Guiding Healthy Media Use
Independent pediatricians can play an important role in supporting children and families in having open conversations about media use, as well as reducing their screen time. One of pediatricians’ most effective actions to mitigate unhealthy media use is to support parents in creating screen time parameters with their children.
In 2016, the AAP released a statement focused on infants, toddlers, and pre-school children’s media consumption. “Families should proactively think about their children’s media use and talk with children about it, because too much media use can mean that children don’t have enough time during the day to play, study, talk, or sleep… What’s most important is that parents be their child’s ‘media mentor.’ That means teaching them how to use it as a tool to create, connect and learn.”
Thus, the AAP recommends that pediatricians work with parents first and foremost to help them become these “media mentors.” Pediatricians can recommend that families use the AAP’s Family Media Plan resource, which allows families to create a personalized media plan based on their unique parenting style and needs. This resource offers some dexterity based on families’ differing work schedules and childcare options.
In her experience as a school counselor, Tanner-Jospe agrees that parental involvement and education are key, alongside the efforts of teachers and pediatricians. “I don’t advocate looking at your kid’s phone without permission, but parents can develop a sense of what’s out there, staying current and having real conversations with your kids.” She continues, “I believe in the middle path with screen use, such as teaching moderation, and educating kids about the impact of their words and actions online. Kids and adults can easily procrastinate and avoid hard feelings or conversations by numbing with media use. I believe that we need to teach kids to be in touch with their more uncomfortable emotions, to grow their tolerance for these feelings. That way they won’t feel the need to ‘hide’ as much in their phones and games.”
Fighting against kids’ gaming and media habits can feel like fighting against a rip tide. Families may need additional tools, in conjunction with pediatric intervention. What might be some lasting antidotes to tech addictions? Although harder to access for under-resourced communities, modalities like counseling, mindfulness techniques, and immersion in nature can create tech-free spaces that teach kids the value of turning off their phone. Progressive education models, like wilderness school Kroka Expeditions, identify the need to allow students to, “take healthy physical and social risk,” (one of the motivating factors for gaming) by living simply “without excessive technology.”7
On these programs, students from ages nine and up spend weeks or months without smartphones, and with extremely limited access to computers, as they travel in the wilderness. An instructor at a similar program, High Mountain Institute, speaks to the power of technology detoxes: “At the end of the semester, students say going without their phone was one of the most meaningful parts of their experience. They’re able to bond with peers and really be present when they don’t have the ‘safety net’ of looking at SnapChat, for example.” In the previously cited UCLA report, researchers studied sixth-graders at a nature and science camp who went without any technology for five days; they saw significant improvement in children’s ability to “read facial emotions and other nonverbal cues to emotion, compared with students who continued to use their media devices.”
Informed voices in children’s health recommend intention and moderation. Dr. Michael Rich, Director of CMCH at Boston Children’s Hospital, writes in a blog post that “screen time has become an obsolete concept in an era where we are surrounded by screens and move seamlessly between the digital and the physical… It is how we choose to use screens and to pursue non-screen activities, it is the content we consume on screens and the contexts in which we consume it, that affects our well-being.” Screen time is inevitable for both children and adults, and demonizing it may actually work against our desired outcomes: fostering the growth of happy, healthy, and whole children, and eventually, adults.