three hours daily.

We’ve tried a variety of media rules in our house—on average, we initiate a new plan at the beginning of each school year. We’ve tried no screen time during the week, and two hours max on the weekends; we’ve tried an hour during the week, but only after homework is done. We’ve experimented with egg timers to monitor the kids’ time on the computer. I’ve also done my best to fill up my kids’ afternoons and evenings with family and extracurricular activities, so they simply couldn’t find the hours to be in front of their screens. But, inevitably, my husband and I make an exception to the rules at some point, and the whole plan disintegrates.

Not all families find it so difficult to manage their kids’ media diets. “We’ve had [the same] rule about screen time since the kids were little,” says Susan Shaw, mother to Ryan, 15, a student at Boys’ Latin, and Emma, 13, and Kiki, 12, who attend Roland Park Country School.  Shaw, who lives with her family in Roland Park, says that before the kids entered middle school, there was no screen time during the week. That changed when the kids got older, because they began needing computers to do their schoolwork, but none of the kids have Facebook accounts and the two oldest got cellphones in middle school. Occasionally, they will watch a TV show together during the week but mostly keep TV to the weekends.

Shaw says she felt strongly about instilling in her children a love of reading and also a love of the outdoors. At this point, Shaw says her children do spend a lot of time outside, which has made limiting screen time easier, but she says the jury is still out when it comes to reading: she has one great reader and two not-so-great ones. But overall, she says, “there hasn’t been a lot of conflict. These are our family rules—our values. Over the years, [the kids have] realized we have the final say on this. I don’t know if my way is the right way. This is what works for our family now, and that’s always a work in progress. If only there were a magic formula.”

Laura Mason and her husband, Michael Kwass, have similar guidelines for their children, Max, 14, and Isabel, 11. When Max and Isabel were 6 or 7, they were permitted to use computers for a half-hour on weekdays and up to an hour on weekend days. The kids rarely watched TV when they were younger, and no one in the family watches “commercial TV,” says Mason, a senior lecturer in the history and film and media studies departments at Johns Hopkins. “It’s either PBS, videos, on-demand or Netflix. That way we’re saved from commercials” and from gender stereotypes that Mason believes are rampant in network TV.

When it comes to computer use, Mason says that Max, who is in middle school, has about three to four hours of screen time per day. An hour of that time is spent on entertainment with Facebook, games, movies or TV—and the rest is for studying. Mason says the family has talks about the dangers of visiting “just any website. They understand that if they do that, they might see something they don’t want to see when they’re only 14,” she says.

Neither child has a cellphone but Mason says they allowed Max to get a Facebook account when the family moved to Baltimore two years ago because they felt it would help the Park School student to make friends. Isabel was permitted an email account, so she could keep in touch with old friends. She doesn’t have a Facebook page and won’t for a few years yet.

According to Dr. Dina Borzekowski, associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, parents need to consider the developmental age of their child when setting guidelines. For children under 2, Borzekowski cites the American Pediatric Association’s recommendations—no exposure to media whatsoever. “We know that kids who interact with people will do better on outcomes than children who only interact with media. We’re starting to see people having trouble holding a conversation,” she says.

For slightly older children, she advises parents to have concrete rules. But when it comes to teens, she says, parents need to take their kids’ needs into account. “Facebook and other types of social media can have both positive and negative effects,” she says. “Developing meaningful social interactions is an important task of adolescence. If the connections are being fostered online, then teens need access. Keeping a teen away from online media would be like keeping them away from school dances or sporting events. It is important to attend, even from the sidelines and bleachers.”

Though many people—teachers, psychologists, parent groups—take it as a given that unlimited screen time for children and teens is not a good thing, some disagree. Danny Mydlack, a founder of the Arts & Ideas Sudbury School in northeast Baltimore, a professor of electronic media at Towson University and a father of two, believes that children have the ability to self-regulate their use of media. “My 8-year-old daughter, Franny, will say, ‘This is an inappropriate site.’ She doesn’t want to be there,” he says. “My 10-year-old son, Louis, is really careful about violent content. He knows it gives him nightmares.”

Mydlack, who says his children spend four to six hours a day online, also points out that the computer offers children a creative, intellectually and socially stimulating world. “My son spends enormous amounts of time on the computer. If people heard he was spending all those hours playing the piano, they’d be swooning. To my son, the computer is just as rich,” he says. “It’s not the computer, that box that we see—it’s a network of amazing people. He has friends who come over to the house, and he has online friends from all over the world that he Skypes with.”

Louis’ and Franny’s mother, Caroline Chavasse, also a co-founder of Arts & Ideas Sudbury School, believes the expertise and passion her son has developed for the computer has gradually allowed him to try new things offline. “Seeing my son immerse himself in YouTube, video games and flash animation, I wondered how this would play out. But I was able to trust him because I could see what he was getting out of it. It was not a one-way ticket to being lost in the computer,” she says. “Gradually, on his own motivation, he began to turn off the computer and join in a game of football—something way outside his comfort zone. I think that because he built confidence on the computer, he found the strength and the self-awareness to do it.”

Given the fact that my 13-year-old son transferred to Arts & Ideas this year, I sure hope Chavasse and Mydlack are on the right track. In part because of the Sudbury philosophy, but also because the old ways just weren’t working. This year I let up on my attempts to control my son’s and daughter’s media diets. While my son spends a great deal of time on Facebook, where he keeps in touch with friends from camp, other schools and various interest groups, he now spends most of his time teaching himself to play the electric bass, often recording himself on the computer or collaborating remotely with other musicians in different cities. He also uses his computer for creative writing and digital artwork.

My daughter is one of those multimedia taskers mentioned in the Kaiser Foundation study. At any given time, she may be writing a paper, chatting on Facebook, listening to her iPod and texting her friends. She’s a great student, an actress and a singer, who loves school and works really hard. It’s funny, but after all those hours spent trying to get my kids offline, I’m not so sure their out-of-control media habits have done them any harm.

Dr. Stuart Varon, a child and adolescent psychiatrist in private practice and assistant professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Medical School, believes there is no “cookie cutter” formula that works for everyone. Instead, he advises that parents take a balanced approach to managing their children’s media diets. “Is the child functioning in the areas in which he needs to function? Is the child using media in a way that might suggest a mental health problem? Let’s say the child is spending more and more time alone in his room on the computer. Is that a symptom that something’s wrong?” he asks. “Or maybe a child can’t wake up for school in the morning. The parents may want to look at what’s keeping him up. I just had a kid in the office who was having that problem. It turned out he was up gaming all night.”

Varon recommends that parents set guidelines for technology use before they give devices to their children, and points out that a shopping trip for a cell or smart-phone presents a terrific opportunity for a teachable moment. “When you’re shopping for the phone and the plan, educate your children about economics. Let them know that texting costs money, and that it’s possible to spend money using the phone without even realizing they’re doing it.”

Parents should also educate themselves about media. “I don’t think it’s OK to say, ‘I’m computer illiterate,’” says Varon. “You have to understand what your kids are doing. Let’s say your child is really into computer games. Sometimes I’ll ask the parent, ‘Have you ever played the game with your son?’ It could be a good way of connecting with your child and living in his world.”

The other day, I took Varon’s advice. I sat down with my kids and watched a couple of episodes of “Arrested Development,” a TV show they’d been constantly referencing and reciting lines and jokes from. As is often the case when they talk about the latest technological phenomenon, I felt both left out and concerned about their level of involvement with TV, the Internet and social media. So I watched the show with them. And it was really funny—just as sharp, quirky and brilliant as they’d been saying. And while we watched, I thought about what great kids I have—whether they’re plugged in or not. 

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