Strategies to help your family navigate the media landscape

Explore ways to help young people and adults use screen-based devices in healthy ways.

The amount of media that young people take in through a variety of screen-based devices – as well as their patterns of media use and the content of that media – can affect their health and well-being in positive and negative ways. Considering that even those in the research field have found it hard to keep up with the rapid changes in technology and the potential effects on health and development, it’s no wonder that many adults struggle with the best ways to guide children through this media landscape. If you’re a parent or other significant adult in the life of a young person, you may be interested in the following strategies for learning more about and addressing these issues.

Explore the amount of time kids spend with screen media.

It’s no surprise that screen media (smartphones, tablets, computers, gaming consoles and televisions) have a large presence in kids’ lives – especially when considering that young people are getting their own smartphones at increasingly younger ages. Do you have a good sense of what this usage looks like on a daily basis? In a survey conducted by Common Sense Media, teens reported spending an average of six and a half hours a day with recreational media, and tweens (kids aged 8-12) averaged over four and a half hours daily. Although an earlier Common Sense Media report showed that the rates of media use via portable devices were significantly lower for children aged 8 and under than for older youth, the report stressed that the time these children spend with these devices is growing dramatically. Check in with the young people in your life and get a sense of the time they spend with media.

Reflect on your own media use.

What you model for young people in terms of your own use of screen-based devices is important. A Common Sense Media survey that was conducted with parents of teens and tweens showed that parents averaged nearly seven and three-quarter hours a day with personal screen media (including television and video viewing, video gaming, social networking and internet browsing). Recent research published in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics suggested that heavy use of digital technology by parents may be associated with decreases in their verbal and nonverbal interactions with children, as well as lowered responsiveness to their children’s needs. Take a look at your own behaviors, including ways you may be using technology to multitask while interacting with your family. Consider whether you’re modeling healthy or unhealthy patterns of media use. 

Follow recommendations for age-specific media use.

In 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics updated their media guidelines for children aged 5 and younger. The recommendations stressed that children under age 2 should have very limited media exposure (and only when an adult is present) and that children aged 2 to 5 should be limited to no more than one hour of screen time a day. The Academy also recommended that families work together to create a Family Media Use Plan, which can be customized for children at different ages. When developing this kind of plan, be sure to seek age-appropriate input from the young people in your family so that they can feel a sense of commitment to the plan. If you have older children, keep in mind that many of these youth spend significant time connecting with peers via their devices – which is no surprise considering the importance of friends during adolescence. Some research has shown that many teens prefer having unstructured face-to-face social time with their peers (as opposed to spending virtual time with friends) but that these opportunities are limited. Ask young people for their ideas about creating more opportunities to get together with friends face-to-face so that they can achieve more balance in this area.

Identify times to limit or avoid the use of media.

As part of your family’s plan for media use, designate specific times for unplugging or disconnecting, such as during meals or during car time. Also keep in mind that there’s a growing body of research that explores how the use of screen-based media devices near or during bedtime can negatively affect sleep, which is critical for the healthy development of young people. Many experts recommend that all screen-based devices be kept out of bedrooms (including adults’ bedrooms) in order to avoid the ways that these devices can delay or interrupt sleep time, as well as interfere with the body’s internal sleep clock. Experts also stress the importance of avoiding screen-based devices during the hour before bedtime.

Explore –and challenge – how media messages can affect how we feel about ourselves and others.

Given the usage rates of screen-based media – not to mention all the other kinds of media in our lives (such as advertisements, books and magazines) – it’s not surprising that young people encounter hundreds of messages a day about people, relationships and the larger world. While many of these messages and images may be positive, entertaining, uplifting and educational, it’s also likely that many of them portray people in limiting, unrealistic, hurtful and stereotypical ways that can influence how young people think about themselves and others. For example, some research has explored connections between the rising rates of body dissatisfaction of children and teens and the unrealistic appearance ideals that are prevalent in media. Other studies have shown connections between levels of digital technology use and mental health, including decreases in empathy. In addition to helping young people find a healthy balance of screen time and other kinds of activities that are essential to health and well-being, adults can help kids (and themselves) build media literacy skills that explore, deconstruct and challenge unhealthy media messages. Don’t wait until kids are older to help them develop these skills. Look for ways to help young children learn to analyze and evaluate media messages in order to create a foundation of skills to guide their media experiences throughout their development. 

Draw from the variety of resources available to learn more.

As illustrated throughout this article, there are many resources available that can build your capacity to help young people use media and technology in healthy and positive ways. In addition to the reports highlighted above, Common Sense Media provides parents and educators with reviews of television programs, movies, video games, apps and websites. Organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Boston Children’s Hospital Center for Media and Child Health provide resources and recommendations related to children, media, technology and health. In addition, Michigan State University Extension provides workshops and resources related to the health and well-being of children and families. These include a variety of articles related to issues of media and health that can be found by searching for “digital media” on the website.

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