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4 Tips for Managing Your Family's Screen Time

by | Aug. 30, 2017

Mormon Life

Technology can be an amazing blessing. It allows us to connect with family and friends, to spread the gospel, to participate in family history work, and to access spiritual and educational resources almost instantly. While technology can be a powerful tool for good, it can also be a distraction from the things that matter most. In a CES devotional for young adults, Elder Ballard taught:

“Handheld devices, such as smartphones, are a blessing, but they can also distract us from hearing the ‘still, small voice.’ They need to be our servants, not our masters. . . . when smartphones begin to interfere with our relationships with friends and family—and even more importantly, with God—we need to make a change.”

Many research studies suggest that technology can have a powerful and addictive effect on our brains. Consequently, it can be difficult to break screen-time habits. How can we take a more balanced approach to technology in this digitally-driven world?

Recently, the Mormon Channel released a video in their “Gospel Solutions for Families” series about “Taming Technology in the Home.” Amy Iverson interviewed Heather Johnson, a family and relationship coach, about managing the effects of electronics on family relationships.

Here are four tips to help manage your family’s screen time:

1. Create technology-free times and zones.

Since technology is ever-present in our world today, it is important to take the time to “unplug” from our devices. If your family uses electronics often, changing this habit may initially feel like an overwhelming or even impossible task.

It can be helpful to remember that “by small and simple things are great things brought to pass” (see Alma 37:6). Heather Johnson suggests that taking even 15 minutes away from technology to connect with our families can have a powerful impact on our relationships:

“We can carve time out [for our families] by taming technology. If we could simply find 15 minutes a day—take it away from technology and apply it to our families—research shows that that’s a magic number for monumental things. . . . There are times when we connect or could connect each day, but choose not to.”

Consider creating technology-free times and zones in your family. For example, you might try establishing a “no phones” rule during meals or car rides. Sister Johnson believes that some of the most important conversations in families can happen during these times that we already spend together, but may not connect:

“It’s an opportunity we have to make better use of that time . . . I can’t tell you the number of difficult conversations [my family has] had on four wheels in the car. It’s where we first addressed things like pornography; it’s where we deal with friendship issues; it’s where we deal with school and grades. . . .
“Let’s make better use of the time that we have. We have it. We don’t think that we [have the time to connect], but we do—we have the time.”

2. Help children understand for themselves the importance of reducing screen time.

“Focus on being mentors, not monitors,” Sister Johnson suggests. She says that monitoring connotes a more passive parenting approach of “hovering” in the background or checking-in when necessary. Mentoring can be more effective because it requires a more active approach using empathy and understanding:

“As parents we need to recognize that our children are inundated by technology. It is not going anywhere. We need to be very empathetic to the juggle that they’re trying to work through. . . . Mentors take their experiences and they use them to teach, and that’s something we need to do as parents. Instead of putting our children in a position where we want them to naturally figure it out, we need to look at our experiences and teach them. We need to safeguard them—and on the front end recognize the pitfalls [and] the dangers—and educate them about those things . . . instead of finding them [on the back end] and then trying to fix it.”

Sarah Cloward, a Church member from North Carolina, found it helpful to teach her children about technology using the Word of Wisdom. In the September 2005 New Era, she wrote:

“[We] introduced the idea that our minds and bodies need to follow a ‘word of wisdom’ much like the one in Doctrine and Covenants 89. Television and video games represent ‘dessert items,’ not a nourishing meal.
“To help our boys with this concept, we gave each boy a small jar containing plastic cookies that represented how much media time he could spend in a week. We then allowed our sons to choose how much time to spend in front of the computer or television by paying for the time with cookies. The first week, all the cookies were gone in two or three days, and our sons began complaining about the new system. We gently reminded them of the ‘word of wisdom’ analogy and suggested that their bodies and brains needed something more nourishing than cookies. Sometimes we stopped what we were doing and helped them get engaged in something new. The second week, each boy was able to make his cookies last until Saturday. By the third week, some of the cookies didn’t get used at all!
“We don’t use the cookies anymore. Thankfully, our boys seem to get bored with an excess of computer, TV, and video game time. However, the jars of cookies still sit above the television for the next time our children have a ‘media sweet tooth’” (“Questions and Answers,”New Era, September 2005).

While family rules are important and can be helpful in reducing screen time, Sister Johnson suggests that education can go further than rules in balancing technology in the home. “Oftentimes our kids get in trouble with technology because they don’t know what the problems are going to be,” she says. “They’re not old enough. They haven’t had those experiences . . . we have; we have the knowledge. So we need to empower them with the education they need to know. ‘This could get you in trouble,’‘saying that will hurt someone’s feelings,’‘this is not how you handle it,’ ‘don’t ever click on these buttons,’ [etc.] . . . that’s an education process.” It is important to help children understand the benefits of and reasons behind reducing screen time before establishing rules or instituting reward systems.

3. Live what you teach.

Make sure to model a healthy relationship with technology. If you would like your children to better manage their screen time, it is important to manage your inner child’s screen time and to demonstrate responsible behaviors regarding technology. Sister Johnson says,

“If we are bad examples, [our children] are going to learn from that. If we have phones at the dinner table, then they’re going to think that they should have phones at the dinner table. If we can’t go out with our spouse and have a conversation without our phones, they’re not going to be able to go do that same thing. If they don’t recognize that people and human connection are more important than technology and Google, they’ve got to see that from us. We’ve got to put first things first.”

4. Replace excess screen time with new habits.

It is important to create new habits as your family begins to reduce screen time. “Remember that asking [children] to withdraw from a phone and then not giving them anything to replace it [with] is going to leave them ‘high and dry,’” says Sister Johnson. “They will go right back to that technology every time. . . . Be sure to understand that there’s a need for us to then fill in those gaps.”

One way to fill in these gaps is to invite your family to participate in different activities with you. In the September 2005 New Era, Leslie-Maria Harris Cramer wrote, “If we want our children to be more active and spend less time passively sitting in front of electronic devices, we need to first take time to participate in other activities with them. My husband and I noticed that most attempts to tell our kids to ‘Go do __’ elicited no cooperation, whereas a summons to ‘Come practice soccer with me!’ brought a better response” (“Questions and Answers,”New Era, September 2005).

As you change your technology habits, it can be helpful to focus on your family’s values and goals. Sister Johnson shared, “When it comes to technology, we often look at it as: ‘What do we need to take away? How do I need to limit? What do I need to stop?’ If we’ll change that mentality and instead look at the things we can be doing proactively . . . it’s a lot easier approach to take.”

Many general authorities have suggested replacing excess screen time with scripture study. In his 2013 general conference address, Elder Scott taught, “Be wise in how you embrace technology. . . . If you young people would review a verse of scripture as often as some of you send text messages, you could soon have hundreds of passages of scripture memorized. Those passages would prove to be a powerful source of inspiration and guidance by the Holy Ghost in times of need” (“For Peace at Home,” April 2013 General Conference).

Elder Stevenson shared a similar challenge in general conference last year:

“I recently learned that many young people spend an average of seven hours a day looking at TV, computer, and smartphone screens (See American Academy of Pediatrics, “Media and Children,” aap.org). With this in mind, would you make a small change? Will you replace some of that daily screen time—particularly that devoted to social media, the internet, gaming, or television—with reading the Book of Mormon? If the studies I referred to are accurate, you could easily find time for daily study of the Book of Mormon even if for only 10 minutes a day” (“Look to the Book, Look to the Lord,” October 2016 General Conference).

Although reducing your family’s screen time may seem like a daunting task, especially if your family has had less-than-ideal technology habits for years, remember that it is never too late to change. As we begin to reduce screen time in our families, even if that means simply taking 15 minutes a day to “unplug,” we will be more receptive to the Spirit. We will strengthen our relationships with God and with each other and will have more energy to work toward our goals and values.

Lead image from Shutterstock

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