“But mom, it’s so much fun!”
“It’s only a game.”
“I just have to finish.”
Sound familiar? This typical chorus of retorts resounds in homes around the world when parents chide their children for being online too long or playing violent video games. The seductive power of digital media has left parents and teachers conflicted about how best to navigate a wise path with children.
Feeling overwhelmed, adults often resort to power and threats or passive acceptance to keep the peace. Neither is an opportunity for learning self-discipline, fostering respectfulness, or developing closer relationships.
Parents need to be informed and proactive: Firstly about the effects of screen media, and secondly about using effective communication to build strong relationships so that they influence children to use screen media wisely.
Research on the effects of screen media
Karen Dill, author of the single-most-cited study on the effects of video-game violence, delivers on how parents and children can move from “the passenger seat to the driver’s seat” in her book, How Fantasy Becomes Reality: Seeing through Media Influence.
In his presentation “The Impact of Screen Media on Children: A Eurovision for Parliament” for the Quality of Childhood Group at the European Parliament, Dr. Aric Sigman contends that “screen time has now become a medical issue. Research published in the world’s most reputable medical and scientific journals shows that the sheer amount of time children spend watching TV, DVDs, computers and the internet is linked with significant measurable biological changes in their bodies and brains that may have significant medical consequences.”
What must be noted is that these concerns are purely based on the premature use or overuse of screen media in children whose brains and bodies are not yet fully formed. Dr. Sigman lists recommendations for the amount of exposure time according to age; children under 3 should have no exposure at all.
However, there are benefits when used in moderation. Just watch cognitive neuroscientist Daphne Bavelier’s TED talk. She studies the effect of action games at Switzerland’s University of Geneva and the University of Rochester in New York, and has shown that playing video games can improve eyesight, increase concentration, develop multi-tasking skills, and have positive effects on learning and attention span.
So how can you leverage children’s attraction to screen media in reasonable amounts to create long-lasting educational and healthful effects. Along with your children, you can become discerning media users and competent citizens by:
1. Establishing respectful relationships. Children won’t listen to your concerns if you have not listened to theirs. Build your relationship by getting to know their media likes and dislikes, and showing interest in their online games without taking over. Share what you enjoy about screen media. Listening and sharing is the foundation of a healthy relationship.
Parent example: “My husband plays my boys’ favorite video game with them, on the same team of five against other cyber teams. My boys have voiced that they are so lucky and that the other boys think it’s so cool that their father plays too. Even I have expressed interest and they are delighted to explain some of the terms to me. Then, when they are playing and I make a comment on their player or strategy, the other team members who can hear me, giggle in delight and awe. It really is a chance to become closer because my boys feel accepted rather than demonized."
What not to do: “During these five player games, everyone is privy to what goes on in other households. According to my oldest son, his good friend (15 years old) has been yelled at and criticized for a ‘full 30 minutes, no joke!’ and been forced to quit his game because his mother ‘decided he had to help them choose a family movie to watch.’ (My husband confirmed this.) Not only was his friend embarrassed in front of others, but there was little chance he was going to enjoy that ‘family’ movie."
2. Be a role model. Model self-discipline in the use of your own screen time. Do not have the TV on as background noise. Model respectful, effective communication skills. Complete Parent Effectiveness Training. Have eye-to-eye conversations.
3. Maintain regular family fun time. Brainstorm alternative ideas together: sports, a picnic, board games, cooking, etc.
4. Meet individual needs in a variety of ways. Support children in brainstorming alternatives to screen media to meet their individual needs for significance, belonging, fun, freedom, and self-competence. Young children often cry if they are asked to finish a screen game. Acknowledge their upset and need. Help them choose an alternative.
Parent example: “My 3-year-old often cried when asked to finish playing a game on the iPad. I now prepare her a few minutes beforehand and what we will do next to help her transition. She might still cry but now I actively listen to her need and say, ‘You really wanted to keep playing. You were having so much fun. It’s time for a new activity so you can still have fun and your brain and body can do different things.’I show her alternatives to select from.”
5. Provide unstructured play time without electronic media. This is especially important for the young child’s developing brain.Children need an opportunity to create and have physical release. They need time to use their bodies, sensory self, and time for inner reflection.
6. Develop self-discipline. Encourage children to draw up a plan that balances their free time, homework time, and physical needs time, with a range of options.
7. Become discerning media consumers. Have discussions when there is no problem and at a time that suits you both. Talk about online safety, gender and racial stereotyping, social identity and self-image, and pornography and sexual predators. Then discuss healthy sexuality, cyber-bullying and the importance of assertiveness, and narcissistic “look at me” trends that are inherent in social media.
8. Use media to send positive messages to your child.
9. Share values and concerns respectfully when there isn’t a problem. Your children’s ears will be more open to hearing your ideas. Become a consultant who influences by sharing observed concerns, facts and research rather than controlling through threats and nagging. Discuss and listen to your children’s perspective.
10. Use assertive communication skills when you have a problem with your child’s behavior. Use “I-messages” rather than threats or judgmental “you-messages” e.g. “I am concerned that you are playing longer with your games than the time we had agreed and I’m concerned you will run out of time for your homework” rather than, “If you don’t stop playing you won’t be going to the movies with your friends.” Listen to your child, then reassert your concerns.
11. Problem solve conflict. Use conflict as an opportunity to resolve it the P.E.T. “no-lose” way.
- Identify your needs and listen to your child to help identify their needs. Your child might identify their need for fun or to complete a level once started. Perhaps they’ve miscalculated how long they needed on a particular level.
- Brainstorm mutually acceptable solutions to meet those needs so they’re not up late finishing homework. For example, start the game earlier or choose games that don’t take so long on weekdays when there is homework.
- Problem solving without first identifying needs is the surest way to prolong conflicts. Children who are invested in coming up with solutions to their needs and others are more likely to follow through.
What not to do: Some years ago I was visiting a home when the mother informed me that she had once again banned her teenager from using the computer for a week because she had been online chatting too much. Imagine the potential for resentment, possible retaliation, an “I’ll get back at you” attitude, or telling lies by going to a friend’s house and going online there. How will this teen ever learn self-discipline if she has always had discipline imposed? I wondered what would happen when the teen leaves home to attend university with no parental control.
Digital media amplifies good and bad. The rise in the last 10 years coincides with a decline in empathy. On the other hand, some games show how to get healthy and express creativity; heroic activities in virtual reality make you more helpful in the real world.
Writing this blog, I became so absorbed that I forgot the time. Instead of berating children when they forget, be understanding, be a consultant about the effects of too much, and support their problem-solving on how to remember time limits.
Your role is clear. Use digital media with children as an opportunity for learning about life.
Kathryn Tonges is an author, Parent Effectiveness Training (PET) expert, and former beijingkids board member. To get in touch with her, email firstname.lastname@example.org.