COVID has ensured that screens have become even more a part of our lives than they were before – for children and adults alike. Should we worry about that? When is too much screen time actually too much? How can you tell that? Which parts of screen time might be helpful in our lives? And what can we do about the parts that are less welcome? Those are the questions that child psychologist and play pundit Dr. Suzanne Zeedyk is here to explore in this article.
The Rise of Screen Time
We’ve all read that screen time has been increasing in our lives, even before 2020. Primary children now spend, on average, 16 hours every week looking at screens at home. That’s 34 days a year, equivalent to a whole month of their lives. Well over half of children aged five and above now have a device with them all night, despite the fact that plenty of research shows how the light emanating from devices distracts human beings from sleep. And adults’ lives, too, have changed. It can feel hard to remember, but the smartphone has only been around for a generation. It has dramatically changed the way human beings live their ordinary lives, including how families interact and bond.
Create and Craft conducted a survey in autumn 2020, that shows how COVID-19 has increased screen time for many families. More than half of the 1,000 parents interviewed reported a “huge” rise in the amount of time their children spent on screens. About a third reported this was accompanied by major guilt. And nearly a quarter said they had allowed screens to act as a kind of babysitter, because that helped them manage the many demands and pressures they have on their time.
The Effect of Screen Time on The Modern Family
Let’s think about those figures for a moment. They show the complex feelings that today’s parents carry about screens. Screens frequently induce guilt and worry, and they even leave some parents feeling helpless. Almost a third of the respondents said they had difficulty thinking of anything besides screens for their young children to do, even though they recognise that children love doing arts and crafts and other activities. In fact, this was one of the most robust findings of the survey! A full 93% of parents said that their children enjoyed time off screen and said that they felt crafting activities brought them closer together as a family.
What Can Parents Do To Get Children Off The Screens, Create More Family Connection and Fun?
1. Stop Feeling Guilty
Let’s start there. Guilt is helpful to no one, especially parents who are trying to make it through a global pandemic. Start by being forgiving of yourself. I know that might sound like an unusual place to start, but it is a powerful one. You are trying to juggle a massive number of pressures. Who has trained any parent how to get through COVID-19? If you are forgiving of yourself, you will be less tense and thus more emotionally available to your children. You will be less grumpy with them. You will be able to handle their own angst and meltdowns more patiently, especially the ones you may face when you try to get them off their screens. So instead of starting with action, start by forgiving yourself for what you perceive as faults.
You can get to curiosity more easily when you aren’t having to wade through guilt. And curiosity is what we’ll need looooaaaaads of when trying out new activities!
2. Talk to Your Children About What Interests Them
When I say ‘talk to your children about.’, I don’t mean sit down for a big interview session. You can find this out in lots of little ways. (Having said that, if the idea of your family interviewing each other about your interests is likely to be an occasion that generates laughter, then go for it!) Simple moments of conversation can have more impact on your children’s development and your family interaction than you might realise.
Quietly observe what they are doing and then just ask them about their feelings. “What is it that you like about that show?” “What was it that made you laugh so much there?” “I can see that’s a tough choice for you. How come?” Getting children to talk about their feelings lets you discover more about what is going on inside their head and their heart. Just as importantly, it helps them to know what is going on inside. Emotional self-awareness is really important in adulthood, because it lets you negotiate life more easily. But children only get a chance to develop that self-awareness when they have adults around who help them to do that, by talking about it and paying attention to it. Having lots of little conversations about what they are feeling will foster healthy development and it will give you ideas as to what other kinds of activities your child might welcome, including off screen!
3. Use Your Child’s Words
Pay attention to the words your child uses about things they enjoy. When you are trying to tempt them into new activities, be sure to use those exact same words. Their brain will take note of that linguistic match, even subconsciously. So if they say they like a computer game because it is “challenging”, then talk about the activity you are suggesting as being “challenging”. If they say they like “talking to their friend”, then help them to explore new ways of “talking to their friend”, for example by doing crafts together or by making them a surprise gift. You can also use the same approach for things they don’t enjoy. If they’ve been reluctant to try something new because they hate when things are “boring!”, then you could say that you aren’t going to do a certain activity because you think that might be “boring!”, but you think putting together this crafting kit won’t be.
In short, adopting your children’s emotional language signals that you have their feelings in mind. That creates trust and strengthens the bond between you.
4. Create Adventures
Trying out new activities is an adventure. It involves uncertainty. But the thing is, lots of people feel anxious about uncertainty because…well… it is uncertain! In fact, not knowing what will happen is enough to put many people off of trying out new things at all. That includes both big and little people. They are afraid they will fail or be embarrassed or make a mess or end up stumped. It is remarkably easy to choose safety over uncertainty. But we can’t ever learn new things or explore new interests or grow in any way if we only stick with what we know. We have to be able to step into uncertainty if we are to thrive and flourish as human beings. That insight applies to big things like falling in love as much as it does to academic things, like learning new words for a vocabulary test, as it does to fun things like discovering a new hobby.
The trick in trying out something new is to make stepping into the unknown feel like an adventure. Tell your child, and yourself, that it won’t matter what happens. It will be okay, whatever. It won’t matter if the project falls apart or if it makes a mess or if the colours run together or if you can’t figure out the instructions. It will still be fine. Taking the anxiety out of the unknown is what turns uncertainty into adventure.
Rest assured that there will always be a bit of anxiety present in trying out something new. Otherwise it can’t count as new! But the trick is to take that anxiety down to manageable levels. If you can do this for and with your child, then there is no telling where you can journey to together!
5. Create Choice
Don’t force new activities onto your child. Instead, offer choice. This might be a choice between two different activities:
“Would you like to try a new card making set or a painting set?”
Or it might between two venues: “No, we can’t do this in the lounge, but you can choose between the table and the floor in the kitchen.”
Offering choice gives some control over a task, which helps to boost a child’s sense of competence and safety. They know you trust them to make a choice, so they experience themselves as trustworthy. They also learn about the boundaries they are allowed in their world, and that you are willing to be flexible in those boundaries in helping them experience their world. Don’t feel like you have to offer limitless choices though. That can feel overwhelming for a child! Offer a limited set of choices, and then be clear that those are the only choices on offer. Having boundaries helps a child feel safe, and it helps you offer adventures that feel manageable.
6. Don’t Forget to Laugh!
It might sound a small piece of advice, but actually it is massive: Don’t forget to laugh! Laughter is crucial to happy, healthy relationships and happy, healthy children. Do whatever you can as a family to boost laughter. Set aside a joke time, be silly together, share funny stories. It is important to laugh with your children and not at them. If you can achieve that – lots of shared laughter, even in times of stress – then you will be building stronger bonds. The stress will feel less stressful. And you will have the confidence in each other that you can set off together on new adventures.
Putting down the screen to pursue an alternative activity can become an adventure, rather than a trial. Trying out an unknown craft can be a journey, rather than an impending catastrophe. What matters for happy, healthy families is that you build strong ties. Every time you laugh together, you are weaving another strand into that tie.
In short, getting children off screens so that they can explore new activities isn’t just a matter of what to do but, rather, how that feels. Giving attention to the emotions might help you to discover new strategies and opportunities that you hadn’t realised were there.
And crafting adventures are like all adventures: even if there are tricky moments along the way, the journey is worth undertaking because it is along the way that memories are made.
To read more about the benefits of craft on young children, check out Dr Suzanne Zeedyk: 5 Ways Craft Can Boost Your Child’s Development, right here.