Screen Time and Social Connection for Kids

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In a recent webinar sponsored by PS 321, speech-language pathologist and mindfulness teacher Susan Ehlerman Brennan shared her wisdom on using tech to enhance your child’s social world. Park Slope Parents listened in on Brennan’s insights as she made a case for how technology—far from rotting kids’ brains—can actually enhance and expand their interactions and interpersonal connections, both remotely and in person.

 

Below, we’re sharing some key takeaways from the webinar, as well as some advice from Park Slope Parents HQ on integrating tech in a developmentally appropriate way.

 

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There’s lots of good stuff in this article!

Click to skip to…

Some historical background

Where we are right now with kids and screens

What you can do as a parent

Parent-approved tools for virtual connection and safety

Fun and social connection

Learning

Simple and safe communication

Screen limiting and safety

Further reading, resources, and events

 

 

Some historical background

 

Every generation worries that the latest technology will lead to worries about the impacts of technology on mind and brain. In “Don’t Touch That Dial! A history of media technology scares, from the printing press to Facebook,” Vaughan Bell explains: “Socrates famously warned against writing because it would ‘create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories,’” “An 1883 article in the weekly medical journal the Sanitarian argued that schools ‘exhaust the children’s brains and nervous systems with complex and multiple studies, and ruin their bodies by protracted imprisonment,’” and we can currently read articles about whether Google is making us stupid.

 

With this context in mind, Susan’s talk was not about prescribing hourly restrictions/permissions about how much screen time is “right” for your child. Every child is different, so there’s no one-size-fits-all guideline for how much screen time is the “right” amount.  Also, assuming that all screen time is “bad” and that all non-screen time is “good” is not necessarily a constructive outlook. What we’re really discussing is, instead, understanding screen time quality over screen time quantity

 

Social interactions have changed rapidly since we parents were young, and we may have a nostalgic image of the “golden age of growing up.” Since we are not experiencing what childhood and teenhood are today, it’s hard for us to see the current reality as anything but alien. Coming at things from a place of curiosity rather than defaulting to a “get off the screen” mentality will help us have productive conversations and build more positive relationships. 

 

 

Where we are right now with kids and screens

 

Face it: During covid, what else CAN they do to connect (especially in the winter)? While there are plenty of activities to focus on beside screens (music, art, sports), the biggest point of social connection for kids right now happens on a screen. Limiting screen time can also limit some of the only social interactions that many kids have right now. Social science research on Facebook shows that cutting off screen time can make people feel more isolated—so cutting off our kids from their source of connection could actually have a net detrimental effect. Instead, the key is to understand HOW they are connecting and WHY. 

 

A mindset of “the internet is scary” serves little purpose. The internet has plenty of scary things in it—but the same can be said for real life. What’s important is to help our kids learn how to make their way around the internet in safe ways. Just as we give kids independence when they start walking to school, we can give them gradual, well-supported independence over their media use. 

 

How do we interact socially, and what are the differences in relationships between adults and kids? Adults get to choose who they interact with; kids, not as much. Young people are starting to grow into that ability, and it’s important that they get some experience making those choices. Typically, during the tween and teen years, social interaction is based on kids’ common interests and shared experience. Kids with these commonalities may then form cliques—a good example of young people finding their social identity through experimentation. If your kids are not in school five days a week, don’t assume that the lack of in-person social interaction is all bad. The interpersonal aspect of being in school can be demanding in person, and face-to-face interactions can be taxing even for extroverts. Rather, kids are resilient and adaptable to new situations, and being around each other online can be a good substitute for in-person interactions as well as allowing them to have more control over the social sphere of their world. 

 

While encouraging face-to-face interaction is great, don’t assume that screen time is necessarily bad. What may seem foreign to you is natural to your kids. There are a plethora of exciting and new ways to communicate online, and we need not assume that all of them are inherently negative. Research from the ’90s shows how co-viewing television can positively impact kids’ reactions to content, so you can reasonably infer that Netflix watch parties have their upside and are not just wasted time.  

 

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TV shows aren’t always just passive entertainment; in fact, they can foster deeper social connections. You may worry about your kid binge-watching an animated show, but what you might not see is the way that show is encouraging engagement with fandoms, chat rooms, and outside research. (Think about when you watch a docudrama and look up “history vs. Hollywood” after you finish.) All that screen time may seem disappointing on the surface, but rather than assuming that all TV viewing is all bad, try asking them what they are getting out of the show and if they are learning anything. Allow yourself to delve into their world (even if you might feel like you’re on the outside), and you may find a new—and positive—dimension to the way they’re interacting with media. 

 

Let’s face it: Sometimes this is about US not getting to interact with our kids as much as it is about them being on screens. If we want some time with our kids after work and they reject us because they are on their screens, it’s easy to be resentful of their devices. This isn’t to say that we should never set limits, but do try to understand that some of our frustration may be about our need for connection as much as it is about stopping their screen time. Just knowing that our own emotions are in play can help us understand those feelings and figure out what to do with them.

 

Video gaming, TikTok-making, and creating cities in Minecraft are all skill-building exercises that can build up kids’ mental and emotional bank of positive experiences. Time spent online can be meaningful and productive to kids. The internet is like a sandbox—a space where they can mess up and misfire and problem-solve. Online spaces allow kids to practice things that they can’t in the real world, and they may be learning skills during screen time that we as parents don’t realize. For instance, Mario Kart, Animal Crossing, Mafia, and Among Us are all collaborative games that build relationships and skills, allowing kids to problem-solve with other people and overcome conflicts and adversity online. Within each of these virtual “worlds,” kids can become experts and find empowerment. The confidence they build online can then translate to offline experiences and in-person interactions.  

 

You may not be aware of the positive interactions happening in a myriad of areas. Playing Dungeons and Dragons online is creative story-making that could help “theater kids” express themselves. What may seem like wasted time playing Mafia during Zoom school ends up being a way that teachers get to know their kids. There’s a whole culture of video game music, where people share their playlists with other people. Exchanging memes is a way to initiate communication and bond through humor. Shared experiences—even if they take place online—help kids make valuable connections that they can talk about and reference later. 

 

Interacting online helps kids build connections that then manifest in real life. As an adult, your favorite way to interact with friends might be sitting in a circle chatting in your living room. To your kids, a text group chat can be equally rewarding. Just as we are drawn to our preferences, kids have theirs as well, and it’s important not to assume that our social rewards are equivalent to theirs. Kids don’t necessarily want to sit around in a circle and talk to each other—but they may find an equal level of connection and bonding just sitting side-by-side playing a game on their phone. 

 

 

What you can do as a parent

 

Be a good role model. It’s one thing to tell our kids that they need to be on screens less often, but if we are not modeling this behavior ourselves, they may reject it. Also remember that mentoring is different from modeling so the old adage applies: kids are unlikely to do as you say and more likely to do as you do. 

 

Set boundaries when they are young. Setting screen time guidelines and applying them consistently is key, as your kids are more receptive when they are younger than they are in adolescence. If you set up rules early on, they’ll know what to expect and be more receptive to you when they’re older. If you implement a “no screens until your homework is done” rule when they are in kindergarten, it’s more likely to naturally become a habit in the future. 

 

Check with your elders. Talking to parents of kids who are slightly older will help you know what’s coming down the pipeline in the future. Elementary school parents can find insight from talking to middle school parents, and middle school parents can talk to friends with teens in high school. Don’t get too far ahead of yourself, though, since there are huge behavioral differences between a nine-year-old and a sixteen-year-old when it comes to screen time. 

 

Staying calm for your kids is important. It’s a tough time to be a caregiver: You are managing your own feelings during this pandemic as well as overseeing your child’s well-being. It’s important as a parent to let yourself feel what you are feeling, but not to necessarily give in to negative emotions such as worry. The key is providing a calm connection. Don’t let the Amygdala hijack (when your fight, flight, or freeze mode takes over because your adrenaline and cortisol are high) keep you from interacting in ways that are productive and calm. If screen time discussions rouse difficult emotions for you, something as simple as taking a few deep breaths before approaching your kids can help you stay more focused, more patient, and better able to handle stressful interactions. 

 

 

Show curiosity and don’t take it personally. When your kids are buried in their phones or laptops, it can feel like a slight to be ignored. You may just want to scream at them and their siblings or friends, “Look up and talk to each other!” At times like these, we have to push ourselves not to assume that what they are doing is “bad” or “not worth it.” Before you make it about kids not interacting face-to-face, ask what they are doing?  Are they doing a collaborative game where they have to organize information? Are they learning a new skill? Are they sharing content and commenting on it? Knowing what they are up to can help us realize that it’s not all isolating or bad. 

 

Try different ways of connecting. Sitting down for a lengthy face-to-face conversation can be too much for kids. You may find that if you’re walking, or in the car, kids are more willing to engage in discussion with you. When you’re feeling stymied by their absorption in the screen, see if they’ll let you watch what they are watching. Watch them play. Ask them to explain it to you. Try to empathize with their successes and failures, even if they’re unfolding in a virtual setting. 

 

Be a good consumer of media yourself. Kids have the ability to understand the positive and negative impacts of screen time, and focusing only on the reports of how increased screen use—and in fact the pandemic as a whole—are negatively affecting tweens and teens isn’t the whole story. The Social Dilemma is worth watching, but even despite the big bad companies manipulating our kids, social media still has its upsides. There are reports of kids becoming more resilient and creative during Covid times (see, for example, “Is the Coronavirus Crisis Going to Have a Long-Term Impact on Kids?” and the amazing creations in Let Grow’s Cardboard Contest). So many media outlets are more focused on getting clicks than showing the whole story, and so they tend to direct us toward things to worry about rather than positive aspects . 

 

Ask what guidelines your kids think are reasonable in terms of limits and how they can self-regulate. I was surprised to find out when my kids were younger that their limits around screen time were more strict than I had in mind. When I asked my kids at 10 and 7 how much time they should be online, they came back with 30 minutes (total) M-F, and 2 hours on the weekend.  My hubby and I would have been much more lenient.  One parent mentioned that their child told them, “I'm going to have so many more rules with my kids,” so ask what your kids think is reasonable.  Asking them also gives them more agency in the process; they feel they had a say in their own guidelines.

 

Work toward letting kids utilize technology in a safe and self-motivating way.  Technology can be creative, engaging, and motivating for kids. Focusing on ways they can intrinsically motivate (rather than pushing them extrinsically) will go far in teaching them self-efficacy and building their self-esteem. For guidance, consider the three aspects on which intrinsic motivation is based:

  1. Competence: Do they feel like they can actually do what they want to do?

  2. Autonomy: Do they feel like they are making a choice and bringing something to the table:

  3. Relatedness: Are they deepening their connections with other people?

 

Do your research. You don’t need to become a pro at Minecraft, but take time to see what they are doing and what they like about different platforms. Find out how much is happening in public vs. private spaces, who is playing, and who is seeing them. Also take time to read up on internet safety, as the experience of social media can be controlled by who follows whom, who is playing whom, and what privacy settings are switched on. If your kids are using apps or websites with location settings, make sure that those are set to the safest option (some default to allowing everyone to view where the user is located). 

 

Push yourself to rethink assumptions around screen time, and rejoice in the amount of fun your kids are having online. Knowing what technology means to our kids will help us connect with them rather than setting up walls. Let them teach you about how they are interacting online rather than drawing immediate conclusions. Work with your child to find what motivates them rather than pushing them in the direction you think they need. If they are showing signs of being overly obsessed with their screens, you may want to take steps to help them pull back, but allowing them—especially in these hard times—to get the most out of their screen time will add not only to their mental health, but also to a more positive parent-child relationship. 

 

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Parent-approved tools for virtual connection and safety

 

Fun and social connection:

 

Roblox: a global platform that brings people together through play

 

Dungeons and Dragons online: pen-and-paper gameplay in your browser

 

Netflix Watch Party: a social way to enjoy co-viewing

 

Discord: chat while playing video games online

 

Online board games (through House Party and other websites): look up the game they want to play and then sign up

 

Messenger Kids: Facebook Messenger adapted for the younger generation

What parents are saying:Kids messenger is great through facebook, you can give specific permissions to only the people who they can text or talk to. Being able to call friends and family without asking me has been amazing.

 

Flipgrid: video chat for educators, learners, and families

What parents are saying: “My son's first grade teacher started FlipGrid for her students when they went remote in the spring. I think the app is a great tool for communicating with friends.”

 

Learning:

 

Outschool: video chat classes in a wide variety of subjects

What parents are saying: “My daughter is doing a social class on her favorite series (The Warriors books).”

 

Endless Learning Academy: interactive education for early learning prep

What parents are saying: “We like the Endless Learning app that does have some controls to prevent that and they taught my son all the letter sounds in about a week. (He already had the alphabet when he started playing it.)”

 

Khan Academy Kids: educational fun for kids aged two to seven

What parents are saying: “The only one I've found to be engaging for my son but also had a great progression/variety of skills learned has been Kahn Academy Kids. It also happens to be free and the voices don't make me want to pull my ears off.

 

It has activities and then also a library with stories and what not so there's a little supervision required in order to keep him on track with activities but there's nothing that you really have to watch that I wouldn't want him to access.”

 

Edoki Academy: digital, Montessori-inspired learning for preschoolers

What parents are saying: “We also tried Edoki Academy at the beginning of the quarantine. It’s Montessori inspired and probably my favorite of the bunch because it was the least like TV, but my son never wanted to play probably because it was the least like TV so it seemed pointless to continue paying for it. I might try again though now that it’s been a little while.”

 

Teach Your Monster to Read: phonics and reading for young ones

“Oh and Usborn’s Teach Your Monster to Read is pretty good too, though my son got bored because it’s sort of repetitive.”

 

Simple and safe communication:

 

Members have shared recommendations in response to one parent’s question:

“Our daughter is experimenting with independence. We would like her to go out locally by herself, but want her to be able to get in touch with us in case she needs us.  We don't want the distraction of games, the ability to text her friends, etc.”

 

Verizon GizmoWatch

What parents are saying: “We've been quite happy with the Verizon Gizmo watch.(). Let's them stay in touch with people on a pre-approved phone number list (domestic numbers only). The texting isn't perfect - you can send them anything from the app, but they can basically only respond with canned phrases ‘Come get me’ ‘thank you’ etc and emoticons. 

 

Also has gps if it's important for you to keep track of your daughter.

 

Monthly fee is around $20 but may be cheaper if you're already a Verizon customer.”

 

Apple Watch

“You can also do an Apple Watch. You can get them and link to your family plan now too. That’s the route I’m planning to take once my oldest is heading off to middle school.”

 

Kids’ mobile phones like Gabb and Pinwheel

What parents are saying: “Check out Gabb or Pinwheel - my kids are still too young but those are popular options for friends with older kids. Looks like a smartphone, can do calls/texts/GPS but no apps or social media. I would suggest joining Parenting in a Tech World facebook group and there's tons of discussions about this and boundary setting, etc.”

 

Screen limiting and safety:

 

Members have recommended some Internet safety/site-blocking tools in response to one parent’s query:

“How is everyone dealing with their kids accessing Netflix and Roblox, etc. during time they're supposed to be doing their homework? We haven't disclosed how we know (don't want to teach him how to clear his browser history!), but our 5th grader is spending time on Netflix as opposed to completing homework. We cannot watch his every move of course, as we have other children and full time jobs. And we're not very technologically savvy, so not sure if he needs full browser availability to google things for school, etc. I've looked into the parental control options, but it seems like they are more focused on blocking inappropriate content. Is there a way to control access to child friendly sites, like Netflix, Roblox, etc? He has a PC, Windows laptop. Has anyone figured out a way?”

 

Freedom

What parents are saying: “I've just recently discovered Freedom which may work for you. It stops access to many things online so that you can focus on work, and perhaps help kids focus on school.”

 

“I just signed up for the Freedom app--it blocks apps and websites by category (eg you can choose "social" and "games"). I use it on my phone, but you can use it also on PC and Macs. I'm not sure how much the pre-set categories capture but you can also make a list of specific websites to block. You set up a blocking session on a timer. It is working great for me to curb my doom-scrolling habit. Not sure if it's the right solution for you, but might be worth checking out.”

 

Qustodio

What parents are saying: “It was the best software I found but still has some gaps. For instance, you can't set up school hours and non-school hours which would be very helpful. 

 

You can completely block apps and websites like Netflix and YouTube.  The latter is a problem if their lessons are on YouTube, but we haven't gotten to that bridge yet. 

 

It's $55 for a year on up to five devices. That breaks down to about a dollar a week so I'm reducing their allowance by 50 cents each to cover it. (Kind of petty, but I didn't want to spend 55 bucks because they can't monitor themselves.)

 

So far, my boys HATE it so it seems to be working. 

 

Sugar and screentime. The best thing about them is you can take them away.”

 

Gryphon WiFi Router

What parents are saying: “If you are in the market for a new wifi router, Gryphon router has a lot of these parental controls.  It is so great because you can also suspend internet for some devices without having to turn off the wifi.  As well as putting in schedules for hw time, screen limit times etc.  

 

Also can see browser history and all that stuff for all devices if you want. Easy to set up and used a phone for all this.”

 

Screen Time for Mac

Use Screen Time to see how much time you and your kids spend on apps, websites, and more. Then make informed decisions about how you use your devices, and set limits if you'd like to. You can set a screen time passcode, track usage, limit usage and approve requests for more time.

 

Our Pact

Cross-Network Parental Control app for iOS and Android Devices, child devices, on WiFi and cellular networks.

 

 

Circle

What parents are saying: "I use Circle which works well, it monitors all wi-fi.

 

The only way he can circumvent Circle is to plug into the modem with a LAN cable."

 

 

Further reading and resources

 

Further reading on PSP:

 

Guide to a Memorable Birthday in the Time of Coronavirus, with tips for an awesome virtual celebration. (You’ll need to be logged into your membership account to access this, so join us HERE if you’re not already a member!)

 

Quality Virtual Time with Grandparents, with tips on virtual activities with intergenerational appeal.

 

 

The New Normal: Parenting Tweens & Teens in Uncertain Times, a PSP Webinar with Fara Jones, LCSW

 

Books:

 

Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World by Devorah Heitner

 

Raising Kids to Thrive in a Connected World by Jordan Shapiro

 

Articles, podcasts, and websites:

 

Social Online Games for Children and Families,” University of Sydney Research Centre for Children and Families

This article suggests games that families can explore together and also provides information about a few games younger kids might be playing.

 

Multiplayer Online Video Games and Kids Who Struggle With Social Skills,” Understood

Understood is a non-profit dedicated to serving the millions of families of kids who learn and think differently. This article discusses the value of multiplayer games for kids who may struggle with social interactions in person. It also talks about what to watch out for ("trouble spots").

 

How to Manage Kids’ Screen Time During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” Dr. Jennifer Cross, Health Matters

With children’s time on devices surging, here are six ways parents can handle tech habits in the household and, yes, cut themselves some slack.

 

I Was a Screen–Time Expert. Then the Coronavirus Happened,” by Anya Kamentz, the New York Times

An author reflects on her pre-pandemic pronouncements about children’s technology use and offers new advice, including focus on feelings, not screens.

 

Teaching Your Kids to Be Safe Online: A Hasty Primer,” by Melinda Wenner Moyer, the New York Times

The coronavirus has relaxed many parents’ stances on communication apps. Here are some ground rules.

 

Why Screen Time Can Actually Be Good for Your Kids,” Charles Duhigg in conversation with Devorah Heitner, Slate

A digital media expert discusses the secret to building healthy relationships with technology.

 

5 Strategies For Coping With Screen-Obsessed Kids” with Anya Kamentz, NPR Lifekit podcast (28 minutes)

Emotional outbursts. Lost sleep. These are signs that your kids are spending too much time with digital devices. Here's what you can do about it.

 

Common Sense Media rates movies, TV shows, books, and more so parents can feel good about the entertainment choices they make for their kids.

 

Common Sense Education supports K–12 schools with everything educators need to empower the next generation of digital citizens. Their Digital Citizenship Curriculum prepares students with lifelong habits and skills, supports teachers with training and recognition, and engages families and communities with helpful tips and tools.

 

 

References

 

Burke, M., Marlow, C., & Lento, T. (2010, April). Social network activity and social well-being. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on human factors in computing systems (pp. 1909-1912).


Shakya, H. B., & Christakis, N. A. (2017). Association of Facebook use with compromised wellbeing: A longitudinal study. American Journal of Epidemiology, 185(3), 203-211.