The screen use report that appeared on my phone the other day gave me a shock. Mixture of defensiveness and shame washed over me as I stared in disbelief at the hours and minutes that my clever iPhone had worked out that I had been active on my phone.
How can this be – when I’m so mindful of not constantly checking my phone or scrolling through Instagram every 5 minutes when the kids are around?
But from conversations with friends and other parents I can gather that I’m not alone. Screen use has gone up – since our world become reduced to the fall walls that surround us. But before your judge yourself too harshly – I urge you to consider this
We are social beings
And are all trying to find ways to satisfy our need for connection, stimulation and variety at a period of time that is feeling anything but stimulating in all the right ways
The banter you would have normally had with colleagues in the office, the chat at the school gate and the socialising with other adults on the weekend feels like a distant memory. All of these needs are having to be met through our own little family – and it is little wonder that the people we love the most cannot constantly satisfy the needs that were usually met by a variety of people outside the family.
I believe that a large part of our increased screen use is perhaps not so much about wanting to escape and distract ourselves – as it is about having some our basic human needs met.
Tomato / tomaaaato you might think.
But remember, what we believe determines how we feel. And you’re far more likely to have a little compassion with yourself and your loved ones if you allow for the possibility that there’s more to the story than you simply being a spineless slave to the World Wide Web. That you are availing of what you’ve got to help you meet some of your most basic needs in a time of global crisis.
Screen and shame
Whenever I bring up the topic of screen use in workshops and webinars there isn’t a single parent who doesn’t confess to some sort of conflicted relationship with their kids and their own use of digital devices.
The message is clear to most of us; the aim is to reduce the time both we and our child spend online. The more a child is passively entertained by a screen the more he misses out on real life social interaction and the opportunity to develop skills like empathy, creativity and compassion.
This is a part of our parenting that we all feel a little insecure about:
- Are we doing the right thing?
- Is my child developing the ‘right way’?
- Am I stimulating my child well enough?
And where we feel a little insecure is often where we become a little black and white in our reactions. You might find that you allow screens when it suits us to get a little break. Yet all the while debating in your head whether you are a bad parent for letting her watch TV or a video game. Only to suddenly feel overcome with doubt and guilt and consequently unplug the TV or yank the iPad out of their hands – in a sudden fit of fury.
When we do this – it is not just the screen we turn off. We turn off the connection to our children too. Our children feel our ambiguity. Some even feel ashamed of their own screen use because of the disapproving look they are met with by mum and dad – and some children even report that they have a knot in their tummy in anticipation of mum and dad’s reaction;
- Are you still on your screen?
- Can’t you find better things to do?
- What kind of pointless stuff are you watching?
Yet, when we are conflicted about our own screen use – it is virtually impossible to feel clear about our children’s screen habits. The way to get clear about our own personal values, based on our unique family, our children’s age, temperament and our current set up – is to first take a good hard look at ourselves.
A good reflection exercise
- Do I model good screen habits?
- Am I happy for my kids to copy me?
- Does what I do online (apart from work) make me feel inspired, better about myself or in anyway contribute to my overall wellbeing?
This a very good place to start.
In the process of asking myself these questions it became clear to me that scrolling through Instagram (which I also use for work) rarely leaves me feeling better than when I logged in. In fact, the more I consumed the more paralysed to create I became. Self-doubt, comparisons and the inner critic gets ignited after 10 innocent minutes on Instagram.
So I’m aware of not logging on first thing in the morning or just before bed.
I also became aware of a deep gratitude of all the the wonderful things that my phone has allowed me to access. Not least on my walks:
– Good audio books
– Interesting podcasts
– Long conversations via FaceTime with friends and family here and abroad.
And Apps like the Calm app that has helped me to deepen my mindfulness practice since the beginning of COVID.
I’m sure you will find a lot of things to be grateful for too – when you allow yourself to take stock. Phones and screens are not the devil’s work. But require us to be awake to the power they can have over us if we don’t get honest and conscious about the way we relate to them.
Instead of banning screens and creating rigid rules in a fit of fury – consider having a family chat about everyone’s screen use.
Be curious and non-judgemental and ask your kids how they feel about the amount of time the spend online. Because we are not in the habit of meeting our children at eye level where screens are concerned – most children are used to being very defensive about their screen habits.
Only a non-judgemental conversation will invite them to open up and have a dialogue about how screens affect them – positively and negatively. And merely listening to understand – and sharing how you feel about your own use – will make it possible to establish some guidelines that serve you all.
A good question to ask is:
How much time do you think you’ll need a day?
Be prepared that their reply might not be as conservative as you’d like. But hear it out and tell them that you’ll consider it and work out with your partner what feels right for you – based on some sort of mutual agreement.
Support your child’s ability to self-reflect
When we dictate to our children and impose a set a rigid rules from top – it is hard for our children to learn one of the most valuable skills of all; the ability to self-reflect.
The more we can include our children in these conversations and invite them to become aware of the effect too much screen use has on their mood, their behaviour or overall wellbeing – the better they will be able to self regulate and make decisions that serve them.
You may find that your family’s screen habits change when your circumstances change. On sunny days we tend to spend more time outside and less time on screens. And during the thick of a national lockdown – screens may feel more enticing than when friends, football practice and play dates were an option.
I strive to keep this in mind. And I can feel my shoulders drop a little whenever I give myself and my children permission to be a little more flexible and forgiving.
I hope you feel that way too