Balancing Screen Time and Family Time

Are you in a constant tussle between screen-time and family-time? Want to strike that perfect balance and don’t know how? Read on to find out how to prevent screen-time from ruling the roost.

By Dr Meghna Singhal

Balancing Screen Time and Family Time

Situation 1: While playing chess with his 9-year-old daughter, Ravi hears a beep. It’s his Diwali day off, but he is receiving emails from his clients in London. He figures that sending a quick reply wouldn’t take too long and starts typing on his phone. “Papa, look here!” his daughter calls out. She is waiting for him to make his next move. Distracted, he moves his pawn, even as he receives another notification. By the time he looks up again, his daughter is gone…

Situation 2: Upon returning from work, Sandhya enters her messy home and braces herself for her second shift of work. After hugging her two young children and talking tothe nanny about how the day went, she enters the kitchen. She has to prep dinner, get her children to eat, and put them in bed. She also has a report deadline on her mind- she has promised herself to finish it tonight after the children go to bed. She puts on some videos on the iPad and lets her children watch while she tackles all the jobs that lie in front of her…

Situation 3: Sam is exhausted by the time he battles the heavy traffic and finally makes it home. All he wants to do is relax. He plonks on the couch and looks for some mindless entertainment on TV. Everyone else in the family, including his teenage sons, are huddled over their high-speed Wi-Fi devices, eating dinner and viewing their preferred shows from the comfort of their own bedrooms. It’s close to midnight and Sam has completed an entire season of ‘Game of Thrones’. He is tempted to watch just one more episode…

Welcome to family life in the age of technology. Nothing has reshaped our communication, our relationships, and our lives more than technology and devices in the 21st century.

On the one hand, abundant research warns us about the harmful effects of overuse of gadgets on our children, and our relationships. On the other hand, we cannot imagine our world without these gadgets. While technology is a great enabler, it can also disable us. The cost of being able to connect with anyone in the world is that we might not be fully present with the person physically next to us. And this is exactly why we need balance.

Let’s look at how we can achieve this balance between screen-time and family-time, so we can benefit from technology, while avoiding the negative impact of tech overuse.

In situation 1, Ravi’s emails and notifications are distracting him to the point where his daughter realises that he is not focussing on their game and she leaves. Here’s what Ravi can do to keep his focus on his daughter whenever he is playing or spending time with her.

  • Turn off notifications. Studies show that push notifications, with their accompanying ping sounds, are habit-forming. They align an external trigger (the ping) with an internal trigger (a feeling of boredom, uncertainty, insecurity). Speaking to ParentCircle, Blake Snow, author of Log Off: How to Stay Connected after Disconnecting says, “I turn off all audible notifications unless I get a call or text from my wife or children. The only visual alerts I have are little bubbles for text messages. If I want to see what's there, I decide when and where I look at them. It's liberating and time-creating!”
  • Disable auto-play. Auto-play is the feature that makes videos on sites like YouTube and Netflix continue to stream even after you are done watching one of them. It is known as the ‘bottomless bowl’ phenomenon due to the binge-watching it leads to. Turning off the auto-play function on all your streaming services gives you a breather and makes the decision to keep watching a conscious one.
  • Make an effort pact. “An effort pact prevents distraction by making unwanted behaviours more difficult to do”, says Nir Eyal, the author of the Wall Street Journal bestselling Indistractable: How to Control your Attention and Choose your Life, in a conversation with ParentCircle. Making an effort pact with your device could include installing a distraction-proofing app, such as SelfControlApp, which can block your access to social media websites for a pre-determined duration of time. Turning off the WiFi at home at 10 p.m. every night is another effort pact. You have to make the effort to turn it back on again.
  • Reclaim your life. When you have a few minutes break, do you check your phone or do you meditate, take deep breaths, or practice other ways of self-care? The first thing in the morning do you check your phone or do you roll over and cuddle with your partner? On weekends, do you prefer to stay in and binge-watch Netflix or do you make the effort to meet friends face-to-face? Nurturing yourself, your marriage, and your important relationships is an extremely crucial step in claiming the balance in your life.

In situation 2, Sandhya uses the iPad as a babysitter because she is so exhausted after the day’s work and she wants to cook dinner in peace. Here’s what she could do instead.

  • Do activities that don't involve screens. Simply telling your child to get off his phone or computer doesn't engage him in a positive activity. Take a little bit of time each day to interact and communicate with your child. Get your child to help you with chores. Give him other activities to keep him occupied. Here are some activities you can do with your toddler, child, and your teen when you return home from work.
  • Connect with your child: Spend some time every day, to connect to your child. Dr. Laura Markham, author of Peaceful Parents, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting, says, “Connection is 80% of our parenting.” Call it ‘Special Time’ wherein you hand over the reins to your child and do whatever your child wants you both to do (for a pre-decided time duration, say 10-15 minutes). Ensure that there are no interruptions during this time. Phones are on silent and put away and your full attention is on your child. Avoid directing the play in a manner you deem right. Shine your utmost love on your child while he leads the play. This strategy helps a child feel safe and fully accepted and will make him more cooperative. Speaking to ParentCircle, Dr. Markham says, “What’s so special about special time? It transforms our relationship with our child. And since that relationship is 90% of our parenting, you can’t get more special than that!”

Other strategies you could use:

  • Co-view. It means watching media with a parent; it allows for interaction and discussion. Children learn better from media, educational shows, and videos when they are co-viewed and there is parent-child interaction while watching. Similarly, playing video games and using apps with a parent, termed co-playing, enables children to learn better from media, helps parents stay connected with their child, and also allows parents to have a better sense of how their child is spending her time.
  • Become media-literate. Understand TV show and game ratings, educational versus non-educational content, and high-quality versus low-quality programming. Ensure that the content your child has access to is of high-quality, age-appropriate, and safe. Understand that not all screen-time is the same. Sitting and watching television for two hours is not the same as playing a learn-to-read game on a tablet, which is not the same as killing zombies on a game console.
  • Educate your child. You can even talk to young children about how too much screen is harmful for their eyes, concentration, brain, and language development. Talk about the addictive potential of gadgets with your children and teens. Talk about how social media features such as app notifications, auto play, and ‘likes’ are scientifically proven to compel us to watch/check in/respond right now or feel that we're missing something really important. Talk about the influence of advertisements that pop up on sites we visit, their impact on our thoughts and behaviours, and how they fuel a consumerist culture. Talk about cyber-bullying.
  • Teach self-regulation. Encourage your child to find effective ways to self-regulate his device use. Encourage him to reflect on the impact of his daily gadget use on his personal, academic, and extracurricular goals. For example, could his goal be to cut down 15 minutes of social media scrolling every day? Encourage him to think about other judicious uses of his time, such as learning a new skill or pursuing an activity in the time he saves by staying away from gadgets.
  • Establish a phone contract. When you do decide to give your child his own smartphone (which should be avoided till 14-16 years of age anyway, recommends Snow), establish a phone contract first. It is a contract between a child and parent that lays out the terms of use of the mobile/device, along with the consequences of breaking the rules. For example, it lets your child know how much time he can spend on the phone every day, what happens if he breaks or misplaces his gadget, what content he can access, and so on.
  • Limit time. Access to gadgets should be viewed as an earned privilege, not an automatic right. It is a good idea to limit your child’s gadget usage to 60-90 minutes per day. You can also negotiate with your child on when she can use gadgets every day, for example, after she cleans her room and completes her homework.
  • Teach good digital hygiene. Basic hygiene steps include keeping devices updated and safe, using anti-virus, keeping passwords secret, and so on. Ask your teen to spring clean his social media friends list every once in a while- if he can’t remember who a person is, or if he has never met the person in real life, or if he has never once had written communication with a person, chances are this person shouldn’t be on his friends list.
  • Install parental control apps. Regulate how your child is using a device by installing a parental control app, which places limits on the duration of usage, access to certain websites and time of use. These parental control apps also filter content, and can even block access to social media or games during homework time.
  • Encourage face-to-face interactions. To nurture meaningful friendships and relationships, encourage your child to have in-person conversations (rather than simply texting). Also, help your child develop friendships across many sources - school clubs, youth groups or programs, sports teams, school holiday camps, and more. Teach her to prioritise in-person relationships over electronic ones.

Teach your child to delay gratification

ParentCircle reached out to Douglas Haddad, award-winning middle school teacher and best-selling author of The Ultimate Guide to Raising Teens and Tweens: Strategies for Unlocking Your Child’s Full Potential. Here’s what he recommends for parents of tweens and teens:

“You can provide your child with an option to either play their video game for 30 minutes now and then do their homework, or delay gratification by getting them to complete their homework with high quality in its entirety first and receive an extra 15 minutes thereafter. If their choice didn’t translate to a successful outcome, no need for alarm bells to go off. There is always tomorrow to try something new. This kind of ‘negotiation’ puts the child ‘in control’ or so they think about where they begin to experience the power and accountability of their choices. Furthermore, teaching children about consequences is crucial to witnessing a long-lasting behaviour change.”

In situation 3, Sam and his family appear ‘alone-together’ or disconnected from each other. Here’s what they can do instead of being huddled over their gadgets all the time.

  1. Do a screen audit. As a family, examine your relationship to screens. Start by asking each family member questions about his or her screen use:
  • How much time do you spend watching TV per day?
  • How much time do you spend per day on your laptop/computer for study/work?
  • How much time do you spend on mobile devices per day? Is it different for weekdays and weekends?
  • How much leisure time do you spend online versus offline?
  • What are the different things you do on your computer, tablet or smartphone? How much time do you spend on each of these activities?

Have each family member note down their responses to each of the above questions and identify the times of the day when they use screen time. You can also use apps that help log the duration and type of screen time. Once a screen audit is completed, you can develop your Family Media Plan (FMP).

2. Develop a Family Media Plan. This plan needs to be made for each family member, depending on their responses to the screen audit.

a) Set Gadget-Free Zones: Decide the areas of your house where gadgets (TV, mobiles, laptops, or gaming consoles), are not allowed. Examples include bedroom, kitchen, dining room. Also, everyone can charge their phones at a designated spot outsides the bedrooms at night

b) Set Family Gadget-Free Times: Your family could also mutually decide to set aside specific gadget-free times for everyone. It could be:

  • Mealtimes and at the dinner table
  • Turn off all gadgets one hour before bedtime
  • In the mornings before leaving for school or office
  • During family time when family members want to talk to each other or do activities together
  • One or two hours on weekends
  • When you have guests in the house
  • In the car while driving
  • At the restaurant
  • Have tech-free evenings maybe once a week, or tech-free days such as a few days during holidays or vacations

c) Set Limits. Decide how much time your child is allowed to use gadgets and technology, other than for studying and doing homework. Remember you can be flexible on when your child uses the gadgets, provided it is not during the family gadget-free time.

  • How much time on a weekday?
  • How much time on weekends?
  • How much time on holidays and vacations?
  • How much time when visiting people?
  • What time should all gadgets be turned off every night?

d) Decide on consequences while setting up the plan. The Family Media Plan should also account for the consequences of breaking the mutually decided family rules – such as cutting gadget use time the next day or the next week if extra time is used on a particular day.

3. Make sleep a priority in your family: Adults require 7 to 8 hours while children require anywhere between 9 and 11 hours of sleep per night. According to Dr. Anisha Abraham, clinical psychologist at the American Mission Hospital, Bahrain, “A fixed bed-time routine needs to be followed. Set appropriate and consistent bedtimes for everyone in the family and stick to them.”

4. Be a good digital role model: “As parents, it is extremely important for us to demonstrate healthy screen-viewing habits to our children” adds Dr Abraham. Research corroborates the importance of setting a good example—65% of children whose parents have an electronic device (smartphone, tablet, computer, laptop) in their bedroom also have one device in their own bedroom. Children are also acutely aware of their parents’ disengagement from each other. They observe what happens when parents are talking about something important and one parent answers a call mid-conversation.

In a Nutshell

  • To achieve balance between screen- time and family-time at an individual level, you could turn off notifications, disable auto-play, make effort pacts, and reclaim your life
  • To achieve balance between screen-time and family-time with your child, you could co-view or co-play, become media literate, educate your child, teach self-regulation and good digital hygiene, and encourage face-to-face interactions
  • To achieve balance between screen-time and family-time as a family, do a screen audit, develop a family media plan, prioritise sleep, and be a good digital role model

What you can do right away

  • Disable auto-play on your video apps
  • Keep your phone in the drawing room at night and use an alarm clock to wake up
  • Today, when you return home from work, spend one hour connecting with your child without any gadgets. 

About the expert:
Written by Meghna Singhal, PhD on 4 November 2019. Reviewed on 15 November 2019.
Dr. Singhal is a clinical psychologist and currently heads the Content Solutions Zone at ParentCircle. She has a doctorate degree from NIMHANS (Bangalore) and holds a post-doctorate in parenting from the University of Queensland (Australia).

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