The power of screen time cannot be ignored for many reasons. One of the main reasons we are all so drawn to the power of screen time is because there are virtually limitless options in which we can meet our psychological needs. After our physiological needs are met (e.g., air, food, water), psychological needs drive our behavior. These psychological needs can easily be met via screen time.
Our Psychological Needs
These psychological needs, courtesy of Dr. William Glasser, are:
Our need for love and belongingness is considered our most important psychological need because all of our other psychological needs are generally met within the context of relationships. If we think of just about anything we do, we can see how these psychological needs are likely driving that behavior. Importantly, multiple psychological needs can be met with one activity. For example, if a child is playing soccer on a team, they are likely meeting all of these psychological needs to some extent.
Screen time is so alluring because we, including our kids, can meet these psychological needs so easily. Consider a child who is playing Clash of Clans or Call of Duty. Since these games allow one to play in clans/teams/squads, the belongingness need can be met that way, along with feelings of freedom, power, and fun. Plus, compared to working out the logistics and the effort needed to get together for soccer practice or a game (not to mention weather problems), playing an online game is extremely easy.
The Disadvantages of Screen Time
There are many downsides of getting all of our psychological needs met through screen time. For starters, we evolved to interact with people face-to-face (or created works just as well). We are going against millions of years of evolution by trying to interact socially primarily through screens (e.g., texting, Xbox Live, Facebook). Our happiness is nested within relationships and relationships are meant to be in-person. Also, we evolved to be physically active. We suffer countless physical ailments (e.g., obesity, heart disease, joint problems, eye problems) from being sedentary and interacting through screens.
With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility
To borrow a quote from the Spider-Man movie, with great power comes great responsibility. As parents, before we provide access to various types of screens to our children, we should start an ongoing conversation about what responsible technology usage looks like. We can’t put the djinni back in the bottle once it is out, so it is critical that we talk to our children before we give access to the various technologies. Now, rather than this just being a top-down conversation, it can be helpful to ask our kids what their ideas about responsible usage looks like.
Some Questions You Might Ask Your Child Before Giving Screen Access
1. What types of games are they allowed to play (e.g., based on content, age)?
2. What time can they start playing/accessing the screen?
3. How much time can they spend per day on the tablet (or Xbox, etc.)?
4. Do they need to ask permission first before beginning to play/use their device?
5. What time does it need to be turned off by? (It’s good for kids to be off the screen for at least 30 minutes before bedtime).
7. What types of onscreen activities are allowed/not allowed?
8. What should they do if they encounter a cyberbully or are harassed?
9. What should they do if a stranger is trying to make conversations with them?
10. What types of information are they allowed to share about themselves?
11. Where are they allowed to use their device? Are any places off limits (e.g., bathroom, dinner table)?
12. What are the consequences of misuse/breaking the rules?
This is, by no means, an exhaustive list and the nature of the questions and accompanying limits and guidelines will likely change depending on characteristics of the child (e.g., age, sex) and the type of device/technology in question (e.g., laptop, iPad, smart phone, gaming system), time of year (e.g., summer vacation), and other factors.
Of course, I’m NOT recommending that our kids be able to dictate the terms of their screen time usage. However, it is good to hear their thoughts on these important issues as well as to help them learn to collaboratively problem solve these sorts of thorny challenges. The power that screen time can have over our kids (and us!) is a force with which to contend. By having discussions to lay down the ground rules for screen time, we will ultimately save our families from considerable conflict.