Americans spend most of their waking hours with media; watching, reading, listening or simply interacting with media. Most adults spend 12 hours a day outside of work with screens. Children, tweens and teens are also spending record amounts of time multi-tasking with media. They are on their smartphones, watching tv, listening to music, and playing games. According to research, teens spend an average of nine hours a day online, children between the ages of eight to 12 spend more than six hours a day online and kids between 0 and eight spend more than an hour a day with a screen.
Research has proven that a heavy media diet is linked to numerous unhealthy side affects both in children and adults. The more time spent with screens the more likely a person is to suffer from depression, anxiety, fear, stress, sleep problems, low self-esteem, loneliness, aggression, attention problems, obesity, precocious sexuality and social isolation. Even suicide in teens has been linked to time spent on social networking sites contributing to lowered self-esteem and exposure to cyber bullying.
During this time of social distancing kids and adults are encouraged to be on their electronic devices even more for work and school activities. Many families are reporting that even though they are all in the same home, they aren’t spending time together because they are on their smartphones or other media devices.
The harmful effects of media exposure on children’s health is an issue I hold very close to my heart. Before I became a mom, I worked for the Media Education Foundation and produced Consuming Kids, a documentary film that exposes the harmful effects of media on children. The work I did researching and producing this film was an eye opening experience for me and probably the best parenting education class I could take before having my own kids.
Children are like sponges. They absorb everything they see around them and unfortunately they have no protected place in the media. The stories they get from the media are the media producers’ stories and they are often stories that leave us feeling unhappy with ourselves. Kids along with adults are being told that their value is in things; In the products they own, the money they have and how many friends or likes they have online. These values are extrinsic and it’s just what the owners of the media want to sell us so that we continue to feel the need to buy more to make ourselves happy or liked better by others. In truth, we all know that happiness doesn’t come from buying things and it doesn’t come from spending time with media. True happiness comes from within and from our relationships with others. It comes from living our lives instead of living vicariously through others. Yet, children are being sold these messages from a very early age and are hearing them repeatedly the more they engage with media.
As a parent, you have the greatest influence on your children from an early age. You can lead by example. Media is addictive. Ask yourself what is your own relationship to media? Do you look at your phone more than your family? Are you staring at your phone every minute or jumping up the second your phone dings? Are you teaching your children to do the same? Do you spend more time with a screen than you do with your kids? Does your idea of spending time together always involve media? Do you use television as a babysitter?
Our children will model our behaviors. If we spend our time with a screen, they will want to as well. Taking time to unplug and curb your media diet –especially during these uncertain times– is not only good for you, but good for your family. Research also shows that spending time face to face is therapeutic. We are social beings and find happiness in human interactions. Children’s behavior improves with more positive interactions with their parents and siblings. Research shows that people are happier the less time they spend with media!
Unplugging from our media habits isn’t easy, but the rewards far outweigh the sacrifices.
Here are 5 Helpful Suggestions to encourage healthy ways to be media free:
Set Limits: Set a limit on your media and your children’s media diet. Work together to create a realistic time for media each day or week (this includes time on your phone). Also, set limits on where children and teens use media. Putting a computer in a public space in your home is helpful for parent’s to be a part of what media their children are using or set up parental restrictions on the computer or the cellphone. Creating a space for media use is important. Discourage your children from spending time on their phone, computer or television alone in their room for hours on end because it can be harmful to their health and can be dangerous. It is important for you to be aware of what your child is doing online, who they are talking to, what games they are playing or what sites they visit. Give your children their privacy to have phone conversations, but searching the web or talking on social media alone in their room for hours on end can affect their wellbeing.
Media Literacy: Talk to your kids about media and the harmful effects it can have on their wellbeing. Media literacy is something you can teach your child at a very early age. You can start by talking to your child about how media is created, who is telling the stories, who owns the media and how can their stories influence the messages we hear? Watch and look at what your children are watching and talk about the messages they are being told.
Schedule Media Free Time: Have a Media Free Day during the Week and then maybe a media free week once a month. Plan some fun family activities for that time together. These can be: make a favorite meal or baked treat, have a family game night or find an outdoor activity you can do together like a hike, bike ride, or outdoor game in the yard. Once you give it a try, you’ll find so many creative ways you can get along together without a screen involved. Soon the family will be coming up with all kinds of interesting things to do together. Many families who try this have said that they can’t believe how much time they spent with media and how much time they feel they now have in their day.
Explore Something New: Spend your media free time doing something new. Think of a new thing you’d like to learn: maybe playing an instrument or learning a new craft. Before the pandemic, we picked up a piano for free from a family in our town. I played years ago and the kids were asking to learn to play for a while now. So, now I’ve been teaching them some beginner songs and scales and they are also teaching each other! I taught Ava and Lily how to play Happy Birthday. Lily then taught Leo, and Ava taught Mike! Some other ideas for something new: learn to sew, knit, write a story or a play, create your own game, learn a new language, build something, learn to cook or bake! There’s always something new to learn!
Get Outdoors and Read: Another great thing about unplugging is your kids become more creative and stay creative. Sometimes kids, like adults, get into an unhealthy media habit only because they don’t know how to fill their time. Kids don’t always have to be kept busy with scheduled activities, boredom and frustration are good. Let your kids figure out other ways to fill their time and it will encourage them to be more creative. Free play is so important for healthy development. Whenever we have a couple days or extended periods of time without tv, the kids play better together. It is amazing.
Get outdoors more. Being outside is therapeutic and renewing. Once you or the kids step outside you have entered a whole new world and if you leave your screens behind you will be surprised by how much there is to see and do without your screens. Plant a garden, go for a walk, sit outside and read a book or eat a meal!
Encourage a love of reading or at least reading in place of screens. If your kids like watching movies, encourage them to read or listen to the books first. If there is a certain show they like to watch, have them write their own rendition of the story – maybe from the perspective of a different character or a different setting or change the ending or write the next book! The beautiful thing about reading stories is you imagine the settings and the people and create the images in your head. Have your young children create their own illustrations to a story they like. Ask them to tell you the story as they draw it. Have your older children turn their favorite books or shows into a play that they write, create the scenes and costumes and act out for the family on your media free night!
We don’t spend a lot of time with media in our house. The kids don’t go on the computer often, only to listen to audio books or an occasional zoom gathering right now, but aside from that we let them watch some tv shows or films on Amazon prime- so their advertising exposure and media is limited. My kids do not have their own phones, tablets or kindles and probably won’t until they can afford them. We do enjoy watching a show or movie together as a family, and I do think that this is special downtime that is needed. Finding a balance isn’t easy. Habits are hard to change, especially ones that may not be that good for us. But like ditching any bad habit, the rewards far outweigh the sacrifices.
I think the quantitative evidence can’t be denied- less time with media, more time together makes for happier, healthier families!
Here’s to raising our children with our own stories and not somebody else’s.
“Be the Change you Wish to see in the World.”
For more Research and Resources – Check Out:
The Media Education Foundation (Their main markets are Colleges, Universities and broadcasting rights, but if you are looking to purchase a film for personal use, call the front office to find out about an individual price) https://www.mediaed.org
Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood (Fantastic organization with great information for both parents and educators) https://commercialfreechildhood.org
American Academy of Pediatrics Children and Media Tips https://www.aap.org/en-us/about-the-aap/aap-press-room/news-features-and-safety-tips/Pages/Children-and-Media-Tips.aspx
Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation? – The Atlantichttps://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/09/has-the-smartphone-destroyed-a-generation/534198/
The Center on Media and Child Health (Another Wonderful organization with great parent and educator resources) https://cmch.tv/parents/