January 11, 2022

Post-COVID screen issues for kids

I am an addict. It has been 7 minutes since I last checked my email and texts. I no longer get pings when texts come in because the noise was driving my husband crazy. So now I have to check for them. Sometimes I tell myself not to check for emails and texts,  or the latest news updates and COVID numbers. I do tell myself these things – all the time –  but I never listen to that voice. It’s no fun.

Pretty much everybody I know is like me that way.

COVID changed this for the worse. Having to live and work largely online gave us permission to indulge in our device addiction more freely. The problem is: What now? How can we possibly tell our kids to limit their screen time when we can’t (won’t) limit our own screen time?

It’s nobody’s fault that COVID drove kids further down the rabbit hole of life on screen, and that during lockdown, school closures and the loss of extra-curriculars, parents were unable to create limits to screen time. But even now, with kids back in school, they’re still down that screen rabbit hole. Rogers confirmed in December that internet use has increased by more than 50% during the pandemic. And we know it wasn’t all Zoom meetings.

What are parents to do about that, given that we know the pernicious effect of screen over-use on kids? We haven’t forgotten what we knew before COVID – the studies showing the loss of self esteem, the increased depression and anxiety that come with social media.

What to do?

We all know that humans take better care of what they create. We also know that monkey see, monkey do. Which is a simple way of reminding ourselves that what we role model is about a hundred times more powerful than what we say. Which is why my screen addiction matters to my kids. A lot. If I answer the phone or check Instagram during dinner, so will they. I’ve given them tacit permission. If my phone comes to bed with me, so will theirs with them. Don’t kid yourself: They see it.

So step one is that we have to include ourselves in the household device contract. Yup, a contract. If we’re not included, it smacks of unfairness and crappy role modelling – two factors that guarantee failure. It’s like parents who decry bullying and then dad bullies mom. You know what happens downstream: Somebody learns to bully.

Thus we need to work on family-wide screen use reduction. Which starts with a Family Meeting. Ask everyone what they want on the agenda. They may add other items. Good. When the screen use item comes up, lead with your problem, not theirs. Kids respond better when grownups take responsibility for our own failings. Own up to your over-use of screens. And what worries you about that. Do not mention the kids. If you do that, you might as well end the meeting, because it’ll make the kids defensive.

Then ask the kids what they think about screen use in the family. Sit on your hands. Listen. Don’t interrupt. Don’t lecture. This is WAY harder than it sounds.

Then ask the kids to propose ways for everyone in the family to reduce screen use at home. See the paragraph above this one for guidance re when to talk.

Their proposals will likely be sensible, useful, and maybe even a little strict for your taste. Which will be good for all of you. It won’t be the rules you would have chosen. And that’s the point. These are the kids’ rules. And those are the only ones they’ll respect. And break. Everyone breaks rules, especially rules limiting activities we’re addicted to. Expect rule-breaking. Do not punish it. Do not chastise anyone. Be as compassionate to the other rule-breakers in your family as you are to yourself. Laugh about it. This is hard!

Save it. Which isn’t exactly hard. We never forget stuff that annoys us. Book a follow-up Family Meeting for a week hence. Begin with each person talking about when and how they fell of the wagon, and what caused that slip. Don’t lecture. Listen. Then each person talks about how and why they want to work on this challenge over the coming week.

All of which telegraphs to the kids that we’re all in this together, and that they have as much power as we do re this challenge. Which empowers the kids. They need that more than we can ever know. Especially now.

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