Sitting down in a restaurant, that’s when it all so often breaks down, right? All those rules, all your best intentions, they’re forgotten for the sake of sanity.
Maybe the little one starts to cry, or the middle kid smacks his brother, or the older one gets moody. The solution to calm the chaos is there, likely tucked away in their little pockets. Time on that tablet or phone can end those stares you’re getting from the next table over.
Right at that moment, all the rules you’ve set governing screen time and forbidding devices at dinner are forgotten for the greater good.
You likely already know the cost of these compromises. Studies have shown too much screen time can harm children, including decreased health and self-esteem. But this isn’t one of those stories that’s going to shame you for exposing your kids to technology. In fact, for every study that’s critical of handing tablets and phones to kids, there’s another that says it can be done right. In fact, giving them screen access can improve learning.
To help navigate these absolutely confusing parental times, we talked to experts. Not some desk-bound researchers, but local moms on the front lines of the issues of technology versus parenting.
They’ve found some answers, and maybe identified problems you didn’t know existed. Their stories just might help you navigate the unchartered waters of raising kids in the era of information.
Never Stop Learning About Technology
Like a lot of parents these days, Michelle Oyola McGovern finds herself constantly researching the technology her kids might come across. Her girls are 11 and 13, meaning they’re neck-deep in it.
The Wellington resident is the former state director to U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and recently started working as the director of government and community relations for Baptist Health South Florida. In what little free time her work has allowed, she reads up on the newest social networking changes, listens to tech-related podcasts and is constantly talking with other parents about what kids are into. She and her husband, John McGovern, don’t have hard-and-fast limitations on technology.
“My screen time rules are kind of like how we handle chores. When the trash is full, take it out,” McGovern says. “With the phones, I’ll just say, ‘You’ve been on the phone too long. Cut it out.’”
She’s right to regulate screen time. Studies have linked time on screens with insomnia, slower social development, reduced self-esteem and weight gain. In short, allow kids to spend too much time on smart devices and you’ll increase their behavioral issues while also harming key relationships. Nearly half of parents say technology has a negative impact on their interactions with their kids at least three times a day—a number many parents no doubt will think sounds downplayed.
To prevent this, McGovern has access to her girls’ phones and constantly monitors their messages and social media posts. When she allowed them on Instagram, she set a rule: the girls were not allowed to post pictures of themselves for the first year. She says it helped in keeping them from getting caught up in the self-obsession of Instagram and also the self-doubt of body image that can result from posting selfies.
The rule helped, McGovern says, but she also learned a while into the Instagram experiment that she had failed to monitor part of it: Instagram’s messaging system. “I had no idea I had to monitor that, too,” McGovern says.
Then there was the YouTube kerfuffle in her house. Both of her girls are constantly watching videos, and one of their favorites was internet celeb Logan Paul. When Paul posted a video of a dead body he discovered while hiking through a forest in Japan where locals go to take their own lives, McGovern knew she had to intervene. She banned his feed and even threw away a sweatshirt one of the girls had from him.
While it wasn’t an easy parenting moment, McGovern tried to turn it around. “We turned it into a conversation,” she says. “I tried to tell them that you have to understand people are human beings and not to make false idols of them, especially YouTube celebrities. We also talked about suicide and the seriousness of the issue. In the end, I think they learned from it.”
Not long after, McGovern discovered another new way the girls could communicate: within the shared Google documents they use to do group school projects. Monitoring those messages can be far trickier, requiring McGovern to go deep into the “track-changes” history of anything that has been deleted.
When Learning and Screen Time Rules Cross
In Meg Palumbo’s Wellington household, rules govern the screen time and internet access for her kids. The reason will be obvious to any parent these days.
“They get totally addicted,” Palumbo says.
As the owner and founder of the Palm Beach Moms Blog, Palumbo spends a lot of time thinking about what defines good parenting. She’s often analyzing the tech access for her three kids. Her boys, 4 and 7, each have an iPad. And already, her 17-month-old daughter is constantly reaching for cell phones and tablets.
According to BBC, kids 5 to 16 years old spend more than six hours a day looking at phones, screens or TVs. It’s even more dramatic for teenage boys, who spend eight hours staring at screens. Those numbers are up from just 3.5 hours a day in 1995 and 4.5 hours in 2014. (No doubt kids are learning it from us—adults now average nine hours and 22 minutes a day on screens, half of it on our phones.)
A big reason for all that screen time stems from the wide access kids have to screens. A 2017 study found that 42 percent of children younger than 8 years old have a tablet, up from just seven percent in 2013.
To curtail her kids’ time on the internet, Palumbo typically restricts them to half-hour blocks on their tablets. Sometimes she’ll allow for longer if she’s cooking dinner and needs some quiet. But the kids are not allowed to pick up screens during dinner. Palumbo uses a program through her internet provider to cut off the Wi-Fi access to her boys’ tablets after a set number of hours a day. She also requires them to use their devices in shared spaces of the house, never locked away in their rooms alone.
“I want to be something of a helicopter mom when it comes to screen time,” Palumbo says.
The problem with setting such rules, Palumbo discovered recently, is that the kids are also spending time on screens for school. Palm Beach County schools use what’s called the i-Ready program, and Palumbo says it means students spend an hour or more a day on computers. Then, the program requires 45 minutes a week of math and reading at home. Her kids argue that the time shouldn’t be subtracted from their screen time restrictions, but Palumbo has so far counted it.
“It’s a constant battle,” Palumbo says. “They’re always wanting more time, wanting to subtract learning from the total. And I know it’s only going to get worse as they get older.”
Screen Time Rules vs. Common Sense
When Kim McGarry was a kid, her parents had a rule that many of a certain age will remember—and will also sound adorably quaint by today’s standards. To monitor conversations she was having with friends, McGarry’s father forbid her from having a phone in her room.
So, when her parents left, McGarry would replace their home phone’s short cord with a long one that would stretch into her room. “My dad would come home, and I’d have to run so fast to go replace the cord.”
It’s an anecdote McGarry, a food blogger and former teacher who lives in Lake Worth, thinks a lot about in trying to set screen time rules for her two boys, who are 11 and 13. She knows no matter how hard she tries to monitor them, it isn’t be hard for children these days to figure out ways around restrictions.
\It’s common for parents to set rules for their kids’ access to computers, devices, video games and phones. Help kids set the rules and they’re less likely to complain about the limits, experts say. That begins for many parents by creating a “media plan” that spells out screen time and internet access. The most obvious reason is to keep children from inappropriate content, but restrictions are often geared toward limiting access overall, typically out of a moral belief that too much screen time equals problems.
That said, an Oxford University study in December 2017 found no link between screen time restrictions and a kid’s well-being. The study’s author suggested instead parents ought to be “exploring the digital world together” with their children.
That’s essentially how McGarry has handled the digital world. From her own experience as a kid, she knows rules can be easily broken or turned into something contentious; she simply follows common sense. When her sons spend too much time on the Xbox, she tells them to stop. When they’ve been on their phone too long, she tells them to go outside.
It’s something she says she constantly monitors. It was easier at first, when the boys only had Kindles that could be programmed to shut off after a certain amount of time. She gave her oldest a cell phone when he started middle school, and so now she’s constantly monitoring his time on it and other devices.
“I’m very big on limiting screen time. It’s never at the dinner table, and I’m always telling him to put it away and go outside or have a real conversation with someone,” McGarry says.
In some ways it has gotten easier as the boys get older, McGarry says. She no longer needs screens to occupy them when they’re, say, out to dinner, but she does need to constantly remind them to disconnect.
The issue is one that weighs on many parents, and McGarry says there’s a pressure and stigma related to kids buried in a screen that she wants to avoid.
“As a parent, you always have to be wondering, ‘Should I be doing more?’ ‘Am I making the right decisions on screen time?’ ‘Should I have stricter rules?’” she says.
But then she thinks back to those hours she’d spend as a kid on the phone, her secret cord stretched into her bedroom. She turned out all right, and she knows, even with the onslaught of technology at every turn, so will the kids of today.