Dear Dr. Debbie,
We relaxed our family’s screen-time limits during the pandemic, but now that the kids’ social lives have opened back up and they can do more things in person, it’s time to re-impose reasonable limits. What are good arguments to use with tweens as to why they need to spend less time on social media and video games?
If you think of the types and amount of screen time you take in like the food in your diet, a good argument is that there are foods that are good for you and foods that are bad for you. And there are healthy limits on quantity, even for the foods that are good for you. No one should eat a whole watermelon in one sitting, but the right amount, around a balanced meal, can be very satisfying.
Good and Bad Influences
Explain to your tweens that algorithms embedded in social media platforms capture your interests in order to feed you related content as well as content that you might have strong opinions on. You will see ads for clothes, sports equipment, or movies that have a connection to something gleaned about you from the things you spend time looking at. You may see a post about changes to high school start times because it knows – somehow it knows – what grade you’re in. It is not the responsibility nor the purpose of the algorithm to decide for you whether the information it puts in your feed is factual, ethical, or even beneficial to you.
You have supported good nutrition habits based on good sources of vitamins, minerals, proteins, and carbohydrates. By the tween years there also should be well-established patterns of relying on reliable sources of information and trusted online experiences. Keep the lines of communication open about whether something on social media didn’t feel “good” to your tween, such as gossip, teasing, dangerous challenges, or illegal activities. Discuss the Tide Pods challenge, the Ice Cream Licker, and other absurd or dangerous actions that are fueled by social media exposure.
Competing for Attention
The business model of social media is to keep users engaged. The more time you spend on screen, the more opportunities for the algorithms to discover your particular interests, thereby learning how to best entice you with selected advertising. There are search engines that purportedly do not collect your data – Qwant and DuckDuckGo, for example – that can reduce this exposure.
Real life engagements, such as sports, arts, scouts, 4-H, and other positive pursuits available to tweens, only collect enough information about you to serve you in these activities. They can fill your out-of-school hours in meaningful ways that give you skills, friendships, confidence, and opportunities to help others. And they protect your private information from the commercial digital ecosystem that lives off your data.
Parents usually have less connection with their middle schoolers’ friends than they had with their friends (and their families), in elementary school. This is an age of rapid and uneven development such that old friends may be set aside and new friends may change as often as fashion trends. Unfortunately, some of the drama of changing relationships is played out on social media. It is very easy to misinterpret a chat message and even easier to share a conversation or photo to cause an emotional catastrophe.
Set and enforce important rules about interacting with people online. Better yet, help your tween navigate relationships with an emphasis on spending time together in person. Real relationships, like real food, are the ones that are good for you. Fakery can be detected in friends, perhaps with a little guidance from a trusted adult.
The Real World
You are not alone in being concerned about screen-time limits. Fairplay (formerly Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood), a national organization, uses the first week in May to bring attention to this issue through encouraging Screen-free Week for everyone. The webpage gives lots of examples to get you started in planning a full and fulfilling week.
Take the Screen-Free Challenge! Other than work and school, see if everyone in the family can find alternative ways to socialize, get information, and be entertained this week. Then have your tweens plot out their (limited) screen time use for the next week. Help them evaluate whether the schedule allows adequate time for sleep, schoolwork, outdoor time, and still gives time for a two-hour movie.
Your argument for scaling back to your pre-pandemic limit may be easier when they discover what they’ve been missing out on when too much time is filled with screens.
Dr. Wood will be presenting a Zoom workshop for parents and professional caregivers entitled: “Temperament Differences – From Easy to Difficult” on Monday, May 9, 7-9 pm. Register online or by phone: 410-990-1993.
Read more of Dr. Wood’s Good Parenting columns by clicking here.